Community Budgeting – Giving Residents Real Decision Making Power


By Matthew

Every year, Council Members allocate their capital funds to be decided upon by the community on how they should be spent. The process involves residents submitting ideas, voting, and presenting proposals.

Budget Delegates, who are volunteers, collaborate with City departments to transform these ideas into proposals and oversee the process. These dedicated individuals often represent groups that are new to participating in decision-making processes.

So what exactly is community budgeting? Participatory Budgeting (PB) is an approach that empowers citizens with decision-making authority when it comes to allocating local government funds. PB enables residents to prioritize projects aimed at meeting community needs while also fostering relationships between the government and the communities it serves. More than 30 cities worldwide have successfully implemented PB as a means of enhancing democracy and increasing resident engagement.

PB entails residents generating investment ideas and engaging in discussions with their neighbors and city officials before casting votes to fund projects. The decisions made regarding these investments can directly impact the lives of residents, bringing long-term benefits to communities. Additionally, PB has shown potential for boosting engagement among marginalized communities by giving them a voice in important decision-making processes.

The administration collaborates with profit organizations, philanthropies, and cities interested in implementing PB to promote its adoption and provide support. This collaborative effort aims at strengthening democracy while deepening citizen engagement.

We fully support the initiatives aimed at creating tools and promoting practices. Additionally, we are actively involved in raising awareness and fostering collaboration among communities interested in implementing participatory budgeting (PB). Through a pilot program, we have partnered with cities to provide assistance and encourage the utilization of Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Planning and Development funds for PB.

So how does it actually work?

Well, the concept of budgeting (PB) introduces a perspective on community financing, empowering residents with real control over their own money. In this system, residents have the opportunity to submit project ideas and vote on them within a cycle. The city then allocates funding from its budget to support the winning projects. It’s important to note that ongoing costs like salaries, contracts, and debt servicing are excluded from this allocation.

Typically, PB involves a process where citizens come together to discuss their ideas with peers as well as city officials. Dedicated “budget delegates” volunteer their time to shape these proposals into projects and collaborate with city agencies to determine their feasibility and cost. Ultimately, projects that receive majority votes are selected for implementation. One of the principles of PB is inclusivity; many processes allow voting by groups who are generally marginalized from political channels, such as high school students or individuals previously incarcerated.

This research paper explores strategies to encourage participation in participatory budgeting (PB) by conducting interviews with participants from various cities in the United States, Canada, and other countries. The paper sheds light on practices in PB, including reaching out to community organizations and fostering collaborative efforts.

The Democracy Fund and Strong Cities Strong Communities have provided their support for this paper. Emelia Gold and Ashley Zhao from the Brennan Center have contributed research and editorial assistance. The author would like to express gratitude to all the participants who took part in the PB process, generously sharing their experiences and participating in interviews.

Why is it important?

In the United States, where voter turnout is declining and trust in government is dwindling, citizens often feel marginalized when it comes to policymaking decisions. Participatory budgeting offers a solution by allowing residents of cities, districts, schools, and other organizations to directly participate in decision-making processes involving taxpayer funds.

The PB program encompasses a range of projects that can be funded; these include improvements to parks, repairs for schools, or housing facilities. The allocated funds come from governments’ existing spending that is not earmarked for debt servicing or fixed costs related to services or approved contracts. The participatory budgeting process has the potential to enhance citizen engagement by empowering community members to influence decisions that impact their lives. It also encourages an understanding of expenditure choices.

In the budgeting (PB) system, residents are invited to propose ideas for spending through gatherings and online platforms. Dedicated “budget delegates,” with support from elected officials’ offices, work on refining these proposals into plans that undergo technical evaluations. Finally, these plans are put up for a vote. PB processes often prioritize participation from groups in political channels, such as young people, undocumented individuals, and those who have previously been incarcerated.

Moreover, PB fosters deeper involvement by fostering a sense of shared responsibility for decision-making and by equipping participants with problem-solving communication skills. While the PB process is valuable for all citizens, it holds significance for those facing uncertainty.

If you’re interested in getting involved in this transformative process, many communities are actively seeking ways to strengthen democracy at the local level due to declining voter turnout and diminishing trust in government institutions. Participatory budgeting has already proven successful in cities like New York City, Chicago, and Greensboro.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) begins by engaging the community to identify their desired outcomes, such as improving schools, ensuring streets, or promoting growth. It then combines services based on these outcomes and allocates funds accordingly. This transparent approach allows the community to witness how their ideas positively impact their area.

The budget can be adjusted throughout the year and requires approval during a board meeting for any modifications. This ensures that the PB process goes beyond voting and project implementation; it aims to cultivate a culture of civic engagement.

There are two ways for individuals to participate in the PB process; as delegates or facilitators. In both roles, individuals collaborate with city agencies and nonprofit organizations to develop proposals, obtain approvals for them, and include them on the ballot. Additionally, they play a role in managing the PB process. For instance, Doran Hoge volunteered during New York’s district 39 PB process before becoming a facilitator for the PB initiative.

Community budgeting represents a significant shift in the way we approach personal finance. By embracing shared responsibility, financial education, and resource pooling, individuals can empower themselves and others to achieve greater financial security and prosperity. The idea of community budgeting epitomizes the power of collaboration and collective action in creating a more inclusive and supportive financial landscape for all. As more people recognize the potential of this innovative approach, the concept of community budgeting is likely to flourish, fostering stronger communities and brighter financial futures for everyone involved.