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Participatory Budgeting’s Promise for Democracy

More and more communities are trying it, bringing millions of people into decisions on local spending.

For local-government officials everywhere, deeper, more meaningful constituent engagement is a major goal -- and a major challenge. Among the many processes, platforms and technology that officials are experimenting with to reach this goal, one in particular has quickly expanded in popularity: participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting, or PB, enables residents to directly decide how to spend some of the capital funds in their communities. In the United States and Canada, PB has grown from two processes in two cities to 63 processes in 22 cities. Last year alone, more than 70,000 people voted in a PB process, deciding how to spend nearly $50 million.

PB clearly holds great promise. In Brazil, where PB started in the late 1980s, research has shown it has contributed significantly to broader public participation, particularly among the disenfranchised. Over time, in Brazil and other parts of the world, PB has also been associated with improvements in public health, reduced corruption, greater trust in government, higher tax compliance and stronger economic growth.

Could we see similar outcomes in the United States? That determination will require patience, time, research and resources; after all, it took 10 years of PB to have meaningful impacts in Brazil. In partnership with local evaluators and practitioners, Public Agenda has undertaken the first-ever comprehensive analysis of PB in the United States and Canada, analyzing data from 46 jurisdictions that used PB in 2014 and 2015.

Our report describes the growth of this engagement phenomenon and, drawing on lessons learned from jurisdictions that have implemented it, provides guidance to local officials looking to make the most of PB in their communities. The report also describes encouraging findings related to PB's success in boosting engagement among traditionally disenfranchised communities.

According to the results of voter surveys, for example, black residents, low-income residents and women voted via PB processes at levels that either matched or exceeded their representation in local census data in most communities. At the same time, however, there was a wide variation in how successful communities were at bringing out such voters.

While on average 21 percent of PB voters were black, for example, that ranged from under 1 percent in one community to 95 percent in another. Looking at the data in another way, in 46 percent of communities black residents were over-represented among PB voters while they were under-represented in 11 percent of communities. You can look at similar data for income, education, gender and age.

Certain actions communities took when implementing PB were associated with greater participation among disenfranchised communities. Particularly important were collaboration with community-based organizations and person-to-person outreach.

Local governments typically reported collaborating with four community-based organizations to facilitate outreach in PB. The more such partnerships local government reported, the larger the proportion of residents from disenfranchised committees participated among PB voters.

And communities in which PB organizers reported engaging directly with residents on the street, in coffee shops, laundromats, fast-food restaurants, at schools -- pretty much wherever people typically congregate -- saw higher rates of participation from low-income voters and voters of color.

But while most communities brought out large numbers of black, low-income and women residents, the same was not true of Latino residents, who were under-represented among PB voters in 68 percent of communities. One likely reason is that Spanish-language ballots and/or voter surveys (and other outreach materials) may be missing from many voting sites.

What we've learned about PB so far makes clear that, to improve our knowledge of these and other impacts on our communities, local stakeholders must make data collection and evaluation an integral part of the process. This is true regardless of whether they are doing PB for the first time or the sixth time.

Resources exist to help communities set goals and collect key data points about their PB implementation, about their participants and about the projects that make it onto the ballot and that eventually receive PB funding. These resources include voter survey templates (also translated into other languages), definitions of key metrics and an evaluation timeline.

Public Agenda is also helping PB communities across the U.S. and Canada to coordinate some of their evaluation and research efforts and to collectively continue to tell a national and binational story of PB and its impact. We have much to learn, but what we already know is that this approach to decision-making holds great promise for our democracy and for the civic health of our communities.

This column has been updated to clarify that the growth of participatory budgeting to 63 processes in 22 cities occurred in both the United States and Canada and to correct the number of people who voted in the PB process last year.

Leads Public Agenda's public and stakeholder opinion research
Leads Public Agenda’s work in public engagement and democratic governance
Director of communications for Public Agenda
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