• Participatory Budgeting: What's the Potential?

Participatory Budgeting: Catch the Fever!

First there were four. Then there 10. This year 22 Councilmembers will let constituents decide how to spend money. The dollar impact is impressive. The democracy impact could be even more so.

A public housing development in the South Bronx. A senior center in East Harlem. A farmers market in Greenpoint. A community organization office in Red Hook. A street corner in Sunset Park's Chinatown. A public school in Kensington. A church in The Rockaways.

What do all these places have in common?

They were all voting sites for Participatory Budgeting NYC (PBNYC) back in April when nearly 17,000 residents from across 10 NYC Council Districts came together to vote on how to spend over $14 million in City funds.

PB is a powerful community decision-making process that was sparked by the Workers Party in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and is now being utilized in over 1,500 cities around the world.

Community Voices Heard (CVH) first heard about participatory budgeting back in 2002 when a small delegation of members attended the World Social Forum, an annual meeting of civil society organizations bringing together non-governmental organizations, advocacy campaigns, as well as formal and informal social movements seeking international solidarity.

CVH members attended workshops about PB in Brazil and our interest was sparked. We found it hard to believe that there was a government that allowed the PEOPLE to decide how public monies were spent, but we were impressed. It seemed like the way it ought to be if transparency, engagement and equity were to be at the core of government.

But, this was something of dreams, we thought; not a real possibility for NYC.

And yet, in 2011, four daring City Council members—Melissa Mark-Viverito, Brad Lander, Jumaane Williams, and Eric Ulrich—decided to partner with CVH and The Participatory Budgeting Project, along with an array of other community partners, to initiate a pilot project in NYC. Now, only three years later, 22 Council Members have taken up the challenge—committing at least $25 Million to a public vote—and central Council staff and resources now support the process.

PB "fever" has hit NYC and a new way of governing is now being institutionalized.

Participatory Budgeting allows ordinary people to directly decide how public monies are spent. Through a multi-month engagement process, people come together to brainstorm ideas, develop project proposals, interface with city agencies to determine costs, present ideas back to their community, and vote on projects that make it to the ballot.

With real money on the table and expanded rules about who can vote, PB even inspires traditionally disenfranchised populations to engage. In fact, expanding civic engagement and developing new community leaders is one of the explicit goals of the initiative, and empowerment and inclusion are explicit principles.   

Research on the process carried out by the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center demonstrates that the diversity of NYC is being represented in the process and new people are getting engaged: two-thirds of PB voters were women; 60 percent identified as people of color; 49 percent had less than a college degree; nearly half have household incomes less than $50,000; 32 percent were born in another country; 22 percent of ballots were cast in a language other than English; almost 70 percent had never worked with others in their community to solve problems; and 22 percent of PB voters identified barriers that made them ineligible to vote in traditional elections.

We all live side by side in our communities, and all of voices should count. With young people ages 16 and up, undocumented immigrants, and the formerly incarcerated all able to vote in PB, the electorate is being expanded and new voices are being brought into the process of governing.

A fully inclusive and equitable process, however, takes work. If PBNYC is going to continue to hold true to our founding vision and principles, we need to constantly challenge ourselves and our government officials to do better. Energy and resources need to be dedicated to ensuring that the process is accessible for all New Yorkers. Extra efforts are needed to advance inclusivity. And new tools need to be created to make sure that resident committees are well equipped to evaluate projects through a lens of equity and prioritize those that meet the deepest needs.

There are plenty of challenges we've already met along the way—particularly given the limited resources on hand for implementation of the process—but the beauty of PB is that each year we can improve upon the process and make sure that everyone has a voice and agency in doing so. People not only have a vote, but can also contribute to making the process itself better if they're willing to pitch in and work towards it.

The expansion to 22 districts this week is monumental, but the possibilities shouldn't stop here. CVH has a long-term goal of seeing significantly more resources to be allocated through PB processes.

Imagine if all City Council Members allocated the majority of their discretionary funds through PB, as is done in Chicago. This could boost the pot of money from $25 million to $250 million. Now that Council Members know the amount they'll have to work with—due to recent rule changes and a more equal distribution of resources—there is less risk associated with dedicating more resources to the process.

Imagine if discretionary expense funds, which support programs and activities and not just physical projects, were also allocated through a PB process? What kinds of ideas and priorities would emerge then?

Imagine if NYCHA set aside money like Toronto Community Housing does, and public housing residents gained the right to determine how best to address their needs and build community in the process. Or if resources were set aside for a youth PB process——like the Mayor of Boston initiated last year—so the next generation of civic leaders could be inspired. What if the Department of Education initiated a PB process to inspire more parental engagement as students, teachers, and parents worked together to determine their budgetary priorities collectively?

The only way we're going to counteract people's apathy in civic life is if we give people real power and value their voices. PB offers a new way of governing that validates people and their experiences in a transformative way. It just takes a willingness to do things differently, and an openness to reimagine our connection to our neighbors, our communities and our government. Catch the "PB fever" and you'll see!

Jarrett Murphy

executive editor and publisher, City Limits

Columbia University's Peter Marcuse sent in this response:

Participatory Budgeting is a great idea, and the extraordinary volunteer work that has gone into promoting it tus far has been richly rewarding by its active reception and expansion.

Sondra Youdelman’s call for continued expansion is right on. Important as it is, both as a model and dealing with many, many, worthwhile projects, it’s a small amount compared to the total budgetary expenditures of the city – maybe around 4% of the capital budget, if compared to the total expense budget, maybe .4%. Very well worth doing, but going deeper vertically, as well as wider horizontally, could also be tremendously important. How about:

Applying it to each council member’s discretionary expense budget also? Most Community Boards regularly host sessions on expense as well as capital budgets for their board areas; they might be integrated into a participatory budgeting process.

Integrating it with the Community Board’s role in the general budgeting process, particularly important for expense items, since most city agencies use community board boundaries to plan their activities?

Moving towards applying it to the full city budget, both capital and expense? Couldn’t Neighborhood Assemblies, Delegate Meetings, and Community Votes in each district also look at the city-wide budget, with some aggregation of results publicized to inform Council and Mayoral positions on the budget, if only in an advisory capacity?

Creating broader levels on involvement, perhaps at a borough level, perhaps Borough delegate meetings, be an effective way to democratize participation? Wouldn’t, ultimately, giving an expanded formal legal role to the participatory budgeting process both by district and in the city-wide budgetary process, perhaps akin to that which the Community Boards might have if their votes ere of formal effect, and integrated with the City Planning Commission’s old role in city-wide budgeting?

Looking towards a revision of the City Charter that would inscribe participatory budgeting into its provisions, solidifying the many verbal expressions of approval of the process?

Much has been accomplished; it’s a great base for even more!

Floretta OBrien


I have no financial or other interest in the issues under discussion and I'm not currently involved in anyone's political campaign.

tee gee

I believe we had 3 problems in our PB experience last year. The first was the feeling that it pitted one needy group against another...not a very community-building feeling (folks involved vehemently denied this was so). The second major problem was that many voters had no idea what they were voting for and thus went for the knee-jerk - more police (in the form of $600,000 worth of NYPD cameras that added to the ones we already have that have never solved a crime).   The third problem was a mentality among some folks that there was money that needed to be spent and what can we find to spend it on. I propose several changes for this year - 1. Don't submit what you want money for, instead what is the community NEED that you want to address. 2. Have a working group organize the requests and prioritize them in terms of time-sensitivity and other ways to address those needs without these funds - in essence list just about everything that is a valid need (some items might be able to be rolled over to the next year). 3. Have voters vote yes or no on the entire list and have an approval rating higher than 51%. And 4. Have submitters fill out a template form for power point to create an equal playing field for all submissions...


blog comments powered by Disqus


City Conversations is City Limits' forum for meaningful dialogue on the social, political, and policy issues that shape critical civic issues. City Conversation gives readers first-hand access to the opinions of leading academics, advocates and policymakers, as well as let you sound off on the topics that matter to you most.

Have an Idea?