Elected officials across the country report that participatory budgeting helped them be more responsive to community needs, improved their political prospects and engaged their constituents more in political life, according to our newest report.

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a process in which residents vote on how public money should be spent. In 2014-15 alone, over 70,000 people voted on how to spend $43 million through PB. Forty-seven city council districts or cities across the United States used PB in 2015–16.

The report, "Why Let the People Decide? Elected Officials on Participatory Budgeting,” is based on confidential interviews with 43 local elected officials from across the country regarding their views of and experiences with PB. The Kettering Foundation served as a collaborator in the research, which was funded by the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation. The full report includes suggestions for elected officials, PB advocates, and foundations and other funders seeking to improve and expand PB.

Twenty-eight of the officials interviewed had adopted PB, and 15 had not. Among the interviewees who had adopted PB, 37 percent had faced another election since doing PB. All won reelection.

According to some local elected officials, PB had improved relations between residents and government. Elected officials also said PB boosted participation among segments of the population that did not typically get involved with government.

“There are constituents who are deeply cynical about elected officials. When they see you actively seeking participation in a process of budgeting, it reinforces their confidence in their elected officials and in political institutions.”

The biggest challenge officials say they faced was not having enough time, staff and resources to undertake PB effectively. Many officials who opted not to try PB also cited a lack of resources as their main motivation.

However, officials do not see the challenges they faced as reasons to abandon the process. Rather, most officials expressed a commitment to improving their local PB processes each year to deepen constituents’ involvement in and understanding of local government.

Read on for a summary of the findings, or download the executive summary or full report as a PDF. Interested in what the findings mean for efforts to improve PB in the U.S.? Click here for suggestions for policymakers, here for suggestions for PB advocates and here for suggestions for the philanthropic sector.

This report is part of our broader initiative on participatory budgeting. We've also developed research tools to help the people doing PB collect data about participants, and we released the first ever comprehensive analysis of PB in the U.S. and Canada. Click here to join our email list and receive future PB work.

Findings in brief

1. Motivations to Adopt Participatory Budgeting

Officials who implemented PB typically saw it as a chance to get more constituents excited about local politics and to educate them about how government works. Most also said they expected PB to increase their popularity with constituents.

Among officials who had adopted PB, virtually all worried about constituents’ political apathy and lack of knowledge of how government works. Most said when they first heard about PB, they saw an opportunity to educate constituents and energize them to get more involved in local political affairs. In the process, most also expected to build trust and gain popularity in their communities. The officials we interviewed were not typically motivated to adopt PB by a desire to make budgeting decisions more responsive to community needs or to transform the political system. More often they were motivated by their interests in civic education, increasing political engagement and building better relationships with constituents.

“People were becoming very active at PB who we had never met or seen at committee boards or precinct meetings or block associations or other regular forums.”

2. Impacts on Participants, Communities and Government

Most officials felt their PB processes had succeeded in generating enthusiasm and getting constituents more engaged in political life. Many also noted their PB processes raised constituents’ awareness of government inefficiencies, for better or for worse. Generally, officials said PB helped them understand constituents’ needs better.

Most officials we interviewed saw their PB processes generating excitement and engaging residents who previously were less politically involved. Some discussed examples of participants’ learning how to advocate for their interests and building leadership skills through PB. Many officials noted that new alliances among residents and community groups had formed through PB, which they felt contributed to stronger civic infrastructures in their communities. A few said PB provided a forum for more frank public discussions about equity in public spending across their communities. At the same time, many officials said PB sometimes frustrated residents by revealing government inefficiencies. Some saw this as a learning opportunity for both residents and government. Talking about their own work, interviewees reflected that their PB processes had helped them understand and respond better to their residents’ concerns. Some added PB had improved their relationships with city agencies. Generally, interviewees felt PB improved their political prospects, even in instances when officials encountered criticism from those residents who felt the process was not serving them.

3. Implementation Challenges

The need for adequate time, money and staff to implement PB was a challenge cited by most officials who had adopted it. Several discussed the challenges of ensuring their processes were not dominated by the most advantaged groups in their jurisdictions. Explaining the process effectively and responding to residents’ criticisms and concerns were also common themes.

While nearly all officials who had adopted PB agreed the biggest challenges in implementing it were mobilizing adequate time, money and staff, they felt the process was nevertheless worth continuing. Explaining the PB process and its potential value to constituents was harder than some officials expected. Several said it was a challenge to ensure their processes were not dominated by the most powerful or advantaged groups in their jurisdictions and to respond to some constituents’ negative feedback or frustrations about PB. Including youth was more controversial for some than they had expected. Officials found digital tools could be useful but also described their drawbacks and limitations.

4. Reasons Some Elected Officials Have Not (Yet) Adopted PB

Officials who had not adopted PB often saw themselves as already sufficiently attuned to constituents’ needs. They often worried about resources for implementation if they did decide to adopt it. Several said the budgets typically allocated to PB were too small for projects to have much impact.

Typically, officials who had not adopted PB told us they were satisfied with their current public engagement efforts. They often said they could make budgeting decisions that met constituents’ needs and account for budgeting realities in ways that residents could not. Many of these interviewees expected only affluent and well-connected residents to benefit from a PB process and more disadvantaged residents to be alienated by it. Many also worried PB would take up too much staff time and effort. And several of these officials criticized current PB budgets in the United States for being too small and, therefore, not allowing for projects to have meaningful impacts on communities. Some said current forms of PB in the United States give residents a false sense of empowerment.

“Elected officials are taking on a whole new function with the same resources, which is insane. [PB] requires a huge expenditure of resources and time.”

5. The Future of PB in the United States

Securing more resources for implementation is important for PB’s future, most officials who had adopted the process agreed. At the same time, some suggested ways to make implementation more efficient. Several also suggested PB must expand beyond capital budgets, and that the budgets allocated to it should be larger if PB is to affect communities and government meaningfully over the long term.

Resource challenges impeded the implementation and expansion of PB processes, most officials who had adopted PB said. Several discussed ways of making implementation more efficient, including more centralized support from their city governments. Some said they wanted more opportunities to share PB experiences with colleagues and to learn from each other. Moreover, several officials argued that, to fulfill its promises, PB needed to be applied to much larger budgets. Most officials with PB experience were looking forward to improving their processes in years to come.

Implications

Based on findings from this study of U.S. elected officials, as well as from our ongoing research collaborations with local evaluators of PB processes across the United States and Canada, we present ideas for:

  • public officials and their staffs who are interested in participatory budgeting
  • PB organizers, community-based organizations and advocates
  • foundations and other potential funders of PB

More details on these recommendations can be found on page 53 of the full report. The following are these recommendations in brief.

Ideas for Public Officials and Their Staffs

  • Engage staff, implicated city agencies and broad cross-sections of the community before launching PB. Engaging important players early on can maximize participation and minimize resistance.
  • “As we evolve on this process it becomes a more refined product which I'm sure over the years will become very, very effective.”
  • Plan for implementation with adequate staffing, volunteers and other resources. Implementing PB takes time, money and effort. Building a volunteer base can help support the process from year to year. Coordinating with officials and staff in neighboring jurisdictions when possible can help to share the workload.
  • Collaborate with community-based organizations and civic leaders to support implementation and make PB more inclusive. Community-based organizations and civic leaders can bring many engagement skills to the table, including expertise in engaging traditionally marginalized communities and in building a volunteer base.
  • Coordinate your ongoing engagement strategies, including PB, to maximize their impact and efficiency. To make PB more effective and efficient, it can be coordinated with other, ongoing public engagement strategies and technologies.
  • Get ready for messy democracy. PB can bring out the best in community residents and create public spirit. It can also reveal conflicts and upset existing power brokers. Be prepared for these challenges.
  • Articulate goals and include evaluation. When available, work collaboratively with independent local evaluators to gain a better understanding of whether and how your PB process achieves it goals and how to improve it over time.

Ideas for PB Advocates and Community-Based Organizations

  • Keep in mind what officials care about most with respect to PB when you engage them about adopting it. Many officials told us they see PB as a means to educate the public about how government works and to gain popularity with constituents. In engaging elected officials about PB, emphasizing these potential impacts may help.
  • Help officials contend with their concerns and challenges related to implementation. The lack of resources for implementation and anticipated burden on staff can deter officials from adopting PB. Be prepared for realistic conversations with elected officials about how to make PB work, including how you can help build an inclusive base of volunteers, recruit diverse community members to participate and possibly take on other tasks that are congruent with your organization’s mission and position in the community.
  • Share leadership and responsibility for PB’s success with public officials. Community-based organizations and advocates should be part of PB steering committees and help write local versions of the rules. They should hold themselves and officials mutually accountable for meeting the goals of their processes.

Ideas for Foundations and Other Funders

  • Create opportunities for officials to educate each other about PB. Supporting the building and maintenance of PB learning communities among officials across the United States can help expand PB and spread best practices.
  • "I kept on hearing from other officials that every ounce of energy, and money, and whatever staff time was put into it, you get three- or fourfold back."
  • Support evaluation and research on PB and its impacts and the communication of findings both locally and nationwide. Evaluating and researching PB processes is crucial to understanding how effective they are in meeting their goals. As sites experiment with different approaches to implementation, researching and sharing their practices can benefit processes nationwide.
  • Sponsor the development and use of technical assistance and trainings as well as technological tools and digital infrastructure to support PB. Support to get access to PB trainings and technical assistance can encourage officials to adopt PB in their jurisdictions. Technological tools can make implementation more efficient, but investments are needed to take full advantage of their potential.
  • Consider brokering and financially supporting collaboration among public officials and key community players, especially community-based organizations. Fostering collaborations between these community allies and local government can help the implementation of PB and facilitate inclusiveness. Even small grants can help these entities work together to address needs like translation, transportation to and provision of child care at meetings, printing materials and incentives for volunteers.

An Idea for All Stakeholders

  • Consider whether and how to use PB for different types of budgets and for larger budgets. Officials and their staffs, PB advocates, community-based organizations, researchers and funders should consider whether and how to expand PB processes beyond current budgets and whether and how such expansions could benefit communities and government in the long term.

Methodology in brief

Interviewees for this research were recruited from among all U.S. officials who were implementing PB processes in their districts or cities during the 2014–15 and/or the 2015–16 cycle of PB, as well as from neighboring council districts and nearby comparable cities without PB. All interviewees were invited to participate in two rounds of interviews. The first round was conducted between March and June 2015 and the second between October 2015 and March 2016. Fifty-three percent of our interviewees participated in both rounds of interviews. All interviews were confidential and ranged in length from 15 to 50 minutes. Public Agenda’s research team conducted the interviews and the data analysis. More details on the methodology and sample characteristics can be found on page 56 of the full report.


Download the Full Report

Why Let The People Decide?

Elected Officials on Participatory Budgeting

Media Type: PDF

This report documents findings from interviews with U.S. elected officials regarding their experience with participatory budgeting (PB). It also includes recommendations for policymakers, PB advocates and funders looking to improve and expand PB. (2016)

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