We the People decide our city budget – and other democratic innovations

A letter from Tom Atlee

Dear friends,

When I last wrote about citizen participation activities in Porto Alegre, Brazil, their democratic budgeting practices had “only” spread to 70 cities in Brazil. Now 200 cities in Brazil are using annual participatory budgeting and it is spreading to dozens of other cities in Europe, Latin America, and Africa, as well. Do you think this profoundly democratic practice might someday reach the U.S.?

Brazil’s remarkable weaving of top-down and bottom-up participatory democracy into the field of budgeting serves to inspire all who work to invigorate democracy, whether we are public officials, political parties, civil society organizations, activist networks, or individual social change agents. One thing is certain: When we see The People competently controlling the government’s purse strings, we are seeing a different kind of democracy…

Participatory budgeting is one of an expanding family of innovative practices and creative ideas to make democracy more sensible, creative, participatory, and collectively intelligent. To pursue these innovations, however, requires that we shift some of our focus — and resources — from candidates and issues to THE SYSTEMS WE USE TO DECIDE about candidates and issues. Until those systems are healthy, we will continue to have grotesque distortions of democracy and a painful inability to make any real sustained progress on the issues most people are most concerned about and most affected by.

Viewing democracy as a form of collective intelligence can help us think more clearly about its possibilities. Other perspectives can also help, including more established approaches like “deliberative democracy” (see and also — and mind-opening democratic concepts like “transpartisanship” , which helps partisans step outside their partisan roles long enough to work together on issues where they DO agree, to which their partisanship may have blinded them. Many other approaches to democratic innovation are listed at Democracy Innovations (a site which could use some updating: Any volunteers?)

One of the most intriguing new ideas to come across my desk is a proposal by Robert Steele and Jock Gill for “a ‘dual membership’ party, the Citizens Party. This new party would not ask its members to leave their original party, but would, instead, serve as a second home, a unifying party, committed to one issue and one issue only: achieving electoral reform”. Steele and Gill want to attract citizens who may be proud of the ideals and traditions of their primary party (be it Republican, Democrat, Green, or whatever) but who are unsatisfied with how that party is behaving in the current political system. A “dual membership” party could provide such partisans with common ground on which to work together to change the system so their traditional party and the whole partisan approach could better function to serve the whole country.

In my co-intelligent dreaming I like to envision a broader transpartisan version of such a “dual membership party”: It would provide common ground for creative collaborative work on ALL issues. Such a party could sponsor citizen deliberative councils to discover what the informed, deliberative public — a truly inclusive “We the People” — wanted on various issues. (Such a deliberative process provides a much deeper understanding of what the public truly wants than can be discovered through polling. See “A Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment“.)

Once members of this party knew the “public judgment” on an issue, they would support solutions and policies that implemented that judgment. They would also propose — and lobby for — ways to embed empowered citizen deliberation in all aspects of government, including budgets, as we see being done in Porto Alegre (below). A voter or candidate could be both a Republican (or Democrat, or Libertarian, or Green) AND ALSO be a member of this dual membership party. When an issue was resolved into what we might call “a People’s Policy” — an inclusive “We the People” solution — they would play a TRANSPARTISAN role, promoting that solution. For every other issue, they would play their normal PARTISAN role, acting as they ordinarily do in our system as it is. As more issues were deliberated, and as more deliberations were empowered as part of our system of governance, partisanship would shrink and collective intelligence would expand.

Individually and collectively, we may not be evolved enough yet to step so far beyond partisanship. But times are changing. If enough of us see that there is more to be gained, in the long run, by supporting systemic changes towards more inclusive collaboration and collective intelligence, we can influence how our societies respond to the coming crises that will be demonstrating — with painful clarity — that the systems we have now can’t handle the complex, challenging, and rapidly changing conditions of the 21st century.

Well informed, well connected, and moving ahead with alert awareness, we can become agents of the conscious evolution of civilization towards greater sustainability, thrivability, inclusivity and wisdom.

And every moment, as we enjoy each other and this work, we might also enjoy the added thrill of waking up as part of the 14-billion-year unfolding of the Big Bang and stardust, showing up today as our rapidly evolving world, galaxy, universe… Because deep inside what we are trying to do, evolution is seeing if human consciousness can call forth a self-evolving wise democracy on Earth, as one more remarkable experiment of Life…

And now let’s take a look at a special, inspiring step on that strangely courageous journey….



The Citizens of Porto Alegre
by Gianpaolo Baiocchi ; Boston Review

Marco is a self-employed handyman in his mid-30s who moved to the city of Porto Alegre from the Brazilian countryside eight years ago. A primary-school-educated son of a farmer, he’d had few opportunities in his small town and had heard about the city’s generous social services. He borrowed money for bus fare and landed in Porto Alegre, where he found construction work. But when his wages wouldn’t cover rent he headed for one of the squatter settlements on the outskirts of the city. He soon moved in with a companheira who sewed clothes and ironed from home. In time his life became more settled, with incremental improvements to the house, small but growing savings, and brisk business owing to his good reputation in the community. Marco’s story of migration, squatting, and survival was unremarkable–until he attended a local meeting on how the city government should invest its money in the region.

Read the whole essay.

About Tom Atlee

Tom Atlee * The Co-Intelligence Institute * PO Box 493 * Eugene, OR 97440
http://www.co-intelligence.org * http://www.democracyinnovations.org
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