03/30/2012 01:05 EDT | Updated 05/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Can the Average Joe Produce a Better Budget?

To coincide with budget day in Canada yesterday CBC's "The Current" featured a segment on something called participatory budgeting, which engages local citizens and communities in allocating funds to projects and priorities. Average citizens are no less equipped to make these tough decisions than average politicians.

To coincide with budget day in Canada, yesterday's CBC program "The Current" featured a segment on something called participatory budgeting which engages local citizens and communities in allocating funds to projects and priorities. Over the next two days New York City will host the first International Conference for Participatory Budgeting in the U.S. and Canada.

It sounds radical but it's not new. It's been happening around the world for years, in places like Porto Alegre, Brazil for decades. Now it's taking hold in North America.

My first reaction is one of excitement. I'm all for community engagement and empowerment that moves beyond rhetoric, to concrete action and measurable outcomes. Political parties and governments pay far too much lip service to the concept. In fact I'd argue there's a global epidemic of worshipping, without belief, at the altar of citizen engagement.

In Porto Alegre, $200 million of an approximately $2 billion municipal budget is allocated to this participatory process. The resulting decisions cannot be overridden by elected municipal officials. Cezar Buzatto, Secretary of Local Governance, passionately describes the benefits - social justice, empowerment, funding to those most in need, and participation in what he calls the School of Democracy.

East Harlem, NYC with $1 million in discretionary money dedicated to capitol and infrastructure projects, has just finished its first participatory budgeting process. It saw close to 1000 people involved in choosing 29 projects that all citizens over 18 were invited to vote on. The top five projects split the pot.

Guelph, Ontario started their own version of participatory budgeting in 1999. Working with only $250,000, the process can take the whole year, and is finalized through consensus by neighbourhood delegates.

While different across jurisdictions, it is clearly intensive and time-consuming. That's the troubling part. It feels like tossing scraps at the 99 per cent to spend hours, days, weeks, and months collaborating, negotiating, convincing, and strong-arming over how those bits will be divided and who will get none.

I know from community economic development and micro-loan initiatives that little pots of money can make a huge difference in the lives of communities and individuals. But do these participatory processes, while offering real engagement, risk functioning as a distraction from the greater problems like poverty, economic disparity, cuts to social services, access to health care, systemic racism and foreign policy expenditures?

If everyone is busy trying to divide up the few bucks there are to play with, will the focus required to influence greater change be lost? And won't the truly disenfranchised remain just that?

Maybe. But here's another way to look at it. Perhaps it's not about the scraps, and whether a good meal can be made of them. It's about getting involved where people have previously been excluded, and the process of learning and collaborating that leads to an end goal far greater than cash for local projects.

I was working for the Ontario Government in the 1990s when Conservative Premier Mike Harris came to power and started cutting social services. Some will remember the fiasco when his Minister of Community and Social Services argued cuts to welfare weren't that bad, and if you looked hard enough you could find a dented can of tuna at No Frills for 69 cents.

One of the strategies to placate the sector being decimated, was to throw them a little bone. $13.5 million over five years.

Thus was born the Volunteer Action Online program -- grants to community organizations for collaborative internet-based projects. The advocacy and social service organizations flooded in -- women's groups, volunteer matching groups, anti-poverty groups, AIDS groups, homeless groups.

Ignorant about the power of the internet, it was assumed the focus of grant proposals would be sending out electronic newsletters and meeting online, thus recouping lost funding through savings on stamps, envelopes, and snacks.

Groups did apply to move their face-to-face activities online but the unexpected success had nothing to do with cost savings and everything to do with outreach, connectivity, collaboration, and transformation. The Government's concession was the sector's Aladdin's lamp, their keys to the revolution. The voluntary sector in Ontario was forever changed.

Once people have been involved in a collaborative process like participatory budgeting that, as guests on "The Current" indicate, has the power to bridge traditional divides, and build coalitions, there's no going back. Sure community organizations will do interesting and worthwhile things with the money, but more important, it will change the way people see spending, the way they understand democracy, and their role within it. Having experienced a say, they will demand a greater one.

Average citizens are no less equipped to make these tough decisions than average politicians. The challenge is in the choices not the process. The more citizens are making and understanding them, the better.