Pathways to a budget for the people

In Orange County, residents can influence the budget through advocacy. They can put pressure on the Board of Supervisors, which is composed of five elected officials who set the budget priorities for the entire county. They can put pressure on county departments, which develop budget requests and present them to the Supervisors for consideration. And they can vote for candidates who reflect their values and priorities. 

But in the end, we rely on our elected officials—the County Board of Supervisors—to do the right thing. And too often, they do the wrong thing. 

For example, they prioritize law enforcement over the health and well-being of our community. Why? One reason is that the union for sheriff’s deputies is the largest contributor to the campaigns for OC Board of Supervisors. They can make or break a campaign. To stay on the good side of the union, the Supervisors commit large swaths of the budget to “public protection”—law enforcement, jails, and the criminal justice system. 

What is the result? Last year, more than half of the almost $1 billion discretionary budget, which the Supervisors control and set priorities for, went to “public protection,” including big raises for sheriff deputies. This is not a budget for the people. This is a budget for law enforcement!

The corrupt politics behind the budget process means we need to step up our game when holding the supervisors accountable. 

But the county’s process isn’t the only way to create a budget. There are other models, such as participatory budgeting, that give constituents a direct voice in budgeting. Participatory budgeting is a model worth considering for a truly participatory, equitable budget.

Participatory budgeting – a budget created by and for the people!

With participatory budgeting, people do not rely on elected officials to do the right thing. They decide collectively how to spend public money. A participatory budgeting process can look something like this:

    1. Community members join a steering committee that creates the rules and plan._
    2. Residents brainstorm ideas for community investment._
    3. Volunteers develop take in community ideas and develop feasible proposals._
    4. Residents vote on proposals, selecting those that resonate with their values._
    5. The county funds and implements winning proposals. 
Sounds great, but it is really possible?

Yes! Participatory budgeting is a growing movement. It is happening all over the country and world at different levels of government. For example, according to the Participatory Budget Project, participatory budgeting as been implemented in many schools and school districts:

    • Phoenix Union High School District (Arizona): Since starting with a single high school campus in 2013, PB has spread to 18 high schools as of this school year.
    • New York City Department of Education (New York): In 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to launching PB in all 400+ public high schools across the city as part of the Civics for All initiative.
    • Brooklyn Public School 139 (New York): The Parent Association launched PB in this elementary school to provide a transparent and community-engaged way to spend funds for improving the school. The principal was so impressed, she added additional funds to the pot.
    • Walker Upper Elementary School (Virginia): In 2018, Walker Upper Elementary School did PB for the first time with a process focused on creating a healthier school environment.

Participatory budgeting is also happening in city and county districts in places as diverse as San Antonio, Texas and Merced County, California. 

Want to learn more? 

Participatory Budget Project:

TED Talk: What if you could help decide how the government spends public funds?
What if you could help decide how the government spends public funds in your community? That's the idea behind participatory budgeting, a process that brings local residents and governments together to develop concrete solutions to real problems close to home. In this inspiring call to action, community leader Shari Davis shows how participatory budgeting can strengthen democracy, transform neighborhoods and cities -- and give everyone a seat at the table. Read in TED: