The State of PB During COVID-19

close up photos of peoples hands at a table with participatory budgeting materials

Photo Credit: Alison Boulier

Last week, we had the opportunity to connect virtually with partners, participatory practitioners, and communities leading PB across Canada and the U.S. To date, we have heard from nearly 40 PB practitioners and one thing remains clear:
PB matters in this challenging moment. 

We discussed the impact COVID-19 has had on PB processes across North America, how community partners are quickly responding, and what emerging opportunities lie ahead to build community resilience through PB. 

When we asked how, if at all, PB was relevant during this crisis this is what you said:

PB is more important than ever. In pandemics, it’s common to see governments lean authoritarian, all while trillions of dollars will be distributed in relief efforts. This is the exact moment when we need to strengthen democracy, to ensure the funding is allocated equitably and democratically, and to guarantee local communities — especially our most marginalized and vulnerable populations — have a say in these decisions that will greatly affect them. On a personal level, while we’re all isolated and feeling helpless, people need a way to feel connection and a sense of control. Participatory budgeting offers both. 

Yet, it’s also clear that our PB processes are being greatly affected by the pandemic. Almost every process has had to pause, consider if there’s a way to move forward while maintaining our equity values, and reconfigure accordingly. Thankfully, some locations have been able to pivot quickly, or have flexibility in their timeline to spend longer on planning. In a process at the scale of New York City’s Council PBNYC, however, which was also only weeks away from voting, this calculus has been extremely challenging. 

We discussed some of the ways we can shift our plans and strategies in response to COVID-19. Participatory budgeting is already at the forefront of digital and alternative engagement practices, and we can continue to build on this movement. But crucially: the solutions we use must be intentional so we don’t inadvertently leave anyone or any community out. 

Here is what we learned:

  • Design with the digital divide at the forefront. How will you reach folks without computers or internet access at home? Consider phone, text, video conference, or mail-in options for participation at all phases. You can still post flyers in locations where we know we’ll be able to reach folks, even now, like super markets, public housing, and transit hubs.
  • Diversify our social media and email lists. Partner with local grassroots organizations and youth-serving organizations for outreach. Consider what groups and networks you are already connected to, that can help amplify your digital reach.
  • Don’t forget accessibility. It’s important to ensure our digital tools and platforms are accessible to people with disabilities, just as we would make in-person events accessible. Using universal design principles will make participation easier for everyone, regardless of ability. And please: User test. User test. User test.
  • Set hypotheses, evaluate, and iterate. PB is a continuously iterative process; we constantly work to improve from phase to phase, and cycle to cycle. Especially with big modifications to our process, such as a shift to more digital and remote engagement, it’s critical that we assess our impact, measure our reach, and identify ways to continue strengthening our processes down the road.

As we navigate this new reality together, PBP commits to sharing information and convening processes to learn from each other. We want to hear from you. How else can we center our work in equity while responding to the challenges posed by the pandemic? Tweet at us @PBProject to join the conversation - and make sure you’re on our mailing list (sign up here) to stay up to date.

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