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What if You Ran Your City’s Budget?
Participatory budgeting is a system where citizens can decide on city spending. Can it help address major challenges and build trust in democracy?
Earlier this summer, a non-profit based in San Francisco, City Youth Now, started raising money to fund a new program. City Youth Now supports underprivileged young adults across the city, and they were looking to bring in enough money to start a food security program, providing help with food vouchers and cooking classes. But instead of asking for a donation, they took a new approach: they asked for votes.
City Youth Now put their idea into a “participatory budgeting” process that was led by their local district, District 7, which promised to fund their program if they got enough votes from locals to support it. The organization is headquartered in District 7, home to the iconic Sutro Tower by Twin Peaks. The district covers an area south of Golden Gate Park and has over 70,000 residents, making it one of the largest parts of the city. The idea for participatory budgeting — which was initially put in place in 2013 by then supervisor Norman Yee, and renewed this year by the current district supervisor Myrna Melgar — is to put the power of city spending into the hands of the people that actually live there. Melgar’s office asked locals to submit ideas for projects they want to bring to life, and vote on which projects would receive funding, for up to $50,000 per project. The city promised to fund projects that receive over 400 votes and fit in one of their “priority areas”, such as community resilience, public safety, and disaster preparedness. It’s like the Kickstarter model, but instead of pledging support for a new indie movie or magazine, you’re voting on how your city should spend its money.
In San Francisco, after a period of project submission, review, and voting, seventeen projects won support. The winning projects, while not particularly glamorous on their own, together help paint a picture of local priorities and concerns. Some are focused on the environment, with residents voting to remove storm damage and hazardous trees from a park, and also start new tree planting initiatives. Others are focused on creating more vibrant, pleasant neighborhoods: locals voted to paint four new murals across the area, and design a new waiting area by a local train station. Others are more practical, such as installing surveillance cameras and traffic calming measures to help improve public safety. City Youth Now rallied support from the public for their food security program, and earned enough votes to get funding.
Participatory budgeting is an experiment in direct democracy, suggesting that it’s not enough for us just to vote politicians into office, but that we should also go a step further and vote on how they should spend, too. For anyone who thinks that they could manage government spending better than their elected officials — in other words, most people — participatory budgeting gives you a chance to prove it.
While the past few decades have seen tons of innovation in technology in how we live, work, and play, there has been less innovation by way of democracy. That’s what makes a concept like participatory budgeting interesting: while it’s recently gaining popularity in San Francisco and other cities, it originated in 1989 in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, put into place by a left-leaning government called the Worker’s Party aiming to reduce poverty. Its success there inspired other policymakers and citizens across the world — especially at the city and municipal level — quietly becoming an effective tool for a more direct, inclusive form of democracy. There are now at least 11,000 participatory budgeting projects worldwide, according to the Participatory Budgeting World Atlas. About two thirds of projects are either in Europe or South America, with only 1-2% of projects based in North America.
Paris, for example, now has 5% of its public budget decided on by citizens. Parisians recently voted to spend over €3 million to “green” ten schools across the city and help them adapt to climate challenges, such as by installing green roofs to help naturally cool the buildings on hot days. They also voted to build new libraries, gymnasiums, bike lanes, and because this is Paris after all, renovate a beloved café.
Cascais, Portugal, a coastal city about an hour from Lisbon, has become the global standard for participatory budgeting. Over 15% of their annual budget is spent through their participatory program and they complete projects quickly, helping earn public trust in the process. This year, for the first time, the city of Boston is allocating at least $2 million to citizens for participatory budgeting, and New York has its own program called PBNYC, with over $30 million available for taxpayers to spend every year.
There’s a huge variety of projects that people decide to spend their tax dollars on. When you look through a list of winning ideas — which you can do for San Francisco and Paris, for example — it’s clear that climate change is an increasingly popular focus area, with people across the world feeling the effects of a changing climate and wanting their city to do more to address it. “With the increased urgency to transition to a carbon-neutral economy,” a recent OECD paper said, “many participatory budgeting exercises have increasingly begun to focus on funding green projects, with climate change adaptation or mitigation benefits.”
While participatory budgeting makes up a tiny fraction of overall government-run spending, the numbers are still meaningful and continue to trend upwards. “Participatory budgeting has been growing in quality and potential for a long time,” Giovanni Allegretti, a senior researcher focused on participatory budgeting at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, told me. Its secret, according to Allegretti, “is in its capacity to produce rapid and visible effects in fields where normally the deliberation runs slow and concrete impacts aren’t so clearly recognizable.”
An idea like participatory budgeting gives us an opportunity to reimagine what’s possible in how we’re governed, and how we govern ourselves. In the U.S., public trust in government is at an all time low. By involving citizens more directly in the political process, we can help address a crisis of faith not just in democracy, but also in our collective ability to respond to major challenges. When you consider how hyperlocal and community-oriented the participatory budgeting system is, it becomes clear why it’s starting to gain popularity: it suggests that no politician or planner is more in tune with a city’s challenges and opportunities than the people that actually live there. “It just would not make any sense to presume that the mayor would know everything,” the mayor of Cascais, Carlos Carreiras, told the New Yorker.
Think about the neighborhood you live in. You know it intimately, down to the block. You know your city’s strengths and where it falls short. Locals can, for example, point to areas that suffer from extreme heat because there’s a lack of tree cover. They know what areas have a lack of social infrastructure, like recreational spaces and playgrounds. In a time when many gridlocked federal governments struggle to move quickly, the promise of participatory budgeting is that it can enable everyday people to take a more efficient, hands-on approach to shaping their neighborhoods and cities for the better.
There are, though, a number of limitations with how participatory budgeting is currently done. Most programs are given a small sliver of a city’s overall budget, making it difficult to make any kind of structural change to what a city spends on every year. There’s low awareness that these types of programs even exist, leading to lower turnout than typical elections and less true representation from the entire community. According to Allegretti, “the reduced ambitions of many political institutions, the weakness of the civic spirit, and implementation mistakes” often affect whether participatory budgeting can catch on.
There’s also the issue of branding. So far, participatory budgeting has been seen as a left wing idea that has only found success in progressive cities. But it’s a concept that should resonate across the political spectrum: everyone, left or right, should want the chance to more directly say how their tax dollars should be spent.
More difficult, structural issues exist as well. According to Allegretti, the main limitations are that participatory budgeting “deals mainly with spending, not with revenues, it usually produces scattered priorities without a long-term vision, and it tends to promote a sort of competitive approach” among those involved. “Their processes look like a beauty contest,” Gilles Pradeau, a researcher who studies participatory budgeting, told the New Yorker. Put another way: even if you remove the politicians from the process, you still can’t remove the politics.
In Allegretti’s view, some of these issues can be fixed if we evolve the system and apply it in new, even more ambitious ways. “If we want to continue to see participatory budgeting as an innovation, we must continuously renew it,” Allegretti told me. “This includes expanding its scope and using it as a tool to rethink social justice from a global perspective.” He shared an example from a panel of cities at the World Urban Forum held in 2020, which proposed having developed western cities contribute to fund participatory budgeting projects in cities across the developing world. “It’s a matter of starting,” he said, “and finding the first ice-breakers.”
Solutions to climate change and some of our other biggest challenges will require solutions from both sides: the top-down work of government, and the bottom-up work of everyday people. Participatory budgeting, like democracy, is imperfect and by no means a silver bullet. But it’s a great reminder that the power to shape our communities shouldn’t only be in the hands of elected leaders, but also in the collective wisdom and action of citizens.
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