Editorial: Would it work here?

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 20, 2012

A group of Greensboro citizens wants to take citizen engagement in government to a new level. They’ve made a proposal that local governments here and elsewhere might do well to study. Is this a logical evolution in civic involvement, or a recipe for more dysfunction and strife?
In brief, the citizens group wants Greensboro to adopt a concept known as “participatory budgeting,” which would allow citizens to discuss spending priorities for individual districts and then rank them in order of importance. Citizens would meet in neighborhood groups to discuss funding needs and eventually vote on specific proposals they’d like to see enacted. This kind of process has been used elsewhere, but primarily in larger cities such as New York.
Don’t get the idea, however, that citizens would determine the bulk of budget. In Greensboro’s case, the “participatory budgeting” initially would involve roughly 1 percent of municipal spending. They’re not starting from square one — or a zero base — but taking aim at the best use of some discretionary dollars.
On the positive side, such a process would give citizens a more direct say in government spending, and it would let them be involved in hashing out hard choices when people have different perspectives of spending priorities. At a minimum, that might increase appreciation for the difficulties of balancing local budgets amid competing needs and voices.
The potential negatives? As an editorial in the Greensboro News-Record points out, there could be “unintended consequences,” including special-interest groups swaying the process and other groups being underrepresented. Bringing more people to the budget table may complicate the menu.
Whatever those pitfalls, however it’s an intriguing concept. It also fits in with other efforts to get citizens more involved in decision-making. The city of Salisbury, for instance, has aggressively sought citizen input into revitalization plans for West End. County officials have held numerous public workshops on land-use planning. And local governments already invite public input during the budgeting process. But the “participatory budgeting” idea gives citizens real power to brainstorm new ideas, rather than simply providing feedback on options already on the table.
Obviously, what works in major metropolises such as Chicago or New York may not translate to smaller cities like Greensboro or Salisbury. But “participatory budgeting” is an interesting idea, one that, in theory, could provide greater consensus on how tax dollars are spent — or at least spread the blame.