We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Spain: Participatory Budgeting in Cordoba

Participatory Budget: A Wager for the Future of Cordoba


Are there any prospects for greater transparency and accountability in local government and the political system in general? How is it possible to inform the public in a more balanced manner on issues of their concern and enhance public participation in politics (especially the participation of marginalized inhabitants)? Participatory budgeting is a timely project that directly faces those decisive challenges. Since 1989, when it was firstly implemented in the city of Porto Alegre, it has spread rapidly: until today, similar experiments have been realized in almost 1000 cities throughout the word and 80 in Europe. The following text comes from Cordova, the first European city to adopt participatory budgeting.

The text is written by the delegation on citizens’ participation - Municipality of Cordoba

In 2001, the municipality of Cordova decided to implement the program of participatory budgets in order to open up the democratic horizons of the city. We chose this political process as to encourage the gradual participation of social movements in the development of the city and to promote the ideas of co-management and co-responsibility.

Participatory budgeting, like any other political process, is constituted within the context of a historical itinerary: the city of Cordova has been a pioneer in writing and establishing the first Regulation of Citizens’ Participation in Spain. Later, in 1986, this Regulation was enlarged to include the functioning of Local and Sectional Councils, the creation of a Committee of Citizens’ Movements, which became a primary municipal partner, it represented local neighborhoods, and it has enabled the participation of members of the latter in municipal organizations. This process has been enriched through the founding in 1991 of a Local Network of Citizens’ Centers that have contributed to the enlargement of social and cultural networks in the city.

What do participatory budgets offer?

Participatory budgeting was born out of a double conjuncture: the demand of the citizens of Cordova and the political will of the collective leadership of the Municipality. Since the beginning of their implementation, participatory budgets were a tool for citizens’ intervention in public decision-making, in particular with regards to expenditure and economic funds during the planning of the municipal budget.

For the Cordovan local authorities, though, participatory budgeting has become a tool that guarantees greater transparency in the management and control of public economic funds, while it also contributes to the creation of new forms of citizen responsibility through the dissemination of information on public issues and the democratization of political decisions.

Participatory budgeting brings citizens closer to the local government, by placing politics in the public sphere. The debate on participatory budgets is a debate about politics in the broader sense of the word; it is a debate about the democratization of the city; it is a debate about the open socialization of the tools of decision-making. Participatory budgeting also poses pressing questions on the most effective ways in which citizens’ participation can be strengthened, and on the capabilities of the local sphere to transform existing social, political and economic relations.

Prospects and challenges

The process of drafting local budgets takes place in an environment characterized by limited funds and constant conflicts of interest. In other words, there are significant difficulties involved in the implementation of participatory budgeting: it provokes resistances and insecurity and it has to overcome serious limitations and impediments. Therefore, while it is useful to learn from the successes of this project, it is much more important to consider the difficulties that we encountered during the course of this initiative:

  1. From a political perspective, participatory budgeting requires the intermingling of the mechanisms of representative and direct democracy. The central local authorities grant power to the citizens without relinquishing though their political responsibility for implementing the political program on the basis of which they were elected.

  2. From a technical perspective, municipal planning is determined by the decisions and priorities of the citizens themselves. Since local authorities lose the privilege of centralized planning, they are pressed to explore discovering different courses of action.

  3. From an administrative perspective, implementing participatory budgeting presents a challenge for the development of new administrative practices. In particular, it becomes necessary to ensure intensive co-ordination amongst the various administrative sectors and to place more emphasis on the relationship between citizens and local organizations.

  4. From the perspective of social participation, participatory budgeting requires the establishment of a system of equal representation. It is crucial, therefore, to confront clientelistic practices that might characterize local communities. In addition, local authorities should guarantee that decisions are debated and taken through a collective dialogic process. For Cordoba, the participation of neighborhood associations and other collective organizations is thus strategically invaluable for the success of this initiative.

It seems like a paradox: whereas the implementation of participatory budgeting signifies a concession of political power on the part of local authorities, it presupposes simultaneously a strong central political will for its realization.

Participatory budgeting is an innovative tool that has enabled Cordoba to become a sustainable and open city. Our goal is to promote new practices through which citizens can experience direct democracy. Cities and provinces cannot improve as long as they do not offer citizens, men and women, direct mechanisms of political intervention in the decisions that affect their lives. It is necessary for our urban-local politics (social, economic, urban planning, environmental, cultural etc.) to be decided upon and implemented through the largest possible participation of the population. Without doubt, this is the longest and most difficult path one has to tread, but ultimately the worse kinds of politics are those that exclude the participation of the people who are affected by them.

Further links:

Cordoba- delegation on citizens’ participation
Participatory budgeting - resources

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