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Participatory Budgeting Gets Some Traction in the US

Last week, at the Edge Funders Alliance conference in Berkeley, California, I learned how participatory budgeting is starting to get some real traction here in the US. Participatory budgeting, or PB to aficionados, is a process by which ordinary people determine how to spend municipal funds.  Ginny Browne of the Participatory Budgeting Project, which is based in Brooklyn, gave a terrific overview of the history and current state of this rare form of citizen engagement in government. The basic point is to let people have a direct say about the services that most affect them.

Participatory budgeting got its start in 1969 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a city of 1.5 million residents.  Launched as an effort to bypass political corruption, PB is now used in that city to allocate 20 percent of the budget, or $200 million.  The process engages some 50,000 citizens in Porto Alegre, and has resulted in a doubling of sanitation services and more school buses for underserved areas.  (For more on PB in Porto Alegre, see the excellent book chapter by Hilary Wainwright in her 2009 book Reclaim the State.) 

Participatory budgeting first came to the US in 2009 when a Chicago city councilman attending the U.S. Social Forum decided to try it out in that city’s 29th ward.  In 2011 four New York City council members introduced PB in their districts.  About 1.5 million people participated in deciding how to spend $14 million for infrastructure projects. 

A year later, the city of Vallejo, California, introduced PB for $3.2 million in city programs and services. The idea had real appeal because the city had just gone through bankruptcy proceedings and citizen trust in government was low. A twenty-person steering committee for PB was created.  After brainstorming ideas and developing project proposals, 4,000 citizens chose which of twelve different projects to fund.

The success of a PB project depends a great deal on grassroots leadership and outreach. You don’t just hold a meeting and vote on the budget. A process must be designed to help people propose ideas and deliberate. Special efforts must be made to reach out to people to bring them into the process. 

By and large, these efforts have been successful.  In Vallejo, one-fifth of the PB participants were citizens who couldn’t normally vote in regular elections. In New York City, the percentage of low-income residents participating in PB (40%) was higher than those who voting in local elections (29%). 

The PB process not only helps raise people’s opinion of local government, it helps them learn how to become community leaders themselves.  And of course, budget monies can be channeled to projects that people really want – not just projects that elected officials, bureaucracies or connected insiders want. Of course, one potential impediment is that the conventional deciders must agree in the first place to let certain parts of their budgets be allocated through a PB process.

In the past two years, smaller PB efforts have been launched in San Francisco, St. Louis and Boston.  PB efforts have also expanded beyond city budgets, too.  In Toronto, tenants at public housing projects have decided how to spend $9 million in capital funds. With the election of Bill DiBlasio as mayor of New York City, many observers anticipate an expansion of PB projects there. Worldwide, there have been more than 1,500 PB projects have been carried out. It’s a fitting tribute, on the 25th anniversary of participatory budgeting, that the pace of its adoption is accelerating.  

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