Home On the Agenda Can Participatory Budgeting Help Improve Democracy?

Can Participatory Budgeting Help Improve Democracy?

December 13, 2016

At Public Agenda, we’re a bunch of optimists. We believe that democracy CAN work for everyone, and that better models of public engagement are key to this mission.

Americans are frustrated by the state of our democracy. Meanwhile, the relationship between leaders and the public continues to erode. This dynamic isn’t new.

Trust in government has been decreasing for years. Both the public and elected officials have expressed irritation with current and common models of democratic engagement. But this past year, the frustration seems to have reached a crescendo.

At Public Agenda, we’re a bunch of optimists. We believe that democracy CAN work for everyone, and that better models of public engagement are key to this mission. Better public engagement can improve the relationship between leaders and the public. Good engagement strategies also provide everyone with an opportunity to consider differing views. That way, just as engagement can ensure that everyone has a voice in the decisions that affect them, it can also ensure that those voices are productive and meaningful.

One of the fastest-growing forms of public engagement in the U.S. is participatory budgeting, a process that gives residents direct decision-making power in local budgets. Sixty-one communities in the U.S. and Canada used participatory budgeting, or PB, in 2015-16. This is an increase of 33 percent over the previous year.

PB has yielded impressive results in Brazil, where it started in the 1980s. There, it’s helped rebuild relationships between elected officials and residents, engaged more people from disenfranchised communities in civic life, reduced corruption and improved the social well-being of a wide range of citizens. Can PB have similar results here?

It may be too soon to tell: PB is relatively new in the U.S. and Canada, where it started in 2009 and 2002 respectively. But in an effort to begin to answer that question, we’ve been serving as an independent evaluator of PB in the U.S. and Canada. We’ve created guidelines and tools for measuring impact, communicated the short-term outcomes of PB across the U.S. and Canada, and studied PB’s potential for generating social change.

We released our most recent contributions this week: a set of resources reporting on outcomes of PB in 2015-16, a white paper examining PB’s potential for reducing inequality and a white paper looking at the role of deliberation in PB. Here’s more info, along with links to each resource:

A Process of Growth: The Expansion of Participatory Budgeting in the United States and Canada in 2015-16: For the second year in a row, we collected data from communities around the U.S. and Canada to tell the story of PB, understand how different communities are using it in different ways and get an idea of short-term outcomes we’re already seeing. The report includes recommendations from people leading and evaluating PB on the ground, to help others diversify participation, advocate for PB from the grassroots level and incorporate technology in an equitable way.

Brazil Has Reduced Inequality, Incrementally – Can We Do the Same?: PB in the U.S. and Canada differs in many ways from PB in Brazil. Matt Leighninger explores these differences in this white paper, explaining how they may affect PB’s impact in North America. He also provides a series of practical recommendations for practitioners and policymakers to strengthen PB’s ability to reduce inequality.

Power to the People! (And Settings for Using It Wisely?): PB employs both direct and deliberative democracy. As the Brexit vote has demonstrated, direct democracy doesn’t always lead to smarter, broadly supported policy decisions. This white paper examines the extent to which PB employs deliberative principles and processes, explores the challenges in making PB more deliberative and provides recommendations for public officials and practitioners looking to improve their PB processes.

The Kettering Foundation served as a collaborator for this work. “A Process of Growth” was also supported by the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation.

If you’re interested in more information regarding our work with participatory budgeting, or you’d like to check out other resources, including a toolkit for evaluators and a report regarding public officials’ views toward PB, please visit our PB project page.