New York’s Big Participatory Budgeting Moment

By Hollie Russon Gilman, Ph.D.

New York City has a new mayor: Bill de Blasio. The election of Mayor Bill de Blasio presents an opportunity for New York to innovate how it is governed by leveraging the expertise of citizens in new ways. In his campaign plan for “A Government As Great as Our City” Mayor de Balsio called for greater governance transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement — including ending discretionary “member item funding” and expanding the use of Participatory Budgeting (PB).   Earlier this year, Bill de Blasio joined thousands of his fellow neighborhood residents to vote for projects in the Park Slope Armory noting: “PB allows the money to reach the grassroots where it is needed without the political influence, without the game playing, without the corruption.”

The process of Participatory Budgeting or “PB” is an innovation to directly empower citizens to make spending decisions on a defined public budget. PB began in Puerto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and has since expanded to over 1,500 cities worldwide including in the U.S. : nine New York City districts, four wards in Chicago, Vallejo, CA, and Boston and San Francisco launching projects this fall. The World Bank and United Nation’s Development Programme has nominated PB a “best practice” for democratic innovation.

Internationally, participatory budgeting has been shown to lead to more equitable resource distribution and more innovative and responsive projects. When I studied the use of PB in the US I noticed the following patterns: citizens who take part end up with greater civic knowledge, strengthened relationships with elected officials and within their communities.  Domestically, PB has been limited to municipal level discretionary capital funds (i.e. bricks and mortar) and runs along a similar structure.

First, community members come together and determine need in their communities. Community members then volunteer to be “budget delegates” and work directly with public officials to make viable budget proposals.  Finally, with projects vetted by Council members and government agencies, residents vote upon projects – more than 13,000 New Yorkers participated this past year. PB is unique because citizens make substantive, binding decisions – not merely consulting on public goods. As such, PB creates opportunities to engage citizens and re-define their relationships to their communities, neighborhoods, and elected officials.

Designing an expanded PB in New York will require hard work to create broad-based coalition support and engage active citizens, such as the Community Board, as well as traditionally marginalized citizens.  Crowd sourcing and other technologies can distribute these tasks to streamline the process, reduce barriers to entry for participants, and educate citizens on the status quo discretionary budget process.   Expanding PB will require providing incentives to deepen and expand civil society involvement as well as encouraging more coordination amongst City Councilors.

Most of all, expanding PB requires a change in perspective.  It means viewing citizens as knowledgeable experts on their own communities and partners in delivering smarter, more effective governance.


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