John Lorinc’s fantastic Dec 10 column, “Building a better budget at City Hall”, prompted me to reflect on several matters related to questions of transparency and public engagement. Written to coincide with the onset of the City of Toronto’s annual budget consultations, Lorinc’s column details how Toronto’s budget works “to obscure, rather than enhance, understanding” about the City’s fiscal responsibilities. Still, the presentation of data in the Toronto budget communicates a clear message: claims that the City supports public engagement in budgetary decision-making are simply lip service, as is the oft-touted commentary about transparency in government spending. Making the budget available to a public readership is insufficient if the purpose is public engagement or transparency. Instead, the City must give the data context and meaning if readers are to make sense of the information.
Lorinc’s commentary and suggestions for change are tremendously important to fashioning the future of cities. I want to make three additions to Lorinc’s discussion.
1. On expert knowledge and obtuse data. When documents are perceived to use impenetrable language and exclude a lay readership, they signal that they are in fact written for an implied audience. Writing to an implied audience is not in-and-of-itself a bad thing; I would be doomed to a stockpile of incomplete essays if I did not assume a particular kind of reader for my various writing projects. Moreover, writing with discipline-specific language is sometimes necessary. For example, an academic audience typically expects writing that denotes a depth of knowledge in the field to which the writer contributes. Problems arise, though, when there is a mismatch between the text and the audience: this is where accusations of jargon abound. Thus, as Lorinc notes, trouble emerges when budget documents that are made available for the purpose of public consultation are inaccessible to their intended audience.
There is a certain sub-text at work in the disconnect between the budget documents and their presumed public audience. That is, by representing data in formats that are inaccessible to the lay reader, the writers of the budget documents use expert knowledge to distance themselves from those who cannot decipher the text. Here is one reason that so-called participatory processes fail: their very structure is set up to exclude those who don’t have the insider knowledge, time, or patience to actually participate. This being the case, participatory processes and public engagement fora seem to exist as an end unto themselves. Participation thus appears to enable a business-as-usual approach to governance, since the information provided to constituents will not encourage a change in government practices.
2. There are participatory models that work (at least some of the time). Lorinc underestimates the existence of functional participatory budgeting processes in North America. The Participatory Budgeting Project alone is working across Canada and the US; their impact in New York City, Chicago, and Vallejo, CA demonstrate the potential for the organization and participatory budgeting process.
Last month, Vallejo, CA became the first city in the US to adopt a city-wide participatory budgeting process. In other words, it is not just discretionary funds that are being spent with direct input from civic organizations. As long as these processes are neither co-opted (see image below, taken from the FAQ of the Participatory Budgeting Project) nor romanticized, participatory budgeting has great potential as a way to engage communities to build better cities.
3. Related to Lorinc’s concerns, there are two other matters of interest: the termination of data collection and the outsourcing of policymaking. Without romanticizing “Big Data”, which some scholars rightfully critique for its capacity to surveil, there is a lot to be said for the ability to empirically demonstrate imbalance and inequality. As feminist economists like Marilyn Waring have long argued in relation to women’s unpaid labour, marginalized groups can more effectively invoke the state’s responsibilities to its populace when data is available to support their claims. Harper’s cancellation of the long-form census, for example, has massive repercussions for Canadians who want to hold the state to account for its Constitutional promises. The deafening silence of the loss of data is, in some ways, as loud as the thud of Toronto’s inscrutable budget: both stifle the public’s capacity to actively engage government practices.
The outsourcing of policymaking has a similar effect. In February 2012, the Social Policy in Ontario website reprinted an editorial from the Toronto Star discussing the spate of public contracts awarded to private consultants; these consultants were hired to find solutions to municipal, provincial, and federal budgetary imbalances. The problems with this strategy are laid out clearly in Carol Goar’s editorial (and in Rick Mercer’s weekly rant). First, the public has little recourse to challenge the findings of private consultants, and where there are mechanisms in place to hold public sector employees accountable for their analyses, the same cannot be said for publicly-funded private consultants. Second, budgets are the agenda-setting documents of governance; they should chart direction based on desires of the populace, as these are articulated through elected officials. Therefore, budgets – and particularly “cost-saving measures” (usually defined under the rubric of short-term notions of efficiency) – should not be transferred or determined outside the public sector.
So, who benefits from the decision to employ consultants to solve public sector spending? What incentives do political leaders have to hire private consultants to do this work? In short, political leaders have the same incentive in hiring consultants as they do in eliminating data collection altogether: it’s called “see no evil, hear no evil, and do nothing” policymaking. It looks like this: the Harper government eliminates data collection mechanisms like the long-form census; data on the population’s health and well-being is no longer gathered by the state; and the state, having gathered no information about the well-being of their populace, feels justified in its cuts to public spending and unwillingness to create policies that address the (now unsubstantiated) needs of the populace.
At the end of the day, data is about power. Determinations over whether data is made available, made accessible, or is collected at all are grounded in attitudes about whose voices should be represented at the decision-making table. As long as governments are (implicitly or explicitly) invested in limiting those voices, genuine civic engagement will fall short, regardless of the participatory obligations by which governments must abide.