Last week, at the Edge Funders Alliance conference in Berkeley, California, I learned how participatory budgeting is starting to get some real traction here in the US. Participatory budgeting, or PB to aficionados, is a process by which ordinary people determine how to spend municipal funds. Ginny Browne of the Participatory Budgeting Project, which is based in Brooklyn, gave a terrific overview of the history and current state of this rare form of citizen engagement in government. The basic point is to let people have a direct say about the services that most affect them.
Participatory budgeting got its start in 1969 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a city of 1.5 million residents. Launched as an effort to bypass political corruption, PB is now used in that city to allocate 20 percent of the budget, or $200 million. The process engages some 50,000 citizens in Porto Alegre, and has resulted in a doubling of sanitation services and more school buses for underserved areas. (For more on PB in Porto Alegre, see the excellent book chapter by Hilary Wainwright in her 2009 book Reclaim the State.)
Participatory budgeting first came to the US in 2009 when a Chicago city councilman attending the U.S. Social Forum decided to try it out in that city’s 29th ward. In 2011 four New York City council members introduced PB in their districts. About 1.5 million people participated in deciding how to spend $14 million for infrastructure projects.
A year later, the city of Vallejo, California, introduced PB for $3.2 million in city programs and services. The idea had real appeal because the city had just gone through bankruptcy proceedings and citizen trust in government was low. A twenty-person steering committee for PB was created. After brainstorming ideas and developing project proposals, 4,000 citizens chose which of twelve different projects to fund.