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Collaborating, Creating and Choosing: An Exploration of Participatory Budgeting

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
April 28, 2023

In the face of rapidly increasing poverty and inequality, the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil created a novel way to promote citizen engagement and oversight of public funds in 1989. The process they developed is now known as participatory budgeting, and has spread to localities across the world. Through participatory budgeting, members of communities come together to choose how public funds are spent. They collaborate to identify potential projects to be funded, evaluate the extent to which these projects are realistic and impactful, consider the amount of funding needed per project and vote on their favorites. The winning project(s) are then funded, and community members are able to see how their ideas and voices can bring about real change.

Ultimately, the aim of participatory budgeting is to “deepen democracy, build stronger communities and make public budgets more equitable and effective.”  With over 402,000 participants in participatory budgeting processes across the United States and Canada and over $300 million in public funds allocated to various projects, the movement is growing. Examples of selected projects include:

The reach of participatory budgeting is also expanding. While the initial focus was on a wide variety of local government projects, some localities are starting to use participatory budgeting as a way to fund school-related initiatives. This allows a variety of stakeholders, including students, their parents, teachers and school staff members, to play a role in determining how school budgets are spent. Participatory budgeting initiatives have already taken place at various levels, including elementary schools (e.g. in Brooklyn, NY), in high schools (e.g. in Phoenix, AZ) and even at colleges and universities (e.g. at the City University of New York).

Though participatory budgeting initiatives within schools are not as common as those taking place within local governments, this new method of involvement would likely be welcomed by many. Already, parents are increasingly seeking to play a role in their child’s education, with over 70 percent of parents saying that they believe public school curriculums should be developed by a team of parents, teachers and school board members, according to the January 2022 Wilder School Commonwealth Poll. In addition, research has shown that parental involvement in education leads to improved outcomes for students, including attendance, social skills, behavior and adjusting to school in general. By playing a role in how public school funds are allocated, and in deciding which projects should be prioritized, parents and other community members are given another route by which they can support their students.

The participatory budgeting process, both at the school level and at the local government level, also aligns with various frameworks of ethics in public administration. In David Farmer’s Public administration in perspective: Theory and practice through multiple lenses, ethics in public service is described as doing what “should” be done, and in making decisions that are aligned with the morals, perspectives and values of a society. Through participatory budgeting, members of society are given an opportunity to share with policymakers what they value, and what they think should be done with public funds.

In addition, Richard Box’s Making a difference: Progressive values in public administration discusses how “progressive values” allow public administrators to reduce inequality and inequities and to promote societal growth. Participatory budgeting, which was created with a goal of reducing inequity, is a way to achieve this growth.

However, in order to ensure that the participatory budgeting process is truly equitable, ethical and progressive, those overseeing the process must ensure that there are not barriers to participation. In their 15 key metrics for evaluating participatory budgeting: A toolkit for evaluators and implementers, Public Agenda and the Participatory Budgeting Project suggest the following to promote equity and accessibility:

  • Consider using various methods of sharing information about the process, including online, mail, telephone, newspapers and even door-to-door, as not everyone has access to the internet,
  • Provide materials in multiple languages,
  • Provide childcare during meetings,
  • Provide food during meetings and
  • Provide transportation, or ensure that meetings are in a location that is easily accessible by transportation.

The participatory budgeting process is a growing way to promote participation and reduce inequities within governments and schools. By creating participatory budgeting processes and by eliminating barriers to involvement, organizers can help to promote more inclusive and equitable communities for all.

Author: Brittany Keegan is the Director of Research Promotion and Engagement at VCU’s Wilder School. Her work includes public policy polling and conducting qualitative research and data analysis for a variety of state and local government agencies.

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