How to Start Participatory Budgeting in Your City


Have you noticed all the cuts being made to your city budget? To schools and libraries, fire fighters and social services, and other public spending? Think you could do a better job managing the budget? Soon, you may have that chance.

Through a process called “participatory budgeting”, residents of over 1,000 cities around the world are deciding how to spend taxpayer dollars. In October, four districts in New York City launched the second such process in the US. This article offers some initial tips for how you could start participatory budgeting 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 part 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 the United Nations has named PB a best practice of democratic governance. Cities, counties, states, schools, and housing authorities have used it to give local people control over public spending.

Despite its widespread popularity, PB is new to North America. In 2009, our organization, The Participatory Budgeting Project(The PB Project) helped launch the first process in the US, with $1.3 million in Chicago’s 49th Ward. This Fall, we’re piloting a $6 million initiative in four New York City districts. Discussions are also underway in Providence, New Orleans, Greensboro, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

If you want to bring PB to your community, here are some questions and suggestions to start you off:

Could PB work in my community?

First, check if 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.

At first, you may not know if you can count on the support of officials or community groups. So ask around. See if there are organizations or decision-makers who might be sympathetic. If so, start organizing.

How do I 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 PB Project 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.

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