A community resource center  to help residents find jobs and to give kids a place to hang out. Lighting in public parks to discourage gang activity. Security cameras. Computers and a smartboard for PS 269’s after-school program. These projects, chosen by residents but not yet implemented, have already come a long way since they were first proposed last fall, thanks to months of hands-on research and labor-intensive collaboration by residents of New York City’s 45th district, in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Residents transformed 278 rough ideas for community improvement into thirteen formal project proposals, and at the end of March, they voted for up to five projects they wanted to see funded. Three other New York City districts separately followed the same process.
Last spring, New York City Council members Melissa Mark-Viverito (District 8, Manhattan/Bronx), Brad Lander (District 39, Brooklyn), Jumaane Williams (District 45, Brooklyn) and Eric Ulrich (District 32, Queens), opted into an experiment after the Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit that works with officials and communities throughout North America, presented the idea to members of the City Council. The idea was to empower residents of their districts to decide how to spend approximately $6 million in capital discretionary funds—a little over $1 million per district—on long-lasting physical improvements to local public infrastructure. Final proposals ranged from the straightforward (lights in three parks and two playgrounds in Flatbush ) to the more complex (an off-grid solar-powered greenhouse in the Bronx). At the end of March, residents voted on their districts’ proposed projects. Within each district, the projects with the most votes whose combined costs total approximately $1 million will be brought by their respective council member to the City Council for approval this summer.
While City Council members in New York have called this an “experiment,” participatory budgeting is a well-established process that has been adopted over the past two decades by about 3,000 cities around the world. It originated in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and has been hailed for its inclusiveness and its ability to foster a deeper relationship between government and governed. Yet participatory budgeting has been used almost nowhere in the United States, where, other than New York City, only the 49th ward of Chicago has implemented the idea. In the United States, “we’re not used to looking outside the country for ideas about democracy,” explains Josh Lerner, executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project , which, in addition to providing the impetus for New York City’s pilot program, offered technical assistance throughout.
In New York City, even a proposal that wins the majority of residents’ votes is not a guarantee that residents’ ideas will come to fruition. The City Council speaker decides on final district allocations and council members are not legally required to implement final projects, says Celina Su, a Brooklyn College associate professor involved in overseeing the New York City project. She does not expect New York council members to renege on their word after the City Council speaker decides on district allocations this summer, but technically, they are not bound to fulfill these promises. Porto Alegre, in fact, has encountered problems along these very lines.
This issue and several others highlight the double-edged nature of participatory budgeting. Indeed, within the academic microcosm of participatory budgeting, experts are as wary of its risks and limitations as they are optimistic about its potential, frequently disagreeing on the extent to which participatory models can and should be used.
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In New York City, the first stage of the participatory budgeting process began for the general public last October, when residents interested in the council’s experiment gathered in neighborhood assemblies to voice their opinions on what their communities most needed. At these meetings, people could also volunteer to be budget delegates—the lucky folks tasked with devoting evenings and weekends over the next several months to researching hundreds of ideas, combining and revising overlapping ones, vetting them with city agencies, and producing final proposals. From November to early March, undeterred by the daunting amount of work, those who volunteered to be delegates met officially every other week and sometimes more often in smaller committees. In Flatbush in particular, Lerner says, residents fully embraced and took charge of the process.
“I relished the opportunity…to actually get to decide how money is spent,” says Hazel Martinez, a budget delegate on the public safety committee in District 45. Many people blame elected officials when things aren’t getting done, points out Brenda Bentt-Peters, also a Flatbush budget delegate. But participatory budgeting teaches those involved about costs, requirements and red tape—any factor that can prevent a project from launching. In the end, the ultimate reward is not the money itself, Bentt-Peters emphasizes. It’s about understanding the budgeting process and “anything that gives the community a voice.”
The main logistical drawback of participatory budgeting—the amount of work and therefore the amount of time residents must devote—is precisely what is required for its success.
“It’s a serious commitment in terms of time,” Martinez admits. She recalls meeting with her fellow delegates on a Saturday night, or traveling all over Flatbush to assess lighting in public parks. Aileen Harry, who sat on the transportation committee, agrees that being a delegate had taken a lot of her time, but says that the hours have been well worth it.
For some, however, the time investment was an unconquerable barrier. Gracie Xavier, a Flatbush resident, reflects that she was “not as involved” as she should have been. But she also says that meetings conflicted with her work schedule.
The amount of time required is “the biggest concern,” says Lerner. “Democracy always takes more time than top-down government.” Since participatory budgeting draws on collective knowledge to address a district’s priorities—indeed, a community knows its own roads, schools, sidewalks and parks far better than any single person can—individuals share that knowledge in order for it to be put to use. And sharing takes time.
“Up until now, it’s been me having to decide” which projects to fund, says Council Member Jumaane Williams. “I might think it’s X, but these guys might say it’s Y.”
Even though both parties stand to benefit, participatory budgeting still walks a fine line, says Su. On one side, the government risks exploiting residents, or at least appearing to, for the time and labor they put into the process. On the other, civil society is strengthened and has a greater say in how public money is spent. In New York City, this conflict is subtle but present.
Gianpaolo Baiocchi, an associate professor at Brown University who has studied participatory budgeting and has been involved in the processes in both Chicago and New York City, cautions against the simplistic assumption that if participation is incorporated into an existing process, it automatically improves. In Porto Alegre, after the city’s administration changed hands in 2005 , the city began “to pursue pretty explicit policies of privileging the city’s elites” and investing in projects outside of the participatory process, which technically still functioned. Meanwhile, over a thousand projects chosen through the participatory process remain on a long to-do list. A former participatory budgeting councilwoman from Porto Alegre who resigned in 2006 has deemed the process “co-opted, clientalistic, and in exchange for favors.” Su calls this situation “PB light,” in which the government uses participatory budgeting as lip service.
The ways participatory budgeting can go wrong, however, are no justification for abandoning the process, Su adds. Many Americans are disenchanted with and apathetic about voting, but participatory budgeting can lead to a restructuring of how people engage with government and shift government’s relationship with constituents from a quantitative framework based on poll ratings to a qualitative one relying on engagement and discussion.
To encourage such a shift, Su suggests that in future years New York City’s participatory budgeting incorporate more than just low-stakes capital discretionary funds. Baiocchi shares this perspective. “The challenge is to use the discretionary funds as a stepping stone towards other kinds of decision-making,” he wrote. “Imagine how transformative it would be to actually control the way the city works and runs!”
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New York City, a rookie in the game of participatory budgeting, has kinks in its process that need to be addressed in future years, delegates admitted. For example, some budget delegates who attended one meeting would miss the next, further complicating the process of revising and researching projects, Bentt-Peters says. “But it’s the first year and we’re still trying to get our feet wet.”
Nevertheless, the entire process proved inclusive, especially remarkable in an age in which voting rights are ever more severely eroded. In Flatbush, Tilden High School students too young to vote could still be involved, developing proposals for field lights and a performing arts studio that ultimately made it onto the final ballot. US citizenship is not required to vote on the proposals, only district residency; no questions are asked regarding immigration status. Every effort is made to assist residents as they vote.
When two older Flatbush residents could not read the project ballot because they forgot their reading glasses, a volunteer stepped in. She patiently read questions aloud and marked the voters’ answers on not only the project ballot but a subsequent survey as well.
“What worked in the past may not be working as well now,” Su says, explaining that American democracy is “a lonely process.” With four New York City districts trying to address those issues, albeit using an imperfect system, the process is already looking a little less lonely.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Kmf164