Opinion: We Need Participatory Budgeting in Baltimore City

Pixabay.com illustration.

For more than a decade, Pew Research Center has reported that public trust in government in the United States to be at historic lows, wavering somewhere between only 15% and 22% who say that they “trust the federal government to do what is right just about always/most of the time.”

In recent years, this trend has begun to permeate the state and local levels. More and more often, the public has perceived a gap and lack of transparency between themselves and their governments. This lack of trust and transparency has led to disempowered community members who are limited in access to participate in public affairs.

As polarization has continued to divide our political realm, political engagement has waned, particularly amongst those who are ideologically moderate. Without political engagement, the government cannot be held accountable to make decisions that are in the best interest of its people, including sometimes an equitable distribution of public funds amongst communities.

For example, the city might invest in a new decorative water fountain in the town square, while citizens are still waiting for the funds to replace necessary infrastructure like damaged roads, parking lot lamps and playground fences. This happens in cities across the United States, including Baltimore.

So, how can we close the gap between communities and their government? How can we assure that decisions regarding use of public funds are accurate and widely supported by citizens? How can we improve civic engagement and increase inclusivity with communities? I believe participatory budgeting is the answer.

Participatory budgeting is a democratic tool for the education and the empowerment of local communities which allows individuals to allocate resources, prioritize social policies and monitor public spending. Although participatory budgeting can be implemented in many ways, one common participatory budgeting process is that, first, a steering committee headed by community members creates rules for the budgeting process, then the community members share and discuss project ideas.

Volunteers then turn these ideas into project proposals and share them with the community at large. Finally, the residents vote to determine which projects would best serve the community and the government funds and implements the projects that win the most votes. In cities such as New York, Chicago and Boston, participatory budgeting has proven to strengthen democracy, increase civic engagement, improve trust in government, and create a better relationship between the public and government officials. In Chicago, an average of about 13,000 community members engage in the participatory budgeting process. In New York, the city council districts have had say over 34 million in taxpayer dollars. This is the kind of agency Baltimore residents deserve to have in their city.

In Baltimore, we are lucky to live in a city where our newly elected leadership so openly supports the implementation of participatory budgeting: City Council President Nick Mosby is very policy-driven and has expressed interest in participatory budgeting in the recent past; Comptroller Bill Henry included participatory budgeting in his reimagining of the city government on the campaign trail; and Mayor Brandon Scott included participatory budgeting as one of the recommendations in his 2021 transition report.

It’s time to give more decision-making power to the people of Baltimore so that we decide where money is most needed. It’s time to implement participatory budgeting in Baltimore.

–JULIET BIRCH

The writer is a student at Goucher College.