Public Budgeting gives (some) power back to the people

One night in 2014, parents at the Citizens of the World Charter School in Brooklyn, NY, were cataloguing their school’s woes. The kids didn’t have a playground. There was no stop sign at the intersection leading to the school. In the park down the block, the pavement was so shattered that a wheelchair couldn’t navigate it.

One mother who lives in nearby public housing told the group there was money to fix these problems — that the city had “free money” and she’d gotten tens of thousands of dollars for improvements in her housing project. All they had to do, she said, was campaign for it.

Soon after, they invited a representative from the city council to talk about this free money, an innovation in democracy known as “participatory budgeting” or PB.

The idea is as simple as it is profound: A city earmarks a portion of its capital budget to be spent by residents. Anyone can suggest an idea for the money’s use; the concept is then vetted for practicality and cost. Surviving proposals are subject to a public vote; the top vote-getters are included in the city’s next budget. Governments from San Diego to the African island of Mauritius like the result.

PB originated in 1989 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, spread to other Latin American nations, then to Europe and Africa. Chicago Alderman Joe Moore brought it to the US in 2009.

Fostered by the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project (www., it has spread quickly. In 2010, Chicago’s pilot year, 1,650 people spent $1.3 million on 15 projects; in 2015, more than 132,000 people in 61 North America jurisdictions allocated $60.8 million to 566 projects, according to figures from the nonprofit group Public Agenda. Another 43 US municipalities and seven in Canada are getting ready to join the club.

Some cities, such as Greensboro, NC, use PB citywide; others, such as Chicago and New York, allow individual city council members to use it in their districts if they wish. In either case, the process is similar and usually allots $750,000 to $1 million for the public to spend.

In every locale, the process is similar: For a period of several days each year, any resident can submit an idea. It can be anything from emergency call boxes in public parks to free ice cream on the Fourth of July. A city’s PB administrators will schedule an event or two at which the public can learn about the process and deliver their ideas; more often, officials go to happenings already scheduled, such as music festivals, socials at senior centers, or parents’ nights at schools.

By showing up at these special events, a PB team can elicit ideas from specific groups — the elderly, minorities, young adults — that often don’t make the effort to make their way to an evening meeting and “listen to bureaucrats,” as one city’s PB coordinator put it.

Once ideas are in hand — often numbering from a few dozen to 500 or more — citizen volunteers known as “budget delegates” winnow the ideas through a series of filters. For example, projects need to be for capital spending, not something that requires a permanent staff or some other ongoing special expense.

A resident in Cambridge, Mass., suggested a “community refrigerator” where people could put food they’re not able to use. The notion got bogged down in questions about who would maintain it and pay the electric bill.

Ideas also need to be specific. In Greensboro, a resident suggested making one of the town’s rivers “a lazy river.” “What does that mean?” asked a city official. “What does it cost?” The idea didn’t make the cut.

Ideas also often have to be of a scale to justify the city’s effort and overhead costs to administer the project. In New York, someone wanted to put trash cans in a park, but that cost less than the $50,000 minimum that each project must meet.

Delegates usually work in committees, with each assigned a specific area: parks, schools or housing, for example. After scrapping ideas that don’t meet guidelines or would impact few people, each committee spends several weeks contacting vendors to get prices on supplies or equipment for the remaining projects. Delegates also work with city agencies to price the labor and other municipal costs attached to each idea. Finally, the committees announce proposals to be on the ballot, usually numbering from seven or eight to as many as 25 or 30.

Then the campaign begins. In what has been called “science fairs for adults,” nominated projects gather on specific days in schools, churches, social halls and other venues over a few weeks and make their cases. They set up tables and poster-board displays, hand out flyers, and talk up their initiatives with prospective voters who come to browse the candidates.

Voting is as democratic as the idea collection; anyone who can prove residence in the city or district can cast a ballot. In most cities, voting can be done online, but budget delegates and city workers also staff mobile voting booths that pop up in parks, shopping districts and other public venues over a week or two. People can vote for as many as five projects; winners are prioritized by the number of votes received. City officials go down the list and include the winning projects in the capital budget until the amount allotted for PB projects has been committed.

Among the results: A greenhouse in New York City where low-income teens grow and sell vegetables, learning both to farm and run a business; Vallejo, Calif., bought a state-of-the-art emergency vehicle to replace a bread truck that the fire department had converted into a makeshift ambulance; and Cambridge, Mass., bought a freezer van to collect leftover prepared food from restaurants and distribute it to food pantries, giving low-income individuals an additional 7,000 meals a day.

Sometimes, the PB award is just the beginning. Groups have used their PB allotment to leverage grant money from local nonprofits to expand their funded projects even more. In Vallejo, when $370,000 was voted to renovate a dozen parks, advocates used the commitment of funds to coax the city’s parks department to chip in $160,000 worth of labor to add other parks to the fix-up list.

But there’s more being created than dog parks and crosswalks. Those involved in PB cite a range of less tangible benefits.

First, city officials become educated. One New York City council member saw a surprising number of voters calling for repairs to bathroom doors in public schools. He went to the city’s education department and convinced managers to double their budget for such repairs. When Citizens of the World Charter School’s playground lost a PB award by just six votes, the school’s city councilman recognized the need as well as parents’ passion, and pledged to find other sources of money to build it.

Second, the process builds empathy. Citizens realize that allocating funds among competing priorities is a hard job, that a million dollars doesn’t go as far as they’d assumed it should, and that there are pressing urgencies outside of their personal interest areas. Instead of wondering why their useless city councilman can’t find the money to put a stop sign at their intersection, they discover there are other people just as passionate and deserving who need the elevators fixed in a 10-story housing project.

Third, citizens develop the habit of engagement. Lauren Dobkin, a Citizens of the World parent, decided the only way she could be sure her school’s playground idea would have its best chance to succeed was if she shepherded it through the process. She
became a budget delegate and was hooked; she plans to volunteer again. In Vallejo, four of seven city council members entered the public arena as budget delegates; another delegate ran for a fifth seat. People who participate in PB are not only more likely to show up at city council meetings than people who don’t; they’re also more likely to vote in other elections.

The larger goal of PB isn’t just to build projects but also to build social capital. Surveys show that people who take part in PB know more of their neighbors by their first names and they form networks of people from all parts of the area who share their passion for a cause. PB releases and channels energy for change.
Some cities are investing that social capital in the young. In Seattle, anyone can contribute an idea but the rest of the process, including voting, is left to people ages 11 through 25; in Cambridge, the whole process, ideas and all, is reserved for that age group. Officials in both cities cite their need and desire to find ways to engage the young and develop new generations of citizen leaders.

At first, some were wary, thinking that young people would vote for free candy in school lunchrooms or similarly frivolous ideas. Instead, as other cities have, Seattle found their young people to be both aware and serious; four of seven projects funded last year addressed the needs of homeless youth. “We learned how to talk with adults and we met people from outside of our own neighborhoods,” says Abdulgani Mohamad, 16, whose idea to repair public bathrooms in parks was the top vote-getter in Seattle this year.

“I learned to be a leader,” he says. “Helping other people is the best feeling I could ever have. Also, I’m a Muslim and I wanted to show other young people like me that we can be part of” the political process.

Chicago’s experiment allotting PB funds for students to spend on their schools has been so successful that the Participatory Budgeting Project is creating a curriculum around it that other schools can adopt. The goal: teaching democracy by doing democracy, as well as giving students a platform to voice their needs.
Regardless of age, PB imbues the same sense in most of its participants: “The power of voice and the power of the vote,” Dobkin says. “You realize that one single person can take an idea and make it happen. Think what would happen if everyone took that power.” – TJ

Skip to content