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The Atlantic Selects

The ‘Gateway Drug to Democracy’

Nov 07, 2018 | 831 videos
Video by Jay Arthur Sterrenberg

The fastest way to reveal a nation’s priorities is to take a look at its budget. Where money is allocated, improvements and expansions are made; where costs are cut, institutions and policies wither. In America and other similar democracies, political candidates campaign on budget promises, but it can be difficult to maintain transparency—and enforce accountability—once elected into office.

“Budgets are the essence of what government does,” says a woman at a community meeting in Jay Arthur Sterrenberg’s short documentary, Public Money. “We’re cutting out the rhetoric about budgeting and allowing community members to make direct decisions about money in our community.”

She’s talking about participatory budgeting, an innovative democratic process that has been under way in New York City since 2011. Once a year, citizens in participating council districts across the city propose and vote on how to spend $1 million in their neighborhood.

“It results in better budget decisions,” the New York city council’s website reads, “because who better knows the needs of our community than the people who live there?”

Participatory budgeting was first introduced on a large scale in Porto Alegre, Brazil. “For over 25 years, there have been all kinds of massive improvements in city infrastructure, and especially improved conditions in poorer neighborhoods,” Sterrenberg told The Atlantic. Today, there are more than 1,500 participatory budgets around the world.

Public Money, from Meerkat Media Collective, follows one cycle of the participatory-budget process in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Residents are tasked with proposing project ideas, such as building a community center in the local library, installing security cameras in the park, and fixing potholes in the streets. Committees workshop, debate, and ultimately vote for their favorite projects, which—once deemed viable by the city government—go to the ballot. A public vote is held, and winning projects are funded.

The film takes an observational approach to what Sterrenberg describes as a “hard-to-explain process that has such potential to overhaul our politics.”

“I have heard participatory budgeting referred to as a ‘gateway drug to democracy,’” Sterrenberg said. When people are asked how they would like to spend their tax dollars and are given an option to directly implement that binding decision themselves, “it really inspires a different way of thinking about our governments and our cities.”

While Sterrenberg admitted that the process is not a “silver bullet to fix our democracy,” he believes that participatory budgeting promotes civic engagement and provides an “encouraging alternative model” of how to conduct a civic process.

“After my experience with participatory budgeting,” he said, “I think it's a crucial ingredient in building a new kind of government that better reflects the community it serves.”

Yesterday, voters overwhelmingly passed a measure to grant funding to expand participatory budgeting across New York City.

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.