When Citizens Decide How Public Money Is Spent

A few American communities are experimenting with participatory budgeting at the neighborhood level. Their experiences can help guide others interested in giving the idea a try.
September 15, 2014
By John M. Kamensky  |  Contributor
John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow with the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

Inspired by successful efforts in Brazil and other countries, several American communities have undertaken pilot efforts to allow citizens to directly decide how public funds are spent in their neighborhoods. However, one of the biggest concerns raised by critics of this approach is that not enough citizens actually participate to make the efforts meaningful and legitimate.

How to address this concern? Expanding the use of social media in the participatory budgeting process holds promise, according to a new report for the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

The report's author, Dr. Victoria Gordon of Western Kentucky University, interviewed organizers of and participants in participatory-budgeting initiatives in Boston, Chicago and St. Louis, as well as leaders of nonprofit advocacy groups such as the Participatory Budgeting Project. She offers some insights and actions that community leaders might take if they want to bring participatory budgeting to their own communities.

Originally developed more than two decades ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil, this approach to community-building has been replicated in more than a thousand cities across the globe and about two dozen in the United States. Gordon says participatory budgeting increases spending transparency, creates a more educated citizenry with a greater sense of community, and instills a sense of social justice. And according to Mary Bunting, city manager of Hampton, Va., it also leads to better outcomes for the community.

A lot of the residents of Chicago's 49th Ward would be likely to agree with Bunting. The ward, with a highly diverse population of about 57,000, is believed to be the first political jurisdiction in the U.S. to adopt participatory budgeting. Alderman Joe Moore, who allows residents' votes to decide how to spend his entire discretionary capital-improvements budget of $1.3 million, says he decided to experiment with participatory budgeting five years ago because "we need a new governance model, one that empowers people to make real decisions about policy and spending decisions."

Each October, Moore convenes neighborhood assemblies to collect ideas for possible projects. Once viable ones are defined, community representatives from each neighborhood serve on a steering committee to narrow down the ideas to a final list that is voted on by a ward-wide assembly of citizens in April or May.

Governing's Tod Newcombe examined the Chicago initiative a couple of years ago: "Not surprisingly," he wrote, residents first used the capital funds "to repair the sidewalks, and then they used what was left over to install new streetlights, community gardens and some public murals."

The springtime voting attracts an ever-increasing number of citizens, from 913 in 2011 to 1,763 this year. Social media has helped increase participation, but to date its use has been "limited and sporadic," according to Gordon, who writes that "there is a great need and great potential" to expand and encourage participation through social media.

Gordon has some recommendations for community leaders who want to promote effective participatory budgeting:

First, she writes, they should establish policies and infrastructure for communications, building on "existing and active social media platforms that citizens in the community are currently using" as a way to increase citizen participation. She emphasizes, however, that social media should not be the primary emphasis but rather should complement other forms of communication.

And she recommends that communities learn from each other. "Communities should identify best practices, share and exchange information with other communities, and support further research efforts," Gordon writes, adding that this should include exploring the potential for electronic voting as well as soliciting feedback on ways to improve the process.

Public officials who want to move ahead with participatory budgeting will find allies at the highest levels of government. "Participatory budgeting allows citizens to play a key role in identifying, discussing, and prioritizing public spending projects, and gives them a voice in how taxpayer dollars are spent," says the Obama administration's national action plan for open government.

The White House not only sponsored a forum this summer to bring pioneering communities and advocacy groups together, but it sees participatory budgeting as one way "to solve the problems of our time ... by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives."