ON THE AGENDA | DECEMBER 20TH, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

Vallejo: A model for broader engagement in participatory budgeting

Participatory budgeting (PB) often funds infrastructure projects. For local officials and community leaders using or considering PB, Vallejo offers a model for funding programs and services.

In most cities, participatory budgeting, or PB, is limited to capital funds: longer-term infrastructure projects such as schools, parks, streetlights and street repaving. Vallejo, California, is the first community in the U.S. to allow voters to propose projects that include services and programs along with capital projects.

PB was adopted in Vallejo 2012-13, shortly after the city declared bankruptcy in 2008. Officials looked to PB to rebuild trust between community members and public officials. They also designed their PB process to fund programs and services, which suffered the deepest cuts following the city’s bankruptcy.

Scholars suggest that, for PB to have significant social impacts in the U.S, the process ought to be applied broadly, beyond capital infrastructure projects. Is PB in Vallejo different from other communities for having funded services and programs?

We asked Alyssa Lane, who coordinates PB in Vallejo from her position in the city manager’s office to weigh in. Here’s what she says about the benefits of PB in Vallejo:

We have seen that the program projects give residents a sense of empowerment and a feeling of giving back to the community. The PB process has given those of us who work for the city better insight into the communities’ needs beyond physical infrastructure and revealed how community members’ diverse priorities align with one another. Additionally, PB brings forth ideas and priorities that may help guide community groups to set their spending priorities for years to come or to encourage them to pursue continued funding from other city, state or federal sources.

Using PB to allocate funding to programs and services has also had its challenges. In particular, it requires more resources – for a process that already is resource-heavy. There are also additional legal issues when PB is used to fund programs and services, especially for projects associated with minors, projects that require allocating funds to private individuals and projects that allocate funds to support programs or services on private properties. Finally, while program and service projects are important and benefit an identified group in need, sometimes they serve a much smaller proportion of the population compared with capital projects.

Based on her and her colleagues’ experiences, Alyssa offers advice for other communities considering including program and service projects in their PB processes:

  • Before offering program and service projects, implementers need to sit down with all institutional partners—such as city agencies, school districts and community-based organizations that might be implementing these projects—to establish ahead of time what each is comfortable with and has the capacity to take on.
  • The implementing city or district staff should also try to work with institutional partners on all program and service projects and avoid having to take on implementation of these on their own. Find institutional partners who have the right expertise and capacity.
  • Processes should design criteria for program and service projects to include a metric for how many people the project would benefit. If the project is an after-school program or an internship program, does it benefit only a handful of kids or schools, or does it benefit many kids across many schools?
  • Start small and scale up. Programs and services can be complicated to implement and administer, so PB sites should approach these types of projects in a spirit of experimentation.

Read full case studies about PB in Vallejo and in other communities in our report, "A Process of Growth: The Expansion of Participatory Budgeting in the United States and Canada in 2015 – 16."


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