Participatory Budgeting in America

| John Paul Farmer and Hollie Russon Gilman, PhD

Participatory Budgeting in AmericaTrust in government is approaching all-time lows. In recent years, Americans have come to feel more and more detached from their own governments and many commentators have simply accepted that as the new reality. But an increasingly popular civic engagement model called participatory budgeting is turning citizens into active participants of governmental budgeting decisions. These cross-sector collaborations of policymakers, citizens, and administrators are proving the skeptics wrong.

The origins of participatory budgeting (PB) can be traced to 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Since then, PB has been named a “best practice” in democratic innovation by the World Bank and enacted in over 1,500 localities globally. Through the process, citizens identify local level spending priories, work with government officials to craft budget proposals, and then convene a wider group of community residents to vote on projects. Elected officials and civil servants implement the projects designed by citizens for their own communities. The process came to the United States fairly recently – in 2009 – with one million dollars in one Chicago Aldermanic ward.

Since then, the process continues to gain momentum. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pledged to grow PB. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ran on a campaign pledge to scale up PB citywide. Melissa Mark-Viverito, one of the Council members who brought the process to New York City, was recently elected to the key position of City Council Speaker. New Yorkers may be pleased to hear that the Big Apple is the US leader in terms of dollars put through a PB process.

This fall, over half of the members of the New York City Council, representing nearly four-and-a-half million residents, will earmark their own discretionary funds for participatory budgeting initiatives in their respective council districts. Speaker Mark-Viverito announced on July 23rd: “Participatory budgeting is a gateway to greater civic participation and leadership in our communities, encouraging collaboration between residents and local elected officials to find creative solutions to neighborhood needs.

St. Louis, San Francisco, and Vallejo, CA, are also adopting PB. The White House recently made an international pledge to support the growth of PB using existing federal community funds. The New York Times has called PB “revolutionary civics in action.”

Cities across the country are starting to launch participatory budgeting and experiment with using digital tools. Boston launched the first youth driven process with a custom made Citizenvestor platform idea collection. On this platform, people can submit ideas, make comments, and “like” project proposals. Some project ideas include converting a vacant plot into a youth and art cultural center, technology bundles for public schools, and creating an indoor/outdoor performance space.

The process provides unprecedented hands on civic education. Participants engage directly with their elected officials and learn about the way high-impact decisions are made. This can include learning about costs and time lags. All of this contributes to deepened civic learning and other opportunities for engagement. The process is especially good at bringing the traditionally marginalized into civic life. Long-time community participants have often cited participatory budgeting as the single most rewarding civic experience of their life. What makes PB so exciting is that it is about real money and real decision-making power.

Participatory budgeting may not be a panacea to low levels of civic engagement. However, its very expansion suggests it is an effective tool. Citizens stay involved because they enjoy meeting their neighbors, elected officials, and community in a more meaningful capacity. Elected officials are putting considerable resources to this process because they understand its profound civic rewards. We need more genuine opportunities for citizens to be engaged participants.

Participatory budgeting is one important tool in an emerging civic innovation toolkit.

Hollie Russon Gilman (@hrgilman) is a Civic Innovation Fellow at New America

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