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How Participatory Budgeting Is Transforming the Way New York Funds Neighborhood Projects

BY Joe Maniscalco | Tuesday, August 28 2012

Usually, when it comes time to fund capital improvement projects in large municipalities like New York City, it’s local elected officials who ultimately decide how taxpayer money is spent in their districts.

Last year, however, following prior success in Chicago, democracy-minded groups like the Participatory Budgeting Project and Community Voices Heard convinced four New York City Council members to hand over the purse strings to their constituents through a process called participatory budgeting.

First pioneered in Brazil, participatory budgeting gives the power to identify and fund local capital improvement projects to residents. For the New York City debut of participatory budgeting, organizers relied heavily on very traditional ways of getting the word out about this radical new plan. They hit the streets and held large public assembles at local schools. But they also tried using the web.

Three Budgeting Lessons From New York
  • Start outreach early — Just because a city builds a web portal for a new project doesn't mean people will find out. Participatory budgeting organizers in New York are actively courting participants rather than leaning back and waiting for people to come to them.
  • Keep your feet on the ground — In New York, organizers this year are doing a lot of their outreach in the real world while working with each other online to stay coordinated.
  • Encourage participants to think digital — Even if their project isn't funded through participatory budgeting, participants who make proposals with components like online videos will have more material they can use to get the attention of other potential funders, like city agencies.

“We created an online portal where people who couldn’t make it to neighborhood assemblies could input ideas for projects that needed funding in the district," said Community Voices Heard Executive Director Sondra Youdelman.

The nascent portal at pbnyc.org also had the added benefit of instantly mapping project locations. It functioned as a place where other people could easily see what kinds of ideas were being proposed.

Unfortunately, because it was late in coming, not enough people were aware of it, according to Youdelman, and site traffic suffered.

“We were somewhat limited in getting the word out,” Youdelman said.

Organizers hope the sophomore effort will be different.

“One of the lessons learned from last year to this year, was that if participatory budgeting is going to scale up in larger municipalities around the U.S., we need to have digital tools for residents to participate in, and we also need digital tools to organize the organizers,” said Daniel Latorre, chair of the Online Engagement Workshop.

Research indicates that adding a technology component to participatory budgeting initiatives, like giving people the opportunity to weigh in via text message, can actually improve participation rates.

In all, about 8,000 people across four New York City Council districts took part in the inaugural project. This year, the number of participating districts has doubled. The ultimate goal is to convince all of NYC’s 51 councilmembers to participate.

In the meantime, participatory budgeting already appears to be gaining traction in other areas of the city. Students at Brooklyn College, for instance, are implementing a participatory process of their own on campus with some of the money available to the student government. And Youdelman says there’s even been talk about bringing participatory budgeting to the troubled New York City Housing Authority.

Preliminary information sessions for this year’s effort have already been held in each of the participating districts this summer. But the real process starts in September, when budget delegates are identified and each district kicks off a series of public meetings, which run through October, to identify community needs. Anyone can be a budget delegate, and there is no cap on the number of budget delegates involved. Project proposals will be developed through February. After that, the project expo phase begins, giving the community further opportunity to review proposals. The final vote – open to residents 18 and older – will be in March.

Last year’s final vote took place inside councilmembers’ offices, mobile voting booths and even in front of a McDonald’s. None of it, however, was done online.

Organizers expect that as many as 500 people from each of the four new districts participating in this year’s effort will take part in the neighborhood assembly phase of the process. They hope for even more participation from those districts already familiar with participatory budgeting.

Each of the participating New York City councilmembers – six Democrats and two Republicans – has agreed to let their constituents decide how to spend $1 million from the capital improvement part of their discretionary budgets.

Last time out, residents earmarked money for things like firefighting equipment, senior transportation and library upgrades.

“We want ideas we might not have necessarily focused on,” New York City Councilman David Greenfield recently told constituents at an early planning session at P.S. 205 in Bensonhurst. “No one knows the community better than you.”

Many of the roughly 45 people who turned up for that event were political gadflies – the same folks who comprise local community boards, community education councils and precinct community councils. But some were also completely unaffiliated.

That appears to be consistent with last year’s turnout as well.

“I would say that it was honestly a fair mix,” said Stefan Ringer, spokesperson for New York City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, one of the first officials to volunteer for the Participatory Budgeting project. “A number of people who got involved were involved in civic life for the very first time. We certainly had significant engagement, particularly on the district committee level, from members of community boards, precinct councils, block associations and related civic groups. We also had a youth committee entirely comprised of high school students.”

According to Youdelman, the level of diversity that participatory budgeting is ultimately able to bring into the decision-making process largely depends on each councilmember who puts the methodology to use.

“In Councilmember’s Greenfield’s district, they definitely reached out to people they had relationships with, but they also tried to send information around to more general spaces as well,” Youdelman said.

Last year, some enterprising participants made videos of their proposed project ideas and posted them on YouTube, while others took advantage of social media outlets to help raise awareness about participatory budgeting.

“Everything in this process is done based on volunteers, interest and shoestring budgets,” Youdelman stressed.

Of course, not everyone’s project will be approved for funding. But sometimes, the attention certain projects garner is enough to spur other city agencies into action.

In the first year of participatory budgeting in New York, two projects in East Harlem – one aimed at upgrading a public housing basketball court and another to secure new trash receptacles – did not make the cut for capital funding, but were able to get funding anyway after catching the eye of the PAL, NYCHA and the local council member. A third project in Brooklyn, celebrating Bangladeshi culture, also found the funding necessary to move forward.

Another ancillary benefit of the program is that people will get to see how their arcane system of government actually works.

“It’s a complicated process, but I think you’ll enjoy it,” Greenfield said, laughing.

Joe Maniscalco is a techPresident contributing writer.