This past spring, communities in several cities across the US had the unique opportunity to decide exactly how their tax dollars should be spent. From sidewalk and street repairs to technology upgrades at schools and libraries, the practice known as participatory budgeting is helping to give a voice to thousands of residents to improve the quality of life in their local neighborhoods.
According to the Participatory Budgeting Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for participatory budgeting (PB) in the US and Canada, the practice was first developed in Brazil in the late 1980s and has since spread to over 1,500 communities worldwide. While the PB process varies from community to community, it generally involves citizens brainstorming ideas for community projects, including developing a proposal and budget, which are then presented to the community for a vote. The projects with the most votes receive funding for implementation.
In the US, the city of Chicago’s 49th Ward became the first community in the country to implement participatory budgeting in 2009. Specifically, ward residents have the opportunity to decide on how to spend a portion of the ward’s “menu money” – annual funds provided to each Alderman to address local infrastructure needs. Since the ward’s first PB in 2009, residents have voted on how to allocate approximately $1 million in menu money funds in each budget cycle. Three additional wards in the city have also adopted PB.
Participatory budgeting has also been implemented in communities in New York and Vallejo, California, the first city in the US to implement PB citywide. Other larger cities such as San Francisco are also exploring the possibility of incorporating PB into the larger municipal budgeting process.
PB is an exciting development in community engagement and community development at the local level, particular as citizen engagement in the budgeting process can be difficult to come by. FUND has worked with a number of local governments to conduct community surveys, and PB would serve as an excellent enhancement to the efforts of municipalities to integrate community opinion into the planning process.
By first identifying citizen satisfaction with government operations and specific community concerns, local governments could then work towards the implementation of participatory budgets across key municipal departments to better tailor government services to real community needs. With more opportunities for residents to voice their concerns and decide how their tax dollars are spent, they may be more likely to engage with local government and civic life to develop solutions that have a direct and tangible benefit to their own quality of life and the life of their communities.
How does your community offer opportunities for input?