Participatory Budgeting: A Powerful Civic Education Tool

In expanding its program that lets residents vote on public spending, New York City is enlivening democracy and engaging the electorate.
June 18, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
Participatory budgeting in New York City.
Residents reviewing ideas in New York City's participatory budgeting process. (FlickrCC/Daniel Latorre)
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

In April, the New York City Council completed its eighth annual cycle of participatory budgeting, a process through which city residents vote directly on how they would like to see a designated portion of the city's discretionary spending divvied out to community projects. The council's participatory budgeting program, known as PBNYC, and its nonprofit partner, the Participatory Budgeting Project, won the Harvard Kennedy School's innovation award for public engagement in 2015, and the program has since expanded in a number of ways.

In the year leading up to Harvard's award, PBNYC engaged more than 51,000 voters to distribute approximately $32 million in tax dollars across a range of projects. Council members hosted 550 voting sites in libraries, outdoor marketplaces and schools. PBNYC also translated the ballot into 16 languages. As a result, previously underrepresented groups participated in substantial numbers: 57 percent of those who voted identified as people of color, and approximately half of those who voted earned less than $50,000 a year.

But the success of the program cannot be measured in dollars or voter headcounts alone. Participatory budgeting, and programs like it around the country and the globe, have the capacity to enliven democracy and engender more-engaged electorates. In this sense, participatory budgeting is not just a mechanism for rationing out dollars but also for educating and empowering voters.

The universe of participants in New York's participatory voting process is a broad one, including even high-school students. Since 2015, the city has committed to introduce participatory budgeting into each of the city's 400 high schools, providing each student body with at least $2,000 to spend on their most valued projects, from school clubs to new water fountains. The impetus behind the program, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio, was "to prove to our young people that they've got the power to change the world around them. When people feel empowered they participate. When they can see the impact they're making. they come back for more."

The importance of this kind of engagement is difficult to overstate. For most students, the participatory budgeting process marks the first time they have an opportunity to vote outside of student elections. By enabling students to nominate projects, form a ballot sheet and vote on how their discretionary budget is spent, participatory voting transforms the budgeting process from an intimidating task best left to other people into something that they may take part in.

Last year, the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams piloted a larger version of the school participatory budgeting process. Students at two campuses voted on the allocation of more than $1 million. Through the process, students came up with a list of proposals that the student councils, with support from PBP, narrowed down before the full student body voted on the final set. Winning projects included initiatives such as campus-wide movie viewings and safety councils, as well as capital projects such as bathroom renovations, new drinking fountains and a new basketball court.

Three years after winning the Harvard award, the City Council expanded the funding allocated through participatory budgeting to $39 million, and by that time voter turnout had more than doubled, to approximately 118,000 participants. The program was launched in 2011 in four council districts, expanding over the years to more and more of the city's 51 districts. Next year, it will for the first time become citywide, after voters approved a ballot measure writing that expansion into the city charter.

Josh Lerner, co-executive director of PBP, made it clear that participatory budgeting is about much more than money. "What citizens are doing," he said, "is learning about the kinds of decisions that government has to make. By engaging in participatory budgeting, citizens become better educated voters, empowered with first-hand experience about the challenges that come with distributing funding."

At its heart, participatory budgeting is an exchange of knowledge and values: The governed learn about what it is to govern, and those in office may see firsthand the kinds of choices their constituencies would make when given the authority. It is early training for tomorrow's leaders and a great example of the kinds of things our democracy can do when we dare to innovate.

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