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Social Media and Participatory Budgeting

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

By Victoria Gordon
December 16, 2014

Participatory budgeting started in Brazil in 1989 and has now been implemented in some fashion in more than 1,000 cities worldwide. Despite this longer history in other parts of the world, participatory budgeting is a relatively new concept in the United States.

Proponents suggest that, when adopted, its use can be vitally important in helping citizens feel connected to each other and to their communities. Participatory budgeting instills a sense of ownership, trust and connectivity. As described by Daniel Schugurensky, in the 2012 PA Times International Supplement, participatory governance is one type of collaborative public action where citizens are involved in both deliberation and decision making with government. Participatory budgeting takes this a step further into resource allocation.

Participatory budgeting is described in a Dec. 5, 2013 White House report on The Open Government Partnership as allowing “…citizens to play a key role in identifying, discussing and prioritizing public spending projects, and gives them a voice in how taxpayer dollars are spent.”

One of the most important features of participatory budgeting is the sense of democratic legitimacy that is generated through the process. As identified in 2011 by Josh Lerner and Maria Hadden, of The Participatory Budgeting Project, benefits or outcomes of participatory budgeting include: budget transparency; a more educated citizenry; greater efficiencies; instilling a sense of social justice; and a greater sense of community. Lerner and Hadden suggest that if a community is interested in participatory budgeting they must ask some hard questions such as:

  1. Could participatory budgeting work in our community?
  2. How do we get this on the local agenda?
  3. Who should we invite to the table to discuss this?
  4. How do we pitch participatory budgeting to attract interest?
  5. How do we deal with resistance?
  6. Where will the money come from?
  7. How much money is needed to get started?
  8. What other resources are needed?
  9. What will our community really get out of the participatory budgeting process? 

Three communities that have embarked on the participatory budgeting journey are the 49th Ward in Chicago, the 6th Ward in St. Louis and the City of Boston. Chicago’s 49th Ward has a five year history with participatory budgeting, but 2014 was the pilot year for participatory budgeting in St. Louis and Boston.

A recent research study sponsored by the IBM Center for The Business of Government was undertaken to understand the role of social media platforms in the participatory budgeting process. Community members involved in the participatory budgeting process were interviewed about their experiences and perceptions.

Gordon decThe use of social media platforms can be very effective in encouraging citizen participation in the participatory budgeting process. However, to date these three communities report that social media use has been limited and sporadic. There is both great need and great potential for increasing and expanding the use of social media platforms in the participatory budgeting process.

Several common problems and specific suggestions were identified by these three communities with regard to improving the utilization of social media platforms in the participatory budgeting process. Among the suggestions identified to improve the use of social media platforms in the participatory budgeting process were:

1)      Communities need institutional social media platform policies.

2)     Communities should understand that training in use and development of social media platforms is crucial to the success of participatory budgeting.

3)     Social media platforms should be used to complement other forms of communication with citizens.

4)     Communities should build on existing social media platforms that citizens are currently using.

5)     Social media platforms should foster two-way communication between elected officials and citizens.

6)     Communities should identify who is left out of the participatory budgeting process.

7)     Communities should understand that message counts and who sends the message is important.

8)    Communities should share and exchange information with other communities.

9)     Communities should investigate new technology for sharing information and for tallying votes.

10) Communities should solicit feedback from all involved and make changes in the next budget cycle.


Author: Dr. Victoria Gordon, associate professor, Western Kentucky University. She can be reached at [email protected].

Dr. Gordon’s complete research report titled “Participatory Budgeting: Ten Actions to Engage Citizens via Social Media” can be found at http://www.businessofgovernment.org/report/participatory-budgeting-ten-actions-engage-citizens-social-mediaThe IBM Center for The Business of Government provided funding in support of this research project.

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2 Responses to Social Media and Participatory Budgeting

  1. Victoria Reply

    December 19, 2014 at 10:59 am

    No one is suggesting that professionals in local government management are not needed to guide municipalities, their elected officials and their citizens through budget complexities. Participatory budgeting is suggested to be used on a limited basis –usually for deciding on neighborhood infrastructure projects–because the local community members know where the needs are, what causes them problems, and often what solutions might make the most sense for their neighborhood needs. One of the outcomes of participatory budgeting is that the individual citizen becomes educated about the budgetary process and they often come to see the bigger picture, even if they walked in the door with a very narrow view of what they wanted to see done.

  2. Scott Lazenby Reply

    December 16, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    Citizen input should certainly inform budget decisions, but the question is, How? Use of social media, focus groups, and surveys are all good ways to gauge citizen’s views on priorities and tradeoffs between services. But I wonder if participatory budgeting is the answer. Given the complexity of fund accounting and budget processes, participatory budgeting is sort of like participatory sewage plant design or participatory air traffic control. The level of expenditures often doesn’t line up with importance: the air we breath is “free,” and the water we drink costs less than cable TV. Fire protection is a critical service, but that doesn’t mean it needs to cost as much as it does. How is the layman, much less a county commissioner, supposed to know the “right” amount of spending by the county’s IT department?

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