empowering citizens to make sure the stimulus is well spent

If we are going to borrow a trillion dollars from our kids to spend now on economic recovery, the money had better be well spent. Avoiding waste and fraud is a political imperative; Obama’s reelection may depend on it. It also seems important economically. A big rationale for fiscal stimulus spending is to restore confidence. My guess is that people will feel confident if they believe a trillion dollars is being well deployed–less so, if they think it is being wasted.

So far, the President Elect has announced that he’s hiring a management consultant, Nancy Killefer, of McKinsey & Company, as a “chief performance officer” and that he will be looking for efficiencies and cuts everywhere in the budget. I think this is essential. Fully compatible with my populist resistance to technocracy is a recognition that it’s better to be efficient than inefficient–especially with public money–and that experts can help achieve efficiency.

Yet we can also engage ordinary citizens in overseeing and shaping the use of a trillion dollars of their money. They can add enormous value through sheer numbers of brains and also because they know their own communities best. Equally important, the experience of participating can add legitimacy.

Three tools occur to me, but there are probably more:

1. “Crowdsourcing” the budget. This would mean putting all the details of federal revenue and expenditure online and building a structure to allow people not only to view the data, not only to post individual comments and opinions, but also to accumulate analysis. The structure might be some combination of a wiki, visualization tools, and comment threads–I yield to others who understand these things better than I. (Some helpful ideas are coming from the right.)

2. Participatory Budgeting (PB). This is a policy of setting aside a proportion of government expenditures (usually capital spending) to be allocated by citizens in local deliberative sessions. In Brazil, where PB originated, the sessions are large, face-to-face meetings. Britain and other countries have picked up the model. It has been found to cut waste and corruption, in part because citizens who choose how to spend money become invested in overseeing the implementation. By the way, I don’t see why the conversation couldn’t be virtual as well as face-to-face.

3. Large-scale deliberations, along the lines proposed by AmericaSPEAKS, about big budgetary choices at the national level.

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2 Responses to empowering citizens to make sure the stimulus is well spent

  1. I like the crowdsourcing idea. Interestingly, I think that this idea has a negative unintended consequence: institutional capture.

    For example, Beth Novek worked on a crowdsourced solution for intellectual property. In particular, it opened patent applications to anyone who wanted to submit relevant prior works. In theory, it is a good idea. However, Microsoft and other major technology firms pay employees to vigorously defend their patents. They essentially liberally spam applications with prior work of dubious relevance in order to protect their own intellectual property. Rather than reducing the work, it now increases the work of the patent office while simultaneously squashing innovation.

    I could imagine something similar happening with a budget process.

    In addition to your list, I would add two other ideas:

    4. A deliberative poll (this would ensure representativeness and avoid capture)

    5. decentralization – push the stimulus to the state and local level.

    Cheers, Mike

  2. Peter Levine says:

    By email from Tiago Peixoto:

      Professor Levine,

      I was previously familiar with your work on civic engagement and Internet related issues and I just saw a short post on your Blog about Participatory Budgeting.

      Thus, it occurred to me to send you this working paper of mine about the Electronic Participatory Budgeting of the city of Belo Horizonte. I hope you might find it interesting.


    Note: this paper addresses the use of the Internet in participatory budgeting.

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