Participatory budgeting processes, where city leaders cede a portion of their authority over discretionary funding to communities, has become a particularly popular and effective strategy to encourage open government. Participatory budgeting and similar open government policies ensures more effective and better trusted government, and can also address inequality by expanding and strengthening citizen participation in the allocation of public resources.
Participatory budgeting is especially suited for the city level, because municipal infrastructure and programs have direct and highly visible impacts on the lives of residents. City governments also have sufficient capacity to carry out broad public engagement programs, while taking advantage of economies of scale that reduce implementation costs.
When planning participatory budgeting processes, cities should remember that it can require months to design a sound process and build community buy-in. Successful processes draw on the expertise and resources of many organizations and agencies, which must be brought to the table.
Successful participatory budget projects are evolutionary, building up the number of participants each year and expanding its scope. Cities and local government should take a long-term perspective when planning participatory budgeting processes, and improve the mechanisms for public engagement and decision-making according to the lessons learned along the way.
What Cities Can Do
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In 2009, Alderman Joe Moore of Chicago, IL ceded his decision-making authority over the $1.3 million in discretionary funding to the residents of the ward. By 2015, seven Chicago wards, including five first-time wards, began a participatory budgeting cycle, enabling residents to vote on how to spend over $6 million. Winning projects included improvements to public schools, park improvements, street resurfacing, lighting, pedestrian safety and much more. Participatory Budgeting Chicago, a partnership of public officials, non-profit organizations, and foundations, works with various wards and communities to guide participatory budgeting in the city.
New York City, NY
In New York City, NY, nearly half of the city council members joined the Participatory Budgeting New York City (PBNYC), giving at least $1 million from their budget for the whole community to participate in decision-making. The Citywide Committee – made up of individuals, community organizations, and Council Members – helps guide the process across the city. Residents of participating districts directly decide how to spend these funds, which total approximately $25 million annually.
Los Angeles, CA
In Los Angeles, CA, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) wrestled with a $390 million budget deficit. To address the problem, LAUSD launched the 2012 My Bright Idea Challenge, to encourage the submission of creative ideas on how to save money and operate more efficiently. Out of 1,300 idea submissions and 10,000 votes, LAUSD declared three winners and began implementing their ideas.
The city council of Vallejo, CA, established in 2012 the first city-wide participatory budgeting process in the United State. The city’s process includes five stages, beginning with idea collection, through project proposals, voting, project funding, and ending in the project’s implementation. The steering committee for the process has 11 seats, comprised of organizational and at-large members.
In July 2015, Seattle, WA launched “Youth Voice, Youth Choice”, a youth-led participatory budget process. The initiative allowed Seattle’s youth to democratically decide how to spend $700,000 of the City’s budget. In May 2016, more than 3,000 youth ages 11-25 voted for their favorite projects. Winning projects included safe routes to schools, youth homeless shelter improvements, park upgrades, and a homeless children and youth liaison services project.