Given the state of government budgeting these days, would cities be better off handing over the reins of the budget making process to teenagers?
Boston recently found out. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s office handed $1 million in city funds to a group of 12-to-25 year olds to budget as they see fit. These young people recently voted on projects designed by them, and the results are illustrative. There were hundreds of students at the vote launch kick-off party and many more who participated in a weeklong vote. The seven winning projects included everything from Chromebooks for high schools to security cameras and playground makeovers. The young people involved worked directly with city officials, articulated community need — taming those who were skeptical of the whole exercise.
There’s a lot to be cynical about. With public apathy toward government and civic institutions mounting, Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that young voters’ trust in government at a five-year low — direct citizen engagement in the budgetary process, known as participatory budgeting, could be the answer to this democratic malaise. Given the complexity of modern municipal budgeting, particularly in larger cities, the notion of citizens making budget decisions themselves seems ludicrous on face value. Yet as citizens are increasingly disenchanted with and disengaged from government on all levels, participatory budgeting may be a tool to recapture Americans’ sense of civic engagement and rekindle our belief that government can work. It’s been called “revolutionary civics in action.”
Boston is by no means the first city to experiment with this fusion of direct democracy and modern day budgeting. The seeds for this experiment were planted in Brazil, where after a 19-year military dictatorship, government institutions lacked trust and legitimacy, so politicians turned to citizens to make budget decisions. Given its success among scores of Brazilian municipalities, participatory budgeting has spread to hundreds of cities around the world — including a sizeable number of cities in North America. Starting in 2009 in one ward in Chicago in 2009 with one million dollars to budget, the process has expanded to become a more than $27 million a year experiment in America at last count.
Mayors in Chicago and New York have pledged to greatly expand participatory budgeting programs — moving them from the political fringe to the mainstream and handing over the responsibility for making real spending decisions to citizen budget makers in the process. The process has been able to transcend traditional party lines bringing, together Republicans and Democrats alike. It also reimagines what is possible for a 21st century elected officials. Engaging with constituents can be more than simply a twitter account. Some are even finding that participatory budgeting makes a useful re-election tool.
Critically, major cities are working to institutionalize these efforts and ensure they won’t be forgotten as some one-off civic engagement fad. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel created a citywide staff position to support ward-driven participatory budgeting efforts. While running for office, now Mayor de Blasio pledged to scale up participatory budgeting citywide. By this fall, over half of the members of the New York City Council, representing nearly four-and-a-half million residents, will earmark their own discretionary funds for participatory budgeting initiatives in their respective council districts. In New York, the number of people taking in part in the PB process doubled in the second year of the program’s existence in the city, with many participants coming from traditionally marginalized constituents.
Participatory budgeting advocates received a major boost when the White House recently threw its weight behind the initiative, arguing that the citizen budgeters should play a role in “identifying, discussing, and prioritizing certain local public spending projects, and for giving citizens a voice in how taxpayer dollars are spent in their communities.” More than just a rhetorical pat on the back, the White House pledged to support the use of participatory budgeting for existing federal community development grant funds. Foundations, government officials, and academics recently attended a White House meeting to discuss broader scale, impact, and outreach to promote participatory budgeting, which is on the cusp of becoming a major civic trend in the United States.
Participatory budgeting may not be a panacea to our democratic malaise. However, its very expansion and engagement suggests it is one effective tool. Importantly, elected officials — typically risk adverse, are engaging in an important democratic experiments. Elected officials are putting considerable resources to this process because they understand its profound civic rewards. Some of these include greater government transparency, accountability, and citizen trust. The process is enabling a new citizen narrative in a heated political climate. Citizens, like those who voted in Boston last month, are participating because it’s money real. They retain involvement because they enjoy meeting their neighbors, elected officials, and community in a more meaningful capacity.
America needs more genuine opportunities for citizens to flex their civic muscle. It is part of our patriotic DNA. A more participatory budget is only the beginning.
Hollie Russon Gilman is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Innovation and Governance and worked on participatory budgeting as a White House open government and innovation adviser.