Among its more than $3 billion in expenses this year, the city of Boston will spend $250,000 on a roving resource truck to help youth find jobs, $100,000 on a digital billboard conveying information to homeless youth, and another $260,000 on a mobile retail space for young entrepreneurs.
Those projects, announced last Thursday by Mayor Martin Walsh, are happening not because Walsh, or Boston City Council, or any other elected official thought they were a priority (though they may have). They are the result of voting by nearly 4,500 Bostonians between the ages of 12 and 25 who, for the fourth year in a row, got to decide how nearly $1 million of the city’s budget should be spent, a process called participatory budgeting.
That’s thanks to Walsh, who in 2013 decided to bring participatory budgeting to Boston as a way to engage young people with city services. Over the course of several months, the city and youth groups solicited ideas from Boston teens, then worked with them to narrow the list to 10 projects with five and six-figure budgets. They then invited young people to cast a vote during two weeks in June, at schools, parks, malls, libraries—wherever youth could be found. The result was five projects totalling $950,000 which the city will fund immediately—without City Council hearings, or other political wrangling.
“The Mayor is really into youth involvement in everything,” says Sandy Holden, public information manager for Boston Centers for Youth and Families. “A major piece that young people weren’t involved in was the budget. Departments come up with what they’d like to do, it’s all worked out, the City Council votes on it, and that’s that. This was a way to get young people involved in how city money is spent.”
Boston is among 22 cities around the country that have given over a portion of their budgets to residents to decide how to spend the funds. That money can come from city council people, like in New York or Chicago; from mayors like in Boston or Paris, where Ann Hidalgo has promised over €400 million over five years to Parisians; or even from state or federal officials, as in Ontario, Canada, and Scotland. The processes may vary slightly, but they all have one thing in common: The people get to make the final decision on how the money is spent in their communities.
“With participatory budgeting, the community decides how to solve their own problems,” says David Beasley, spokesman for the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), an advocacy and consulting group that works with cities to implement the process. “They can get at the root causes that others don’t see.”
Participatory budgeting first emerged in 1989, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where some 50,000 people have since decided how to spend as much as 20 percent of that city’s budget. The idea spread throughout Latin America, Europe and Canada, before Chicago alderman Joe Moore decided to try it in his ward in 2009. Since then, the idea has picked up steam across the United States, most prominently in New York City, where more than 100,000 New Yorkers spent $40 million in 31 Council districts last year. PBP estimates there have been 275 participatory budget processes in the U.S. and Canada since 2001, including 46 in cities.
Mayor Kenney could direct $1 million to residents, which would be a mere fraction of the city’s $4.38 billion budget. Or what if the Mayor handed the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia over to constituents to spend? It would be a truly progressive and inclusive nod to democracy when we most need it.
The ideas and solutions are as varied as the communities, which each create their own parameters around who can vote, and how. But they are designed to be inclusive: Citizenship is not a necessity; nor is registration. The minimum voting age is usually 14 or 16; in New York, voters can be as young as 12, but anyone can suggest a project. In Red Hook, for example, a 7-year-old girl has proposed ideas that won twice. “She has a perspective that solves problems differently than even her siblings,” Beasley notes. “She’s an expert at what elementary schools need because she’s there.”
And it is historically marginalized communities—immigrants, women, the formerly incarcerated, African Americans—who are often the most active participants, because community groups intentionally seek them out. “This is an invitation in for people who have not had a seat at the table, or been in the room where these decisions happen,” Beasley says. “It’s saying, ‘You are an active stakeholder here.’”
The direct effect of participatory budgeting is that projects that residents actually want and need are immediately funded, without the drawn-out politics that goes into so many government decisions. They are not silly, or self-serving projects, either. A study of the long-term effects in Brazil, found that cities that used participatory budgeting had a 10 percent lower infant mortality rate and better sanitation—because residents knew what was needed. In Boston, the teen voters two years in a row funded an increase to that city’s wi-fi network, something that benefits everyone. In New York, Beasley says projects in four different City Council districts all called for fixing bathroom stall doors in schools because students felt unsafe. This led council members to insist the New York Department of Education provide $80 million for fixing bathroom doors citywide.
The direct effect of participatory budgeting is that projects that residents actually want are immediately funded. The side effects are also impressive. Proposing a project and creating a budget for it inherently leads to a better understanding of how cities work.
The side effects of participatory budgeting are also impressive. Proposing a project and creating a budget for it inherently leads to a better understanding of how cities work; seeing a vote turn into a city park, gives a direct view of how change happens. “It’s teaching the civic process,” Beasley says. “Who does fund new trees on this block, and what does it cost, and why does it take so long, and who’s the city staff member who’s making these decisions? This makes everyday people’s relationship to government and their role in civic life more clear.”
Participatory budgeting is admittedly difficult. It involves wide outreach; education of cities, groups and individuals; a process of first deciding the parameters, then picking the projects, then figuring out the funding, then setting up a system for voting and counting votes. That’s why many cities, like Boston, contract with PBP or other groups to help run the program for at least a few years. Often that money comes from federal or private grants; in Boston, $30,000 went to PBP each of the first three years, until the city took it over in 2016. Now it’s run by a variety of city-led youth engagement organizations.
But the biggest hurdle, unsurprisingly, is convincing politicians to give money to their constituents—even though it’s hard to imagine a better strategy to secure citizen support than directly giving them money to spend how they want, as Chicago Alderman Joe Moore discovered. He was in a rare run-off for his seat the year he first gave $1 million to residents in his Ward 49. The year after, he won with 70 percent of the vote. “An elected official who gives up some of his power willingly is something that is really popular,” Beasley says. “It rebuilds trust in city governments.”
That is the crux, of course—a willingness to give up some power, to walk away from the “I know best” school of governing. In Philadelphia’s City Council, that would probably require President Darrell Clarke to get behind the idea, like New York’s Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who not only has done this in her district for several years, but also has now provided city council with administrative support to encourage other members to follow suit.
The money can come from city council people, like in New York and Chicago; from mayors like in Boston or Paris; or even from state or federal officials, as in Ontario and Scotland. The processes may vary slightly, but they all have one thing in common: The people get to make the final decision on how the money is spent in their communities.
But it doesn’t have to be Councilmembers who do this. Like in Boston, Mayor Kenney could direct $1 million to residents, which would be a mere fraction of the city’s $4.38 billion budget. Or, the money need not come from the general fund at all. Kenney could simply take it out of the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, the $7 to $10 million pot of money raised primarily from the Philadelphia Marathon every year, and managed (or mismanaged) by city officials, as they and the Mayor see fit.
Mike Dunn, Kenney’s deputy communications director, said the city has recently sent a survey to residents, asking them “for their thoughts about city services.” The results of that survey, Dunn says, will “help inform our spending decisions going forward.” That’s nice—but it’s hardly the same thing as letting residents make direct decisions about what is best for them and their city. That’s not even in the same ballpark as participatory budgeting.
What if, instead of launching surveys to gather opinions, the Mayor handed over the Fund money to constituents to spend? It would be an act of political courage (and political smartness, as Joe Moore discovered). And it would be a truly progressive and inclusive nod to democracy when we most need it.
“The outcomes of participatory budgeting are more civically-engaged, civically educated communities making making decisions that impact those communities in more ways,” Beasley says. “Better decisions are made when more people are involved.”
Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated where Boston’s funds for PBP’s services came from. The $30,000 is a separate outlay of money from the city.Header Photo: