I am a progressive Democrat who fought long and hard for progressive goals in education, environment, health care and the like. I worked for a decade assisting members and committees of Congress, largely working on budgets and actually writing budget law. I consider the participatory budgeting rhetoric to be anti-democratic and potentially harmful. I hope everyone engages in public policy debate, but they should do so aware of the complexity involved. Participatory budgeting defies a couple of key points about budgeting, to the point that, in reality, it is little more than a press release.
Consider the following:
1) Budgeting is extremely hard. It involves trade-offs, budget cuts and meticulous planning and implementation, not just simply plusing up a budget. It involves getting people who disagree, to agree on enough. Do you support more education funding? Great. What can the mayor do? Should he match local college tuition and make it tuition-free? What about preschool or after-school programs? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each option? Will this change cost more and if so, where does that money come from — reducing staff or programs elsewhere or raising taxes? Participatory budgeting doesn’t help sort out implementation or comparison details; that’s the real budgeting process.
2) Offering simple solutions sets the public up for disappointment. If you only discuss the easy part of the decision, the headline, you risk misleading and disillusioning the public, when the rest of the decision, the cuts for other programs and the program planning, make changes inevitable and the decision-making process more lengthy. Suggesting there are quick, easy fixes just plays into the government cynics who argue government is incompetent and can’t solve problems when the quick, easy solution is not enough. Participatory budgeting raises up simple solutions to very complex problems. Instead, I want political leaders and thought leader organizations to help with the complex problems, not cater to those wanting simple solutions or believing in simple solutions themselves.
3) Participatory budgeting ignores that there may be valid information held by those asserting the countervailing argument. Winning requires overcoming people with opposing views and information, convincing opponents that you are right and drawing more supporters to your side. Nothing is gained, long-term, by offering simple solutions and crying incompetence when problems aren’t solved.
4) Participatory budgeting is anti-democratic. Increasingly, some have suggested that the results of participatory budgeting should be implemented in Cleveland, ceding decision-making to the people involved in the participatory budgeting event. I’ll be generous and guess 1,000 people attend a participatory budget meeting. Why should these self-selected 1,000 individuals take a decision out of the hands of a mayor elected to represent the interests of 350,000 Cleveland residents?
I support public involvement in policy discussion and education about what policy development and implementation requires. I oppose overselling, hype and the suggestion of simple solutions. Let’s have that discussion about policy change, in all its complexity. The current trajectory for participatory budgeting, as I see and hear it, is heading for a crash, and the public will carry the burden with more disillusionment and lost faith in government.
Cleveland attorney Kevin Cronin worked for a decade for the U.S. Congress, including for individual members of the House and Senate and as associate House Budget Committee staff and a counsel for the auditing committee, responsible for finance, management and budget laws. He also taught in the Master’s of Congressional Studies program at Catholic University of America
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