In fall 2011, participatory budgeting debuted in four New York City districts represented by City Council Members Melissa Mark-Viverito, Jumaane Williams, Eric Ulrich and Brad Lander. In this democratic process, which is new to New York City, those who live, work or go to school in a district can suggest and develop proposals for how city funds should be spent in their community.
Trained discussion facilitators will help participants identify projects, and volunteers develop and present the proposals to the public. The public then votes for their top five choices; proposals with the most votes are funded first. For example, in Williams’ district in Brooklyn, winning proposals will fund a new community resource center, lighting for parks, security cameras and computer equipment for a school.
Why is participatory budgeting invaluable for neighborhoods in Harlem, Brooklyn and elsewhere? First, participatory budgeting invites input from all persons. This is important for those who have historically been prevented or discouraged from voting, such as those who are poor, minorities, non-English speaking immigrants or illiterate. Participatory budgeting also includes those excluded from traditional voting processes because of their age or commitments, such as schoolchildren and working parents.
Second, participatory budgeting allows people to reimagine the community from the bottom up. By incorporating the experiences and ideas of those who live and work in the community, participatory budgeting can increase awareness and accountability to more interests than just those with money or power.
When residents exhaust conventional avenues for improving their neighborhoods, participatory budgeting offers a way of getting needs heard and met. For example, during a participatory budgeting meeting held in October 2011, East Harlem residents complained that no one had responded to their repeated requests to repair deteriorating recreational areas and f.or better security in public housing complexes. By March 2012, winning proposals helped secure funds for playground improvements and security cameras that will improve the quality of life for many residents, young and old.
Moreover, even proposals that didn’t receive enough votes for discretionary funding, such as improvements to broken basketball courts in East Harlem, will get funds from other city departments. The City Council member can also decide to allocate more funds toward such proposals, as both Williams and Mark-Viverito have promised. This suggests how participatory budgeting can refocus attention upon overlooked issues and improve the responsiveness of governmental officials to residents’ interests.
Contrast this outcome with experiences elsewhere in New York City, such as West Harlem, which have not yet tried participatory budgeting. In West Harlem, residents of Grant Houses and the staff of Manhattan Community Board 9 have tried for over a year to get a community reading garden built near the George Bruce Library. Despite a previous agreement with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and support from Columbia University, NYCHA officials have not yet met with community board representatives or allowed residents and volunteers to start the garden. Participatory budgeting could ensure that projects that residents deem important receive proper attention.
Third, participatory budgeting deepens democratic participation among residents beyond attending a hearing or stating a complaint to an elected official. By including more voices in decision-making processes, participatory budgeting more deeply fulfills democratic ideals. Exercising one’s voice is particularly important for individuals, including African-Americans and women, who have had less say in decisions about public policies. In addition, since participatory budgeting taps a wider range of experiences and perspectives, more creative solutions to common issues, such as housing, jobs and education, can arise. Such input can ensure a more equitable and just society.
Other countries from Belgium to Brazil regularly practice participatory budgeting. With the help of academic experts, the Participatory Budgeting Project, an organization devoted to educating people about this democratic practice, and the Harlem-based organization Community Voices Heard, New York City is the second city in the United States to try participatory budgeting.
After watching New York City’s experiment, elected officials in cities such as Vallejo, Calif., have committed to participatory budgeting while representatives of other cities, including Detroit and New Orleans, are investigating such possibilities. For such cities, participatory budgeting can reinvigorate communities buffeted by economically strapped times.
By including more voices in decision-making, participatory budgeting promises to create a good society for all, rather than just a few.
To learn more, visit www.participatorybudgeting.org or pbnyc.org.
Katherine K. Chen, PhD, is an assistant professor with the department of sociology at City College of New York and the Graduate Center of City University of New York.