Confidential interviews highlight the benefits and challenges of participatory budgeting
DATE OF RELEASE: THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 3RD, 2016
New York City – Elected officials across the United States 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 research from Public Agenda.
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.
Public Agenda conducted 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. 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 so. All won reelection.
According to some local elected officials, PB had improved relations between residents and government. One official said, “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 pessimism we are witnessing during the presidential campaign season is the strongest signal I’ve seen that we need to do a better job of bridging the divide between policymakers and the public,” said Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda. “Participatory budgeting is a promising approach to giving people a measure of influence over decisions that affect their communities.” Elected officials also said PB boosted participation among segments of the population that did not typically get involved with government. One official said, “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.”
In a May 2016 report summarizing data from PB sites across the United States and Canada, Public Agenda found that cities and districts that had adopted PB varied widely in their success at involving participants from traditionally marginalized populations. In-person outreach was associated with greater participation among traditionally marginalized populations.
Interviews with elected officials also highlighted challenges in implementing PB, though, with very few exceptions, officials concluded that PB’s popularity among residents made it worthwhile. Chief among the challenges cited were the need for adequate time, money and staff to implement PB processes.
Several interviewees indicated they’d underestimated the staffing needs posed by PB, and one official called the process “cumbersome.” Another interviewee said, “Elected officials are taking on a whole new function with the same resources, which is insane. It requires a huge expenditure of resources and time. We value PB to the extent that we’re allowing members to do it, but not to the extent that we are actually providing those members with the resources to do it effectively.”
While time and money are the biggest implementation challenges, nearly all officials agreed they are not reasons to discontinue PB. As one official said, “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.”
Most officials spoke with confidence on improving their local PB processes each year to deepen constituents’ involvement in and understanding of local government. One official said, “As we evolve on this process it becomes a more refined product which I’m sure over the years will become very, very effective.”
“Participatory budgeting holds great promise in making local democracy more responsive and inclusive of all people and communities,” said Friedman. “Though it requires resources in order to ultimately succeed, the stories we heard from local officials reinforce data collected from communities: participatory budgeting helps generate enthusiasm for civic engagement.”
About Public Agenda Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on higher education affordability, achievement gaps, community college completion, use of technology and innovation, and other higher education issues. Find Public Agenda online at PublicAgenda.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/PublicAgenda and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda.
About the Democracy Fund The Democracy Fund is a bipartisan foundation that invests in organizations working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Learn more by visiting www.democracyfund.org. Follow us on Twitter @DemocracyFund or find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DemocracyFundUS.
About the Rita Allen Foundation The Rita Allen Foundation invests in transformative ideas in their earliest stages to leverage their growth and promote breakthrough solutions to significant problems. It enables early-career biomedical scholars to do pioneering research, seeds innovative approaches to fostering informed civic engagement, and develops knowledge and networks to build the effectiveness of the philanthropic sector. Throughout its work, the Foundation embraces collaboration, creativity, learning and leadership. Find out more at www.ritaallenfoundation.org/.
About the Kettering Foundation The Kettering Foundation, established in 1927 by inventor Charles F. Kettering, is a nonprofit, operating foundation that does not make grants but engages in joint research with others. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation. More information may be found on www.kettering.org.