Participatory budgeting as democratization? The post-bankruptcy democratization of Vallejo, California

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Theorists often suggest that participation within the political process is a necessary component of a democratic society. Participation enables power to be distributed throughout society thus ensuring some degree of political equality, a core premise of democracy. Over the past decade, a novel form of citizen participation within city budgeting that was developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil—participatory budgeting—has become an increasingly popular tool for democratizing cities. Participatory budgeting is now used to bring the management of city business, or at least parts of it, back under the control of residents. This article examines the introduction and evolution of participatory budgeting in the City of Vallejo, California. In 2012, Vallejo became the first U.S. city to operate participatory budgeting on a city-wide scale. Introduced after Vallejo’s contentious 2008 bankruptcy, participatory budgeting was implemented to make the city’s government more transparent, accountable and people-led. Each year, around 500 city residents have directly engaged in the process, and all residents vote on which resident-proposed projects they would like to see funded. The City of Vallejo can therefore claim that participation within city government has been increased and enhanced in meaningful ways. However, a critical assessment of Vallejo’s participatory budgeting project questions the extent to which it can be considered an act of democratization. Over its first five cycles of funding, the ability of the project to more equally distribute political power has diminished. Without organized citizens pushing for, and participating in, the process, established political coalitions have reasserted themselves, returning the city’s spending to pre-bankruptcy, pre-participatory budgeting patterns. The lesson of Vallejo’s participatory budgeting experiment is therefore that state-inspired participation in budgeting, even in a more radical form, does not necessarily ensure democratization. © 2023 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.

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City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action

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bankruptcy, democracy, participatory budgeting, urban governance, Vallejo