Participatory Budgeting in an Income-Sharing Community

Posted on June 11, 2017 by
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Sharing income among a hundred people is a formidable challenge. At Twin Oaks Community, the combination of income-sharing and egalitarianism forms the core of community identity. About 90 adult members and over a dozen children live together on our rural farm in Virginia that is Twin Oaks. All of the money we make we share, not by dividing it up evenly, but rather by using our collective resources to meet the individual needs of all members. It is the combination of sharing our resources and having a fair say in how those resources are used that brings community cohesion and a shared direction. But it is a logistical headache and often a political nightmare to work out how exactly to allocate these shared resources. A couple years into my membership at Twin Oaks, I joined the economic planning team just in time for a revamp of our community budgeting process. The decades-old process was ailing, suffering from a lack of participation and impact of individual voters. Many members felt that their vote did not make a difference. After several years of trial and error, twists and turns, arguments and animosity, pizza parties and free cookies, we are finally settling on something that works well.

Twin Oaks has a long history of Participatory Budgeting, a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.1 For us, the public budget includes both money from our businesses and the non-business work we expect our members to do. Twin Oaks values its internal labor as much as it values its money. Not only is our labor keeping the community businesses such as hammock crafting and tofu production afloat, but it serves invaluably in our domestic lives. The time that members spend cooking dinner, harvesting wood for heat, growing food, teaching children, and scheduling doctor visits are all considered to be contributions to the community just as is our income-producing work. All work is compensated with “labor credits” which are self-reported and are required to meet the work quota of 42 hours per week (on average). Each year we take a look at both the income we have available and the number of hours we collectively expect to work and make a plan about where that money will go and where we’ll spend our time. With a net annual income of about $700,000 and nearly 200,000 hours of labor, this is no small task.

For years the community used a process dubbed the Trade-Off Game. Unless one is a budgeting nerd like myself, this process is less fun than the name suggests. Each participating member, which was anyone interested, would be given a list of different managerial areas and the resources available (money and hours). Playing the “game” meant coming up with a balanced money budget and a balanced labor budget. One might assign $12,000 to building maintenance, $65,000 to food, $500 to recreation, 450 hours to cooking community meals, 8000 hours to the vegetable garden, 2000 hours to building maintenance, and so on. As long as the total money and hours matched those available, the player’s game was valid. Everyone’s games would be averaged together to produce the final budget.

Having each person set up a balanced budget is arduous and we would never get the participation, let alone a sensible budget, if we insisted that each person make such a detailed analysis. So we seeded the game with a planner take, a sensible budget offered by a small group made up of the economic planning team, the labor manager, and the current members of our rotating board of directors, along with one or two members at large. Everyone would then tweak the planner take, boosting or cutting the budgets as they saw fit, making sure to cut a dollar from one area for each dollar added to another. Caps were instituted as a precaution to avoid coming out with a budget that is too wonky to fit the community, requiring that no player could vote to cut or raise an area by more than 20 percent.

Inevitably, the final budget would come quite close to the planner take each year, leaving players scratching their heads as to how their participation mattered. Even worse, dishonest play was implicitly encouraged. I might want the food budget dropped by 10 percent, but I can bet someone else will vote to raise it. So what do I do? Vote to cut it by 20 percent to balance them out. In fact, I might cut a large area that I actually like if I know others will vote to raise it. That will leave me with lots of money to distribute among the small areas I support. The Trade-Off Game quickly became an exercise in strategic play, rather than a process for determining the actual desires of the community. Was this what egalitarian income-sharing was supposed to look like?

When I joined the economic planning team in 2013, revamping the game was an idea already brewing. We had seen a record low in participation with a mere 11 members playing (out of over 90 adult members) and the team had already put out surveys trying to figure out why exactly people did not seem invested in determining where our shared resources go. Enough members had expressed willingness to try a new process that we felt we had to look seriously into what other strategies we might use.

This was an exciting introduction to the team. I had studied mathematics in college but had no real training in economics or budgeting. I was also still relatively new to Twin Oaks, just starting to feel at home enough that it made sense for me to be one of the people guiding the community through this budgeting process. I was still learning the ins and outs of our finances while simultaneously brainstorming for a way to do things that would be truly democratic. I was part of the team working to more fully actualize the ideals of my home. We hoped that we could come up with a system that would get people to participate, enjoy it, understand more fully our community needs, and share our resources in a way that truly reflected communal desires. Voting systems might not be the thing that gets most people’s hearts racing, but I felt inspired by the possibility of meeting such a democratic ideal.

Our solution came to us in a system that had already been introduced to Twin Oaks: Fair Share Voting (FSV).2 FSV is a powerful voting system that is ideal for allocating shared resources, yet it is woefully unheard of. It is a ranked voting system, much like the Instant Runoff Voting that gained some attention during the 2016 presidential election season. Third-party candidates support ranked voting systems because they allow voters to put their true preference at the top of the list without running the risk of wasting their vote. If that candidate is not a finalist, then the ballot will be considered a vote for their second favorite option, and so on down the line.

Fair Share Voting works the same way, but is used when trying to allocate a certain quantity of resources to some set of proposed projects, each with its own proposed budget, whether large or small. Each person ranks their choices, but each ballot is represented by an equal share of resources. If 10 people are using FSV to allocate $10,000, then each ballot is essentially allocating $1000. A player who ranks a small project as their top vote will spend less of their initial voting power, measured in dollars, than someone who ranks at the top a bigger project, even when those two projects both get high rankings from other voters. And the more people that vote for an area, the less is spent by each person, since the cost required to fund a project is shared among the ballots that ranked it high enough. But if a voter’s top-ranked choice is not supported by others, then the tally will consider the next item on their ballot without them having wasted a vote on a loser. And even if they voted for a winner, their ballot can still fund items further down in ranking as long as there are still dollars left on the ballot. Majority support does not mean only majority funding. Most of the money goes to the areas the majority supported, but a large minority may use its share to fund other projects.

Twin Oaks has used Fair Share Voting to vote on one-time project allocations in the past, but adapting FSV for ongoing budgets was a different beast altogether. So many of our programs would not make sense if their budgets happened to be voted way up one year and way down the next year. Take the dairy program, for example. We have so many cows, so many calves born over the course of the year, and expect a certain amount of milk from them. If the program gets cut one year in both our labor and money contribution, what will we do? Sell a bunch of the cows? Let the lactating cows go? What if it gets funded back to its usual amount the following year? Do we then buy ourselves a new herd? We needed a way to give the membership direct influence on these ongoing budgets while respecting the fact that they are ongoing and long-term. We decided that we, those administering the budgeting process, would set absolute minimums on all the community budgets. That way people would still rank all of the areas at the levels they wished them to be funded, but even an area that no one ranked would still get the minimum funding required to maintain the infrastructure of the community. Armed with this clever implementation of FSV, we were ready to reinvigorate community involvement in budgeting.

Of course, increasing participation is not as simple as saying “Hey! Check out this new voting system! It’s so cool, you won’t believe it!” Few members think about our budgets on a day-to-day basis, let alone the details of our budgeting process. For the first time in my life, I found myself employed in something of a PR campaign. I was making signs and posters, writing papers for our discussion board, and talking up this new process as much as I could. Many members were skeptical of such a shift, so I did what I could to assuage their fears (and did not completely succeed with some). Even more members, however, remained apathetic. Whether they played or not, they argued, the most important needs of Twin Oaks would be prioritized. We’re not going to let our buildings fall apart or see ourselves starve because too few people put a vote in for those areas. “I just don’t care,” I heard way too many times. “Whatever people decide will be fine.”

The fact is, people do care. Spend a day on the farm listening to people and you will hear comments about our budgets all over the place. “I can’t believe we spend so much money to put berries and nuts in our granola.” “Why can’t I claim labor credits for the time it takes me to drive to the doctor?” “Damn, I’m glad we decided to buy those new solar panels.” Our annual budgeting process might not be on the mind of those making such utterances, but they are talking about the resource allocation determined by just that process.

The solution to getting people to turn up for this new voting game was simple: pizza. We turned the game into a series of pizza parties. Members would show up and we would have the electronic ballots pulled up on community computers and personal laptops. People would cast their vote while eating pizza, and we would be there to answer any questions about how to interface with the ballot and how the votes would be tallied. This strategy worked remarkably well. (Disturbingly well, I might think. Is pizza really a stronger motivator than our shared economy?) Those of us on the econ team were quite happy with ourselves, content with a job well done. That is, until we tallied the results.

It turns out that our implementation of FSV was setting ourselves up for disaster, a disaster which manifested. We were not realistic about setting minimum budgets. We looked at the results of some areas and said to ourselves “Sure, the community won’t fall apart, but are we really ready to operate with a food budget cut in half? We’re going to be eating a lot of rice and beans.” As much as we tried to educate all the players, it was hard for them to really see the impact of their voting choices. Many ballots used up their shares in the top few areas, leaving several areas severely bloated and many more unrealistically meager. The members also felt fatigued by the game, having to rank every single area. We have well over a hundred areas to budget for, ranging from food to bike maintenance to local relations. The budgeting team ended up taking the results and editing them heavily. We came up with a balanced budget that worked well enough, and when we shared it with the community no one balked. But the democratic ideal we were aiming for was missed by a long shot.

Our next several economic planning meetings felt pretty depressing. We had spent a good half of a year getting ourselves and the community amped up about a new revolutionary voting process that would change everything. And then it failed. We seriously considered scrapping FSV altogether and returning to the Trade-Off Game. We knew that the latter would never really provide the egalitarian input we strove for, but it was within the comfort zone of the community. Would they support yet another revamp?

Thankfully, our disappointment in our first attempt to use Fair Share Voting subsided. Rather than scrap it, we decided to tackle the problem of ongoing budgets from a different angle, while still preserving FSV. Rather than using voting to build each budget from scratch or an absolute minimum each year, we would propose budgets that reflect the status quo and use FSV to adjust them. If providing status quo services leaves us with extra cash or hours, we would vote on which areas to bump up. We could also use the adjustment when status quo would leave us lacking cash or hours, which might happen if our businesses do not do as well as previous years, baseline costs such as energy or insurance go up, or the working population of the community is expected to be low. FSV works much the same in this case, except that it is used to vote for cuts; areas that one would most be willing to see reduced are ranked at the top. Each player’s fair share is made up of “negative dollars,” and everyone is required to rank enough areas to ensure that the necessary cuts will be made.

The past three years, we have used this method of budgeting, which we call The Adjustment Game. We meet and set status quo budgets, decide whether we need add games or cut games, come up with a list of areas that could be supplemented or reduced, and present those areas to the community to vote on. We have continued at times to use pizza, cookies, and coffee to motivate people to play. But the game is becoming more routine now. We do not have to re-explain every bit and contrast it against the old system. The new system is the standard now. And it’s doing what we hoped for: it provides real opportunity for the membership to directly influence budgets in a fair way, is an easy enough ballot to understand that everyone can play, and creates community buy-in for our collective budgets.

However, I hesitate as I write such optimistic words, knowing that this will be read by the members of my community. The fact is, not everyone feels empowered by our budgeting process. Each year when new budgets are set, there are always some who denounce the results. It is tempting for me to wave off these concerns, chalking them up to the grumps who didn’t get their way. The long-term members who spent years doing it the old way just don’t want to adjust. The new area manager is simply annoyed that the other members are not excited about their project. Another member has personal animosity toward another and is using this opportunity to play out social drama.

But I have to take their concerns seriously. As much as we try to democratize the process, the fact is that those administering the game do have considerable sway. We have to ask ourselves questions such as, “How exactly do we determine what budgets represent the status quo?” “Which areas do we consider up for adjustments in years where we have to cut?” “Are we really making the game easy and accessible to all?” These are important questions that require close examination. We will continue to examine them and continue to tweak the game in years to come.

While each budgeting cycle brings in some grumbling, the nature of that grumbling is beginning to shift. It used to be complaints that the process did not make sense, that one’s vote did not count, that it was either too confusing or too simple to be useful. Now I hear complaining about the votes themselves. Some are shocked that we voted to bump up personal spending allowance over low-cost community services, such as shared musical instruments for community performances. Others retort that allowance has been too low for too long, and the music is just a pet project for some. Another chimes in that our food budget should take precedence over either concern if we really want to have a healthy and varied diet. This is what we want. Our budgets may be controversial, but they are engaging. The apathy is past. Our economic planning does matter and people know it. We might just be getting closer to that democratic ideal.

1. Definition from the Participatory Budgeting Project, www.participatorybudgeting.org.

2. For a detailed description of Fair Share Voting, please visit: bit.ly/2lnE3xw.

Adder Oaks has been a member of Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia for six years. Sharing his life and income with a hundred others, he works as an economic planner, tutor, and parent. Adder is co-host of the podcast Commune Dads.


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