A New Outbreak of Participatory Democracy

Democracy on the Internet comes in many flavors — free and open-source software, Wikipedia, “crowdsourcing” and commons-based peer production, to name a few. But can we imagine such direct control and transparency in local government? In Vermont town meetings, perhaps, but not in larger cities and towns. Yet, as reported in The Guardian (London, July 5, 2007), the new “communities secretary” in Great Britain, Hazel Blears, has announced a plan for every neighborhood in the country to control some significant portion of their council’s cash within five years.

Her idea is to give voters the right to allocate public funds to local needs that they know best and care about: parks, safe streets, litter, traffic, infrastructure. (Thanks to Ted Howard for alerting me to this story — and do check out Ted’s excellent website, Community-Wealth.org.) The idea of budgeting by direct plebisite will soon be tested in pilot projects in ten communities in England. The council of Sunderland, for example, will set aside 23 million pounds of its budget over the next two years for citizens to decide how to spend the money. Voters will have choices over major civic spending, not just small, discretionary projects.

The idea of direct-democracy budgeting got its start in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 1989, and has spread to many cities throughout the region. Could it take root in the U.K.? Blears told the Guardian: “I think voting every four years and basically handing over responsibility and power to other people and then doing nothing again for four years, I think our democracy is not like that any more.”

She added: “My overriding belief is that people are capable of making quite complex, difficult decisions, setting priorities, doing tradeoffs if they are given the opportunity to do it. I have never believed in a paternalistic society that tells people what is good for them. We are now at a tipping point where there is a political will right across government to devolve power.”

A hearty salute to a great experiment. It could have far-reaching consequences.