Engaging Democracy: An Institutional Theory of Participatory Budgeting
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This dissertation examines outcomes from participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting (or PB) is one popular example of a growing suite of "democratic innovations" that have seen growing attention as concerns have risen about weaknesses of existing institutions of democratic representation and governance. Hopes run high that reforms like PB can rejuvenate the public's interests and capacities as democratic citizens, strengthening the resiliency and quality of developed democratic community. Systematic evaluation, however, has not kept pace with the rapid growth of PB, particularly with respect to the larger hopes for PB as a local treatment for contemporary ills of democracy. Participatory budgeting mechanisms typically determine small portions of local budgets and, while individual participants widely report positive impacts from their personal experience of PB, both research and practice have yet to demonstrate how one might expect such narrow changes in local governance institutions to effectively transform wider political practices. Responding to this challenge, this dissertation systematically examines the case for participatory budgeting as a strategy of democratic renewal. It starts with an institutional argument articulating the micro-foundations for PB institutions as a democratic institutional intervention, and expands in scope and method to a systematic qualitative assessment of different implementations of PB. Finally, it undertakes a multi-dimensional investigation of the observable residues of PB in the wider community. The scope of this project is thus both ambitious and bounded, aiming for a wide ranging application of high-level normative claims while staying focused to the narrow conditions of one particular strategy of participatory democratic reform. The first chapter of the dissertation outlines the broad historical and scholarly context of participatory budgeting and introduces the four primary case sites central to the research. Chapter 2 provides a structured development of an institutional theory of participatory budgeting. I propose a micro-level explanation for how PB processes may impact the broader quality of democratic practice by restructuring of civic relationships and redistributing important civic resources within the community. I translate the normative claims of democratic theorists into empirically tractable individual-level mechanisms through which participatory budgeting matters, generating specific observable implications explored in the following chapters. Over Chapters 3 and 4, I use qualitative fieldwork, including 100 in-depth interviews with participants and government officials and observation of PB meetings and public events, to identify the operations of specific mechanisms identified as causally important in the preceding theoretical chapter. I pay specific attention to changes in the structure and content of communication relationships initiated in PB institutions. Of the four cases of PB explored, two are found to have substantial impacts on the communicative relationships between community members as well as between community members and government officials. One case, in Edinburgh, exhibits transformed relationships between community members, but not between community and government, and one other case, in London, shows little to no meaningful impact on community or government relationships. Qualitative narratives explain this variation as a result of specific choices of institutional design made in each of these cases. Chapters 5 and 6 expand from a focused assessment of the operation of expected mechanisms within my four PB cases to a wider evaluation of the observable impacts of PB on wider community behavior and political culture. Exploiting the variation both within my cases of PB and between my cases and matched pairs of communities that did not implement PB, I test for the impact of PB in three different areas. Chapter 5 introduces the matched non-PB comparison cases and examines the wider civil society context in which PB is implemented. I conduct a unique comparative survey of local community organizations active in both PB and non-PB communities to establish the levels of activity and collaboration in civil society organizations across the different communities, testing for any effect of PB on the frequency of collaboration among community groups and between community groups and government. Chapter 6 takes an even wider view, considering the impact of PB on aggregate measures of political culture and voting behavior in the community as a whole. I first implement an analysis of public discussion of politics and public life in local media. I develop a new application of machine learning methods, using the R package ReadMe, for which I use human coders to train statistical models to identify mobilizing and demobilizing political expression. This method allows me to estimate the changing tenor of political discourse in PB and non-PB cases over time. Second, I consider voter turnout in local and national elections in case and control areas before and after the introduction of PB, using dynamic panel data methods to identify any effect on turnout from the implementation of PB. Taken together, the ensemble of different measures in Chapters 5 and 6 provides a unique picture of any impact that PB has had on the constellation of expressions and behaviors that make up the democratic culture of the community. In the final chapter, I draw together the different strands of the project by summarizing the scope and limitations of PB's democratic potential. I conclude with a brief reflection on the recurring tensions between innovation and institutionalization presented by the current, evolving practices of PB.
- Political science