Participatory Democracy

This post is part of a series highlighting the workshops from the TJCOG 2020 Regional Summit, “What’s Equity Have to Do With It?”.  Shari Davis is the Executive Director of Participatory Budgeting Project.

  1. What is participatory democracy?

Participatory democracy is when community members are given the opportunity to directly participate in making the decisions that affect their lives. Ensuring participatory democracy in any community requires an understanding of how to make participation worthwhile for community members facing many competing priorities and challenges, and providing them with the space to give real feedback and the knowledge that their input will be incorporated or followed up on. While government is able to collect really good information from general community forums, there is no commitment to the community member – the single parent who showed up on a school night – that what they said and believed is going to be a part of the decision-making structure.

2. What is the ladder of participation and what does it have to do with building trust?

The concept of the ladder of participation (see right) outlines the different levels of participation, with progressively higher ladder rungs representing more active community engagement. While most individuals only experience government or civic engagement passively (e.g. a budget hearing), participatory democracy give community members power and control over decisions. It also calls for engagement activities that consider three critical elements: vulnerability, acknowledgement, and action. Community members need to feel seen, feel heard, and see change.

3. What does participatory budgeting look like and what are the process steps for success?

Participatory budgeting is design by the community, rather than for the community, and follows these steps:

  • Design. The community collectively creates a rule book to outline the process, ensure transparency, and make early decisions about who can participate in the process.
  • Idea Collection. Government meets the community where they are and collects ideas about how they want their community to change and improve. What feels safe in the community? What would you invest in to grow that safety? What do you love about your community?
  • Proposal Development. Once as many ideas as possible have been collected, the community develops them into concrete proposals. This is a collaborative and high-level description of feasibility and cost estimates created by community and government staff together.
  • Vote: A ballot of proposals goes out into the community, with reduced barriers for participation. Focus is given to engaging individuals who may often be excluded to provide voice to those who have been marginalized by the way things are; youth under 18, immigrants, incarcerated individuals.
  • Implementation. Launch projects, remain transparent, and engage the community through projects that take time.
  • Evaluation. The budget should be a living, breathing document that gets evaluated on a regular basis and is customized to reflect lessons learned.

4. Beyond the fact that government is intended to represent its community, how has your engagement with young adults shown the importance of participatory democracy?

Most young adults, especially those from marginalized communities, never get the opportunity to be involved in their government and the world that is impacting them daily. Pulling them into the process and teaching them how the system works/can work is the best way to support young leaders and nurture leaders who understand government, drive change, and lead civic initiatives.

5. How do you see local governments dealing with the challenge and inequity of engagement through civic technology (without broadband access?)

We need to really evaluate what accessibility looks like and how the words we use are emphasized within the community. The session highlighted graphic recorders and art integration during public engagement processes, which can absolutely be done digitally. However, we are going to need to get creative with what is possible to reach community members offline. There are still goings-on in the community and opportunities to meet people where they are, even from six feet away. What might that look like in each community?

6. Outside of participatory budgeting, what are ways to involve residents in the entire budget process?

Community members needs to know how the budget works and why it follows the process that it follows. Budgets are not that mysterious; tell community how decisions are made, when, etc. Engagement and advocacy also need to start before budgeting begins, back in the Fall. Engaging residents once decisions have already been made, once the process is underway, is informing the community rather than giving them control.

Get Engaged

Democracy Beyond Elections is a collaborative campaign for participatory democracy anchored by PBP and our partners – the campaign is rooted in one principle – real community-led decision-making power that is equitable, accessible, and significant. Join the effort.