On a recent evening in New York City, I met with eight other people in my City Council Member’s local office, down the block from City College in Harlem. We were the community delegates tasked with discussing over 150 projects proposed at neighborhood assemblies. Our assignment was to score the projects on the basis of community need, feasibility and impact, and bring recommendations on top priorities back to the City.

This process is known as participatory budgeting (PB) and I wanted to see how it worked. My main questions were: Is PB as currently practiced an innovative way to enhance local democratic decision-making and empowerment? Or is this token inclusion, while the real decisions are made elsewhere, as usual?

The Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit organization that promotes PB in the U.S. and Canada, describes PB as

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.

PB was first used for the municipal budget in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, and since then the PB movement has grown to over 3,000 cities around the world. Portugal recently announced that it will use it for the national budget. PB is being used in more than 40 communities in the U.S.

New York City is in the midst of its 6th cycle of PB and the program has grown to 31 out of 51 City Council districts. Each district has been allocated at least $1 million for proposed projects. The requirements are that each project cost at least $35,000, last 5 years, be located on city property, and be brick-and-mortar type infrastructure projects such as fixing up a playground or library.

I voted in the final PB project selection last year. My district had been presented with 21 options, and chose five projects from among them: a senior center renovation, planting street trees, school science lab improvements, school technology upgrades, and a library renovation. When my City Council Member Mark Levine announced the beginning of this current PB round, I decided to follow the entire process.

District 7 in Manhattan is a diverse area, including part of the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, West Harlem and Hamilton Heights. I attended one of three neighborhood assemblies where folks suggested possible projects. Other ideas were submitted online. These were then sorted by City Council staff into five general categories: housing, libraries, parks/playgrounds, schools and transportation. Volunteers have started gathering to discuss these projects at three subsequent delegate meetings. A map of all the proposed projects in the city is here. Next month we will submit our recommended projects to the City for costing, and then make a final selection for voting next spring. Anyone over 14 years old who lives in the district is eligible to vote. Council Members submit the projects with the most votes for inclusion in the final City budget.

Parks Notes 10/18/2016 © Eric Dirnbach
Parks Notes 10/18/2016 © Eric Dirnbach

I went into this PB process wanting to discover whether it can genuinely enhance participatory democracy and community empowerment. In particular, I’m an advocate of a concept called “solidarity economy” which seeks to place the important economic decisions of society under social and democratic control. Instead of private, capitalist business owners making major economic decisions and remote governmental bodies making public decisions, we would have collective groups and processes that enhance the participation and ownership of everyone. Worker-owned cooperatives would be an example of the solidarity economy in the business sector and PB could be an example for the public sector.

The Participatory Budgeting Project claims the outcomes of PB are “More civic engagement, broader political participation, new community leaders and more active citizens, stronger relationships between government, organizations, and residents, [and] fairer and more effective spending.”

I certainly have seen some of these dynamics at work in the PB meetings. Gathering together with community members to discuss local needs has been educational for me: I have learned about my neighborhood and its problems. However, one shortcoming of the process so far is that the meetings have been structured in a way that does not allow for the extensive discussions that may be needed. For example, my delegate subgroup had about an hour to assess and score 50 projects, which became necessarily a rather rushed process. We also didn’t have much information about the need for each project or its feasibility. One of my group members had been involved in previous rounds of PB and had a sense of how the process worked and the City’s likely response to various projects. This kind of valuable experience can be built up over time by more people, and PB can play a positive role in creating opportunities to practice these kinds of deliberations. Of course, the necessary extended time for participation, assessment of information, and development of knowledge may limit the number of people who can or want to participate in this process.

Regarding participation in my district, it seems to be fairly low so far, with about 20 people at my neighborhood assembly and fewer at my delegate meeting. The total amount of votes cast in 2015 for the winning projects in my district was 2,332 out of my rough estimate of 148,000 residents 14 or older, which is only 1.6%.   I calculate a similar percentage for all 28 city districts which participated in the last PB cycle, with 67,000 people voting. Though small, this is an increase from two years earlier when the citywide vote for PB was about 1.1% in 10 districts. This effort is clearly growing as more districts participate and more people hear about PB.

It’s also important to recognize that the PB budgets are relatively small so far. In the previous cycle, 28 districts spent an average of nearly $1.4 million each, so for this cycle, with 31 districts participating, the PB allocation can be expected to be roughly $42 million out of an $82 billion city budget, or 0.05%. Another limitation is that projects must be physical infrastructure rather than new or expanded programs or services, even if that’s what the community needs.

Here is an example of a project I’ve been thinking about that would benefit my neighborhood. Near my apartment building are some public housing projects where there has been alleged gang violence in recent years, leading to a mass arrest and indictment of over 100 suspected gang members. Local residents have started an effort to open a youth crisis center as a positive intervention and an alternative to policing and incarceration. This project will hopefully happen but it’s unfortunately not eligible for PB funding since it would likely be too expensive and involve primarily staff and services.

The current budgets and boundaries of eligible projects necessarily limit for now the solutions that we can suggest through PB, but at least these conversations are happening. And discussions about problems could spur more efforts to organize and fight for funding through other avenues as well. An example of this in New York City occurred when previous PB rounds raised the demand for public school bathroom repairs and the City Council pushed for a $50 million increase in funding to improve school bathrooms citywide. Moreover, the PB budget could be expanded over time with more kinds of projects incorporated, especially if PB participants push for it. Indeed, an evaluation report of the Cycle 4 PB makes exactly these recommendations.

From a social justice perspective, PB could be a way to allocate more resources toward lower-income, disadvantaged communities. Certainly PB wouldn’t be generating such excitement on the left if wealthy neighborhoods captured the benefits. Indeed, the recently released Movement for Black Lives platform includes a demand for PB as a tool to advance racial justice. The New York City Cycle 4 evaluation found that the majority of PB voters identified as people of color and that they accounted for a higher percentage of voters than in local elections. A Public Agenda study of 46 PB processes in the U.S. and Canada found that lower-income residents were often overrepresented in participation. PB looks like potentially promising terrain for activists.

Of course, funding for worthy projects in the low-income neighborhoods in my district could also be moved through our elected City Council representative in the standard way. This would involve community members and organizations doing more traditional protests and lobbying for these projects, with our Council Member and his staff ultimately making the determination on whether to push for funding. Perhaps this would have led to similar outcomes. But this is the very process that already serves wealthier residents fairly well. The existence of PB is an implicit criticism of standard representative democracy — after all, if the political process satisfied low-income communities, PB wouldn’t be needed. The direct involvement of community members in brainstorming, discussing and selecting these projects, with less mediation through elected representatives, has placed more power in their hands and is a taste of what’s possible if the program could be expanded.

I’ll have more to say about PB as it concludes next year. For now, my concerns are whether PB is a direct democracy project that is genuinely empowering for local residents as a way to solve community problems. It’s been very interesting so far and I look forward to the rest of the process.