Participatory budgeting (PB) is a different way to manage public money, and to engage people in government. It is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It enables taxpayers to work with government to make the budget decisions that affect their lives.
PB gives ordinary people real power over real money.
The process was first developed in Brazil in 1989, and there are now over 1,500 participatory budgets around the world. Most of these are at the city level, for the municipal budget. PB has also been used, however, for counties, states, housing authorities, schools and school systems, universities, coalitions, and other public agencies.
Though each experience is different, most follow a similar basic process: residents brainstorm spending ideas, volunteer budget delegates develop proposals based on these ideas, residents vote on proposals, and the government implements the top projects. For example, if community members identify recreation spaces as a priority, their delegates might develop a proposal for basketball court renovations. The residents would then vote on this and other proposals, and if they approve the basketball court, the city pays to renovate it.
Click the question to see answers to these frequently asked questions. Note: Some of these questions and answers are adapted from an article that we published at Shareable.net:“How to Start Participatory Budgeting in Your City”.
A: Different people get excited about PB for different reasons, but these six angles attract the most interest:
- Deeper Democracy: Ordinary people have a real say—and they get to make real political decisions. As a result, PB tends to engage many people who are otherwise cynical about government. Politicians build closer relationships with their constituents, and community members develop greater trust in government.
- Transparency & Accountability: Budgets are policy without the rhetoric—what a government actually does. When community members decide spending through a public process, there are fewer opportunities for corruption, waste, or backlash.
- Public Education: Participants become more active and informed citizens. Community members, staff, and officials learn democracy by doing it. They gain a deeper understanding of complex political issues and community needs.
- More informed decisions: Budget decisions are better when they draw on residents’ local knowledge and oversight. Once they are invested in the process, people make sure that money is spent wisely.
- Fairer Spending: Everyone gets equal access to decision making, which levels the playing field. When people spend months discussing project ideas, they end up prioritizing projects that address the greatest community needs.
- Community Building: Through regular meetings and assemblies, people get to know their neighbors and feel more connected to their city. Local organizations spend less time lobbying and more time deciding policies. Budget assemblies connect community groups and help them recruit members.
A. At the most basic level, you need political will from above and community support from below. You need someone with control over budget money (an elected official, agency head, department director, etc.) to agree to let the public decide how to spend part of the budget. And you need community organizations, in particular those working with marginalized communities, to engage people and push the process forward.
A. Participatory Budgets are carried out in cities of all sizes, from less than 20,000 inhabitants (e.g. Icapuí and Mundo Novo in Brazil, or Grottomare, Italy) to mega-cities like Buenos Aires or São Paulo. They exist in rural municipalities (like Governador Valadares, Brazil) and totally urbanised ones (Belo Horizonte). They also occur in cities with scarce public resources like Villa El Salvador in Peru, and in European cities with higher levels of funds.
A. Voters elect politicians to improve their community, not just to make decisions. If elected officials share the responsibility of budgeting with residents, they can better address local needs and desires. PB helps officials do their job better, by putting them in closer touch with their constituents, and by injecting local knowledge and volunteer energy into the budget process.
A. PB does not require a new pot of money, just a change to how existing budget funds are decided. Some resources are necessary to carry out the PB process, but this investment saves money down the road, as participants discover new ways to make limited budget dollars go farther.
A. This is a valid concern for any kind of public participation, and PB is not immune. But if you reduce the barriers to participation for marginalized groups, invite them to both plan and lead the process, and do targeted outreach in underrepresented communities, you can prevent any one sector from taking control. For instance, low-income community members are more likely to participate if PB is done with money that especially matters to them – such as for housing, jobs, and schools. Regardless, when people are given real responsibility to make budget decisions, they tend to rise to the occasion, and think about the broader community. For additional information on designing an inclusive process, take a look at this article in the Journal of Public Deliberation.
A. In order to be implemented, PB usually does not require legal changes to budgetary authority. The Mayor, City Council, or other authority retain legal power to approve budget decisions – but they make a political commitment to honor the PB vote. Once the process is established and the initial kinks are ironed out, some governments have sought to revise their charters to make PB legally binding.
A. PB usually starts with “discretionary funds”—money that is not set aside for fixed or essential expenses, and that is instead allocated at the discretion of officials or staff. While this is typically a small part of the overall budget, it is a big part of the funds that are available and up for debate each year.
There are many sources of discretionary money. It could come from the capital budget (for physical infrastructure) or operating budget (for programs and services) of your city, county, or state. City councilors or other officials could set aside their individual discretionary funds, as in Chicago and New York. These officials may also have control over special allocations like Community Development Block Grants or Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money. Alternatively, housing authorities, schools, universities, community centers, and other public institutions could open up their budgets.
The funds could even come from non-governmental sources like foundations, community organizations, or grassroots fundraising, if this money is oriented towards public or community projects. Some PB processes mix funds from different sources, to build up a bigger budget pot.
A. Almost no pot of money is too small to start. PB has worked with a few thousand dollars and with many millions of dollars. Most processes involve 1-15% of the overall budget. PB usually starts as a pilot project with a small budget. If the process is successful, it can build political will to increase the pot of money.
How much money you need depends on what it will be used for. If students are allocating the money to school activities, a couple thousand dollars will go a long way. If residents are deciding on significant physical improvements for public parks, streets, and buildings, you’ll probably want at least a million dollars. These capital projects typically require more money than programs and services, since they are built to last multiple years.
Regardless, you’ll want funds that are renewable from year to year, so that PB isn’t just a one-year fling. And in the long run, the more money, the more you can do!
A. Creating a new experiment in democracy is not easy. It requires months of planning to design a sound process and build community buy-in. Successful PBs draw on the expertise and resources of dozens of organizations and agencies. Bringing all these people to the table is not easy—and getting them to agree on a plan is even harder!
Once the process gets going, it needs an extensive outreach and communications effort. Without the financial and human resources to conduct outreach, print materials, and run scores of public meetings, community participation will be limited. Usually, the elected official, city, or agency pays most of these expenses. Foundations and other funders can also help cover costs—especially at first, when the work is greatest.