Participatory Budgeting Year in Review: Looking back to the future

By Hollie Russon Gilman

2013 was an important year for Participatory Budgeting (PB). PB became more widely known and practiced throughout the U.S. There is great potential in 2014 for expanding PB across the country as well as working toward agreed upon evaluation criteria.

PB is a process to enlist citizens as decision makers on public budgets.  In a climate where citizens express increasing lack of trust in their institutions, PB may be one effective tool to more deeply harness and engage citizen expertise in governance decision making.

Elected officials throughout the U.S. are considering including Participatory Budgeting (PB) in their broader city plans. Chicago Mayor Emanuel has announced a city-wide PB Manager to support expanding PB. New York City Mayor elect de Blasio has discussed scaling up PB and the Talking Transition tent on its first day featured a PB simulation.

Earlier this year, PB was honored at the White House as part of an Open Government Champions of Change Event. Now, the recently released U.S. second Open Government National Action Plan, a requirement of member countries under the Open Government Partnership, features a PB commitment:

One way participatory budgeting can be utilized by cities is through eligible Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Housing and Community Development funds, which can be used to promote affordable housing, provide services to the most vulnerable citizens, and create jobs through the expansion and retention of businesses.

Looking to the year ahead, using existent HUD funds, especially Community Development block grants, may be one way to quickly scale PB across localities in 2014.   The White House is already engaged in efforts to more deeply engage citizens and coordinate local level resource allocation, such as the Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative.  PB is a natural next step to more deeply engage citizens in the decisions of their community.

St. Louis is already exploring opportunities for using these HUD funds within a PB process. St. Louis, like many U.S. cities, has local level discretionary funds.  St. Louis has already completed the neighborhood assembly phase of the PB process.  Of the participants in the neighborhood assemblies, 53% were minorities and 58% identified as female.

The results of PB in St. Louis, in conjunction with numerous other cities implementing projects including Boston, San Francisco, Vallejo, CA, Chicago, and New York City, will be illustrative for the opportunities to scale PB. San Francisco is launching the first tech-enhanced PB process in the U.S.  Boston will be launching the first youth-driven PB process – aimed specifically to engage youth in the process of governance in an unprecedented way.

As PB continues to expand and shift throughout the U.S. a few factors will be important to track. First, the nature of discretionary spending.  Many cities throughout the U.S. have local-level discretionary funding typically allocated in closed processes.  Through opening up these funds to more distributed networks of citizen expertise, PB may shed light on existing processes and relationships, such as between Mayors and City Councilors. Second, the relationship of PB to existing local level civil society organizations.  Many communities have existent grassroots efforts to mobilize and engage citizens.  Integrating PB into these existing networks may be instructive for new models to deepen civic engagement with governance institutions.  Finally, as PB scales questions will arise around developing common criteria and metrics to evaluate impact.   Developing these indices will require taking into account the first two factors: PB must allow for local level variation and be suited to unique circumstances to thrive.  Criteria must also account for impact seen both over the short and long term, while building in necessary political contingency.

Overall, expanding PB may create an economy of scale that can benefit the process and its institutionalization.  Looking forward to an exciting 2014

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One Response to “Participatory Budgeting Year in Review: Looking back to the future”

  1. Paula Bienenfeld December 24, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Second Annual Budgetpalooza! We have a secret budget process here in Montgomery County, MD for our ~$2.2Billion annual public school budget (Montgomery County Public Schools [MCPS]). As a result the Montgomery County Civic Federation, the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, MD, and the Montgomery County Taxpayers League are holding the Second Annual Budgetpalooza! on Wed., Feb. 5, 2014, to go through the budget chapter by chapter and analyze and present it publicly.

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