Re-imaging civic engagement in NYC: Participatory Budgeting

Guest post by Hollie Russon Gilman (@hrgilman): Today residents throughout New York City went to the voting booth.  It’s not a traditional election. Rather, residents are voting for project proposals put forth by their fellow neighbors in this years round of participatory budgeting (PB). Ten out of fifty one New York City Council members put forth part of their discretionary budgets for the public to decide – totaling over $14 million in taxpayer dollars.  Fall 2014, roughly twenty-two Council members are slated to participate in this process backed by Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito – who helped usher in the New York City process.  The Participatory Budgeting Project serves as New York’s technical lead and Community Voices Heard as the community engagement partner.

Voting sites have been in creative locations throughout New York City this week.  The goal is to reach diverse constituents.  This includes in public housing complexes, outside super markets, community centers, and schools. One voting site was even in front of a well-trafficked frozen yogurt shop. In order to vote, residents must live in the district and be at least 16 years old.  The vote is an education process within itself.  Some voting sites have binders or large posters filled with colorful project proposals.  Information includes how much the project costs, location, who will benefit, and a project description.   Many voting sites have a jovial atmosphere with food and Council members and their families stopping by.

Residents designed the very projects being voted upon. People signed up to serve as “budget delegates” and work on turning community ideas into project proposals.  Ideas were submitted in multiple ways across districts.  This includes some opportunities for online submission, attending a neighborhood assembly, or direct email and contact with a Council member’s office. After working with city agencies to draft viable budget proposals, the ideas were presented back to the community in a series of “Expos.”  With an interactive science fair format, residents could give feedback and see the very tangible progress of budget delegates.

Like traditional voting, the results from today’s election are binding.  Unlike traditional voting, the community will continue to have a say in shaping the PB process itself.  PB will begin again in Fall 2014 with the community being able to incorporate lessons learned.  One challenge is ensuring residents can see the tangible benefits of their ideas, time, and effort.   Especially difficult with the pace of government projects which require intricate coordination. Adding online components requires a further feedback ensuring that those who submit ideas online understand the offline process between idea submission and project implementation.

PB is an experiment that re-imagines the traditional role of citizens and public decision making. The process makes a presupposition: if you open governance they will come.  The theory of changes requires sustained and expanded participation.  This includes a robust vote that galvanizes diverse residents beyond traditional elections.   At a minimum, the experiment expands the role of citizens.  Instead of merely recipients of public service delivery, citizens are also knowledgeable experts of their own community.  PB’s set expansion in New York City, alone, suggests that elected officials are at least receptive to citizen’s expertise.

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