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On Participatory Budgeting and Democracy, We Need Patience, Research and Clear Goals

by Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D.

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Back in 2009, one solitary community in Chicago was the first in the U.S. to pilot participatory budgeting, a process for engaging residents in local budget decisions. A large public housing authority in Toronto had been engaging its residents through participatory budgeting since 2001, but with few American or even Canadian cities noticing.

Over the past seven years, participatory budgeting (or PB) has expanded exponentially in the United States and Canada. Last year alone, 46 communities in 13 cities across the two countries used participatory budgeting to decide how to use nearly $50 million (US).

Participatory budgeting has even been endorsed by the White House, whose Open Government Plan highlights PB as a best practice for American democracy.

PB holds great promise for American democracy. It transforms local governance by getting residents directly involved in budgeting and giving them real decision-making power. PB thus has the potential to empower individuals, build stronger civic infrastructure, raise public concerns and needs that officials alone could not see, lead to more equitable distribution of resources, build trust in government and make government more efficient.

But how and when will we know whether PB indeed fulfills its potential in American and Canadian communities? How long are we willing to wait to see these results? And what resources are we willing to expend to see them?

To explore these and other questions, last week the White House held a meeting to bring awareness to participatory budgeting, which I attended with our friends at the Participatory Budgeting Project.

This meeting, the second ever on PB at the White House, was hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the Democracy Fund. It brought representatives of the federal government together with a sample of the people most committed to PB in the country, including participants, organizers, public officials, advocates, researchers and funders.

What is the current state of PB in North America?

During the meeting, we examined the current state of PB in the U.S. and Canada, its achievements, challenges and future directions.

I was able to set the stage for some of the discussion with impressive numbers about the current scale of PB. I could do this because of Public Agenda's close collaboration with local PB evaluators and researchers over the past year and a half. With the help of local evaluators and PB practitioners from across the U.S. and Canada, we compiled comprehensive data revealing key information about current PB processes.

From mid-2014 to mid-2015 we documented that:

  • 140+ community-based organizations worked with government to make PB happen
  • 250+ meetings were held to collect project ideas
  • More than 1000 volunteers turned project ideas into proposals
  • Around 400 voting sites were created
  • More than 70,000 people cast ballots

These numbers will all be higher for the 2015-16 round of PB. Nearly 60 processes are already under way and more than $75 million pledged.

PB is growing. Each year sees more sites, more people and more money. And public officials seem to be in it for the long run but will they be patient enough to wait for results?

What could be the outcomes of PB in the U.S. and how long are we willing to wait?

Brian Wampler of Boise State University presented impressive research during the meeting on the impacts that PB has had on communities in Brazil. For example, PB has been associated with significant public health improvements, partly because the process helped to allocate more money to much needed health services. Cities around the world implementing PB have also shown reduced corruption, higher tax compliance, higher trust in government and stronger economic growth.

Notably, Brazilians were patient for the results: it took 10 years of PB to have meaningful impacts.

Here in the U.S., the majority of PB sites just completed their first cycle. Yet funders and high level policymakers, including the White House, want to see how PB makes democracy better NOW.

We have some work to do before we can understand if and how PB is improving democracy in the U.S. and Canada. For one, we haven't clearly articulated the outcomes and impacts we want to see in communities and in governance.

Local evaluators are focusing very closely on how PB is implemented at the community level, its immediate impacts on participation and the kinds of projects that get funded through the process. This focus is appropriate: PB implementation is hard. It requires detailed attention and lots of resources.

Those of us involved in PB locally and nationally also need to articulate what we believe PB can achieve in U.S. and Canadian communities long term. We need research and evaluation to help communities implement PB in ways that support both their short-term and the broader long-term goals for PB. And we need to consolidate this research for others to learn what works best in what context and for what goals.

Finally, we need to examine and articulate how long it will take before we expect to see both short-term and long-term results. We then need a commitment to those outcomes and time frames!

These nitty-gritty questions may be less sexy for federal policymakers and funders. But this is the kind of research we need to help us understand and evaluate the long-term impacts of PB.

Are we committing enough money to even have a chance at real long-term impacts?

We need more than patience if we want PB to have a chance to change American communities and transform democracy. We also need to commit more money to the process.

In communities that employ PB, local officials allocate a certain portion of their discretionary budget to the process. Residents then decide how they want to use that amount in their communities. Residents themselves propose a number of projects and then vote on which projects to fund. Projects get funded until the allocated money is used up. So a community could fund one expensive project with PB or a bunch of less-expensive projects. As for the discretionary funds not allocated to PB, local officials decide how to use that money in the traditional, top-down way.

In Brazil, cities generally allocate between 5 and 15 percent of their total municipal budget to PB. As a comparison, in 2015, New York City allocated $32 million to PB out of a total budget of $82 billion. That translates to less than 1% of the budget. Throughout the U.S. and Canada last year, communities allocated an average of $1 million to PB.

During last week's meeting at the White House, participants held a near consensus that, with the current monetary commitments, PB can hardly live up to its promise for long-term impacts.

From last week's meeting, it's clear we have a long way to go before we can see or even prove participatory budgeting's impact on democracy. But we've also made a lot of progress on this promising practice already.

We look forward to seeing how PB grows and contributing to its evaluation. The next step in that process is an analysis of PB in 2015. We'll be releasing that Year in Review in the coming months. Be among the first to receive it sign up for our mailing list today.


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