The evaluation report of the PB process in Long Beach California for the 2014-15 cycle has just been published. The report finds that, despite a long history of community fragmentation, Long Beach has benefited a great deal from participatory budgeting: it has helped to forge new relationships across the city, and has successfully incorporated people of color and low income residents into the democratic process.
We caught up with the authors of the report, Gary Hytrek and his research assistant Andres Temblador, to talk about the inspirations and challenges of doing research on participatory budgeting.
PBP: How did you both come to be involved in PB evaluation? And can you tell us a little bit about PB in Long Beach?
Gary: I first learned about PB in Costa Rica, circa 2000, where I was collaborating with faculty from the National University on entrepreneurial literacy projects. I learned about the US Participatory Budgeting Project when I participated in the PB conference in Chicago in 2013.
I teach at California State University, Long Beach, and around 2005 my research began to shift to questions of social justice and participatory democracy in the US, with a focus on the southern California region. As a community–based participatory researcher the idea of PB fit neatly into both my academic and my community work. [pullquote] PB contributes to the fundamental process of community building among diverse communities… -Gary [/pullquote]
One of the aspects I discovered in my research on Long Beach was its long history of community fragmentation that has inhibited community collaboration and has muted the voice of community residents in public decision-making. This really began to change in the mid-2000s as community activists began to organize and push for policies to improve jobs, schools, and their communities.
In 2013, the Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs and a Healthy Community initiated a series of meetings and workshops to build support for PB. In spring 2014, the first Long Beach PB process was launched in the 7th City Council District. This was a pilot process in which district residents deliberated and prepared proposals for the ballot in one evening. The first fully developed PB process in Long Beach was initiated in the 9th Council District. In late spring 2015 two additional pilot processes were launched in Council District 1 and 3; the PB process in District 3 was a youth program.
[pullquote]Long Beach youth worked together to create project proposals and built a culture of civic engagement that is not expected of young people. -Andres [/pullquote]
Andres: My activist work in Long Beach inspired me to do research on PB for my MA thesis. I saw that Long Beach has the same story as many cities: many people are experiencing very similar inequalities, yet have no ability to come together. When I heard PB was coming to Long Beach, I saw this as an opportunity to see how democratic processes can help create capacity in the community and build trust not just among neighbors but in our democratic systems as well.
PBP: What do you think is the most interesting finding in your evaluation of PB in Long Beach, and what was the most important finding?
Andres: I think the most interesting findings were related to youth participation. The voting age is eighteen, but when PB allowed young people ages fourteen and above to vote, it gave them a voice and an opportunity to act in their communities. Many of the projects they proposed reflected the needs of the community as a whole. Long Beach youth worked together to create project proposals and built a culture of civic engagement that is not expected of young people.
PBP: What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in researching PB, and how have you tried to overcome them?
Gary: The biggest challenges with researching PB is data collection, which is exacerbated by the amount of data requested from participants. I believe there is a certain level of evaluation exhaustion. We use the PB process to deepen existing relationships and build new ones; relationships are central to getting commitment from those we wish to survey or interview. Residents that we have relationships with are the most willing to participate in the data collection process.
PBP: What has been the most rewarding part of researching PB?
Andres: The most rewarding part has been the ability to conduct an evaluation on a process that has real life applications. I have researched other abstract concepts and ideas that, often, we cannot apply to real life. But PB exists in the real world. It is a process with a life of its own that can produce real change for citizens. It was also very rewarding to meet all the people involved in the PB process. There are some spectacular people working on PB at all levels and I learnt a great deal from them.
PBP: How does PB connect with your other areas of research and community work?
Gary: PB has become a critical link among my teaching, research and service activities. PB serves as an experiential learning opportunity for my undergraduate students and as projects for graduate students. Overall, PB contributes to the fundamental process of community building among diverse communities (like Long Beach) that is critical to more equitable, participatory and healthier communities.