Economy featured

How to start Participatory Budgeting in your city

July 9, 2024

Has your city been making cuts to schools, libraries, firefighters, and social services that you are not happy with? Think you could do a better job managing the budget? There is a way in which  you can have that opportunity through a process called “participatory budgeting (PB).” Currently, residents of over 7,000 cities around the world are deciding how to spend their taxpayer dollars, and you could follow their lead by starting PB in your city.

What is Participatory Budgeting?

In 1989, the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre developed a new model of democratic participation, which has become known internationally as participatory budgeting (PB). Through this process, community members directly decide how to spend a portion of a public budget. In other words, the people who pay taxes (all of us) decide how they get spent.

This sounds simple, but it is not. Budgets are complex creatures, and it takes a lot of time and support for ordinary people to make wise spending decisions. For this reason, PB generally involves a year-long cycle of public meetings. Community members discuss local needs and develop project proposals to meet these needs, then invite the public to vote on which projects get funded.

This innovative model has become popular across Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, and has been deemed a best practice of democratic governance by the United Nations. Cities, counties, states, schools, and housing authorities have used it to give local people control over public spending.

In 2009, The Participatory Budgeting Project (The PBP) helped launch the first process in the U.S., with a $1.3 million budget in Chicago’s 49th Ward. Then, in October 2010, The PBP successfully launched a $6 million initiative in four New York City districts.

Things to consider ahead of time

Could PB work in my community?

First, check that the right conditions are in place. At the most basic level, you need political will from above and community support from below. You need someone with control over budget money (an elected official, agency head, department director, etc.) to agree to let the public decide how to spend part of the budget. And you need community organizations — in particular those working with marginalized communities — to engage people and push the process forward.

How do we put PB on the agenda?

To start gathering support, organize a public event about PB to explain how it works, where it has worked, and what benefits it could bring to your community. The PBP can help provide speakers and materials. Ask organizations and universities to co-sponsor the event, to build up more support and resources. Invite government officials and community leaders to respond to the presentations, to say whether and how they think PB could work locally.

You can also try proposing PB at other community meetings, writing editorials or blog posts, and asking elected officials or candidates to take a stance. Bit by bit, this public outreach can add up and spark local interest.

Who should be at the table for initial discussions?

When you begin to introduce the idea of PB to your community, talk with as many interested organizations and parties as possible. This includes government representatives and elected officials, local nonprofits, block clubs, religious institutions, political groups, foundations, universities, schools, and activists. The knowledge and relationships of these groups will determine how far your efforts will go.

How do we pitch PB to attract interest?

We’ve found that different people get excited about PB for different reasons, but these six angles attract the most interest:

Democracy: Ordinary people have a real say — and they get to make real political decisions. Politicians build closer relationships with their constituents, and community members develop greater trust in government.

Transparency: Budgets are policy without rhetoric without the rhetoric; what a government actually does. When community members decide spending through a public vote, there are fewer opportunities for corruption, waste, or backlash.

Education: Participants become more active and informed citizens. Community members, staff, and officials learn democracy by doing it. They gain a deeper understanding of complex political issues and community needs.

Efficiency: Budget decisions are better when they draw on residents’ local knowledge and oversight. Once they are invested in the process, people make sure that money is spent wisely.

Social Justice: Everyone gets equal access to decision making, which levels the playing field. Traditionally underrepresented groups often participate more than usual in PB, which helps direct resources to communities with the greatest needs.

Community: Through regular meetings and assemblies, people get to know their neighbors and feel more connected to their city. Local organizations spend less time lobbying, and more time deciding policies. Budget assemblies connect community groups and help them recruit members.

How do we deal with resistance?

When government officials and other decision-makers first hear about PB, they often raise the following doubts:

“That’s the elected officials’ job”: Voters elect government officials to make the tough decisions, so shouldn’t budgeting be their responsibility?

Sure, they should be responsible, but if they share this responsibility with community members, they can better represent local needs and desires. PB helps officials do their job better, by putting them in closer touch with their constituents, and by injecting local knowledge and volunteer energy into the budget process.

“There’s no money”: Budgets are being cut across the board, so how could there be money to launch PB?

Fortunately, PB does not require a new pot of money, just a change to how existing budget funds are decided. You will need some resources to carry out the PB process, but this investment saves money down the road, as participants discover new ways to make limited budget dollars go farther.

“The process will Be co-opted”: If budget decisions are opened up to the public, won’t the ‘usual suspects’ and powerful community groups dominate?

This is a valid concern for any kind of public participation, and PB is not immune. But if you involve all segments of the community in planning the process, and reduce the barriers to participation for marginalized people, you can prevent any one sector from taking control. Regardless, when people are given real responsibility to make budget decisions, they tend to rise to the occasion, and think about the broader community.

What pot of money will the community allocate?

PB usually starts with “discretionary funds”—money that is not set aside for fixed or essential expenses but allocated at the discretion of decision-makers. While this is typically a small part of the overall budget, it is a big part of the funds that are available and up for debate each year.

There are many sources of discretionary money. It could come from the capital budget (for physical infrastructure) or operating budget (for programs and services) of your city, county, or state. City councilors or other officials could set aside their individual discretionary funds, as in Chicago and New York. These officials may also have control over special allocations like Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) or Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money. Housing authorities, schools, universities, community centers, and other public institutions could open up their budgets.

The funds could even come from non-governmental sources like foundations, community organizations, or grassroots fundraising if this money is oriented towards public or community projects. Some PB processes mix funds from different sources, to build up a bigger budget pot.

How much money is enough to do PB?

Almost no pot of money is too small to start. PB has worked with a few thousand dollars and with many millions of dollars. Most processes involve 1-15% of the overall budget. PB usually starts as a pilot project with a small budget. If the process is successful, it can build political will to increase the pot of money.

How much money you need depends on what it will be used for. If students are allocating the money to school activities, a couple thousand dollars will go a long way. If residents are deciding on significant physical improvements for public parks, streets, and buildings, you’ll probably want at least a million dollars. These capital projects typically require more money than programs and services, since they are built to last multiple years.

Regardless, you’ll want funds that are renewable from year to year, so that PB isn’t just a one-year fling. And in the long run, the more money, the more you can do!

Steps to help your community take charge of how money is spent.

1. Planning

  • Educate decision-makers
  • Engage community partners
  • Identify a pot of money to allocate
  • Secure funding and staffing for implementation
  • Announce approval of PB process

2. Design the Process

A steering committee that represents the community creates the rules and engagement plan in partnership with government officials.

  • Form a Steering Committee.
  • Develop a PB Rulebook.
  • Schedule idea-collection events.
  • Recruit and train facilitators and outreach workers.

3. Brainstorm Ideas

Via in-person meetings, and online tools, participants share and discuss ideas for projects.

  • At public meetings, residents and other community stakeholders learn about PB, discuss community needs, and brainstorm project ideas.
  • Residents also submit ideas online or via other digital tools.
  • Residents volunteer to serve as budget delegates to turn the ideas into full project proposals for the PB ballot.

4. Develop Proposals

Volunteer “budget delegates” develop the ideas into feasible proposals, which are then vetted by professionals.

  • Budget delegates go through an orientation, then meet in committees to transform the community’s initial project ideas into full proposals, with support from agency staff and technical experts.

5. Vote

Residents vote to allocate the available budget on the proposals that most serve the community’s needs.

  • Delegates present final projects at science-fair style expos
  • Residents vote on which projects to fund, at sites throughout the community over a week or two.

6. Fund

The government or institution funds and implements winning projects, and participants help monitor and troubleshoot problems as they arise.

7. Evaluate

Participants and researchers evaluate the process and identify improvements to make the following year.

Starting PB in your city is a lot of hard work, but if you do it right, the payoff is tremendous. You can make government more transparent, budgeting more efficient, and public spending more fair. You can educate thousands of people on how government works, develop hundreds of grassroots leaders, and build stronger community networks. And in the end, you might even fend off those waves of budget cuts, and replace them with a people’s budget.


For more information about starting PB in your community, please visit www.participatorybudgeting.org or email The PBP at info@participatorybudgeting.org.

Other Resources:

PBP Scoping Toolkit

Best Practices for Inclusive Participatory Budgeting

People Powered: Participatory Budgeting

Making Participatory Budgeting Work: Experiences on the Front Lines

More Shareable articles about Participatory Budgeting can be found in this archive.

This article was originally published on December 3, 2011 and was significantly updated by Jennifer Foley on June, 27, 2024.

This article originally appeared on Shareable.net.

Maria Hadden

An Ohio native, Maria Hadden now lives in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood but considers herself a global citizen. She earned her B.A. in International Peace and Conflict Studies from The Ohio State University and her Master's degree at DePaul University in their School of Public Service. An AmeriCorps*VISTA alum, Maria is also a Mediator and Mediation trainer. She became involved in Participatory Budgeting as a volunteer community representative during the first cycle in Chicago's 49th Ward. She continues to work with PB in the 49th Ward and joined the Participatory Budgeting Project to bring the process to even more locations in the United States and beyond.