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Participatory Democracy and Porto Alegre

By Carne Ross | Public Affairs | June 29, 2012

I think the most radical change that I would suggest is actually in how we decide things together, a real alternative to representative democracy, because for me if you actually want government for the people, you've really got to have government of the people. This idea of the many electing a few with this trivial act of voting once every four years is to me kind of the absolute opposite of what real political activity means.

I think that's kind of deliberate. We have been told that actually this is a meaningful political activity, when in fact it is not that meaningful. And the outcomes from that system are inadequate, they are iniquitous.

There are better models available. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, a large industrial city in Brazil, they have been running for the last 10 years or so an experiment. It's called the Porto Alegre Experiment—but it's not really an experiment anymore—of participatory democracy. Fifty thousand people take part in debates around the city on how the city's budget should be allocated. This has been going on for some time. This has had pretty extraordinary results, documented, amongst others, by the World Bank.

The culture of politics has changed completely. There is no more partisanship. The kind of trivial "yah-boo" kind of politics that we see, I'm afraid, here and in many other so-called democracies has vanished. Instead, there is a culture of trying to address problems, trying to talk about the problems.

Corruption has dramatically declined because decision-making, contracting, is done transparently.

But, above all, the outcomes are more equitable. The provision of public services—things like schools, water services, health care—is now much more evenly distributed across the city. This is no wonder, because everybody is taking part in the decisions. Therefore, everybody has a stake in what happens, everybody has a voice in the distribution of the services of the city. That is in contrast to the situation we face in representative systems.

I think this model is plausible for other places. And indeed, there are four city council people—I think two women and two men—in New York City who are trying participatory budgeting for a small discretionary portion of their own budgets. One million dollars each is not much. It's a start.

Unfortunately, the true benefits of participatory budgeting of this kind only happen when you do the whole lot. It's got to be all of it. You can't really do it piecemeal. You don't change politics by having participatory approaches to only a small amount of the expenditure.

You really need to do all of it because, contrary to a common misconception, when you put people in a room with a real decision—say we said to all of us, "We are actually right now going to decide the future of the local hospital"—this will create an extraordinarily different atmosphere in this room. We would not be merely debating, trying to score points off each other, trying to win a rhetorical argument. We would be very seriously trying to understand the problems of that hospital and trying to find a way forward consensually to address those problems.

This is a different culture of politics. It is completely different from the confrontational, trivial, childish way that politicians are today encouraged to behave like. It works.

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Read More: Cities, Democracy, Governance, Human Rights, Brazil, Americas

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