You Don’t Have to Choose One: Let’s Integrate Participatory Budgeting and Citizens’ Assemblies

The two most important democratic innovations of the last 30 years have developed in parallel but not in unison

June 2024
June 2024
June 24, 2024
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This article is adapted from an essay in the National Civic Review.

The two most important democratic innovations of the last 30 years – participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies – have developed in parallel but not together.

It is curious that these important participatory and deliberative democracy processes typically remain isolated from each other, with only a few notable experimentations with overlap. We are at the point when they should be combined in various ways to bring together their respective strengths and overcome their weaknesses. 

I’m interested in what decentralized, bottom-up, community-driven approaches to combining participatory budgeting with citizens’ assemblies can look like. 

Strengths and limitations

We know that both citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting can be quite effective. But both also have their limitations.

There are many examples of successful citizens’ assemblies across Europe and North America. The thoughtful design of citizens’ assemblies is a proven model that brings diverse people and perspectives together to make informed decisions on important problems. Deliberation involving stratified samples of the public can be transformative in terms of understanding the nuances of public opinion on complex and potentially polarizing issues. 

But at the same time, citizens’ assemblies are often disconnected from the authority to make binding decisions and allocate budgets to solve pressing issues. Most of the time, this responsibility rests with a convening body, or government. While having influence over outcomes is important, perhaps a more critical challenge is that citizens’ assemblies are often isolated from the broader public'' There is a disconnect from mass participation. 

Meanwhile, participatory budgeting is more open to the broader community, and has led to the redistribution of resources and reduction of inequality in some contexts. The classic example of Porto Alegre, Brazil, exemplifies the ability of PB to serve marginalized communities. Within the first 10 years of the process (by the late 1990s), basic infrastructure in the city was enhanced, including sanitation, sewage and clean water, increasing from access by less than half the population to nearly 100%. 

But at the same time, one common critique is that participatory budgeting lacks the strong learning component found in citizens’ assembles, in which the goals aren’t only to draw upon lived experience but also to offer the time and space for reasoned and informed discussion on the pros, cons and courses of action to address problems. By contrast, citizens’ assemblies have a much broader remit to focus on a variety of issues.

Thus, each of these democratic innovations offers a unique experience and benefits that the other doesn’t. It's worth understanding what a combination of the two might look like and how it might better serve the needs of the overall community.

Combining innovations

So, what might integration of citizens assemblies and participatory budgeting look like from the bottom-up?

One idea is to flip the traditional structure of deliberation. Rather than hold a deliberative process to select the priorities for a community vote, the opposite would take place.

First, grassroots meetings and other potentially digital crowdsourcing efforts would be usedto identify and prioritize budget needs.

Second, a government or other entity would convene a series of citizens' assemblies to choose one or a related set of these issues for deliberation. The assemblies’ proposals would in turn be presented to the broader community, allowing the ideas to be further refined.

Finally, a community-wide vote would be held to determine which projects should receive funding (in the same way that participatory budgeting involves voting on projects to be funded and implemented). 

There are many considerations that need to be factored in – including mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability. There also would need to be continued engagement, allowing the broader community to be actively involved throughout the process, including public capacity-building and evaluation. 

One example of a combo approach in practice is in New York City, which is in the midst of the second cycle of its integration of a citizens’ assembly with participatory budgeting. Others should watch and learn, then try their own variation. Now is the time for bold and creative experimentation. 

Nick Vlahos is the deputy director of the Center for Democracy Innovation at the National Civic League.  

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