Promoting Innovation in Civic Engagement: Celebrating Community-Led Participatory Budgeting

On his first day in office, President Obama made clear his commitment to engaging the American people, both by making government more transparent and accountable, but also through recognizing that government does not have all the answers.  The President directed his Administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans, noting “the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives”. 

In the second U.S. Open Government National Action Plan released last year, the Administration committed to collaborating with partners that promote participatory budgeting — a civic innovation that enables community members to help decide how to spend part of a public budget. 

To further this commitment, the Office of Science and Technology Policy recently hosted representatives from communities across the country at the White House.  Attendees shared their experiences with participatory budgeting, learned about work already underway across the country, and brainstormed new ways to expand outreach and engagement, improve city processes, and create projects that can help transform neighborhoods.  

Stanley Gimont of the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) kicked off the day by sharing HUD’s forty year commitment to engaging the public around decisions about community development grants, bringing the expertise of the community to bear on critical funding decisions.  

Over the course of the day, we heard from a diverse range of speakers, including Agnes Rivera, a resident of New York City Public Housing, whose work on “the People’s Budget” brought her neighbors together and, for the first time, gave her a voice in the way money was spent to improve her neighborhood.  

In addition, Ashish Goel of Stanford University and Betsy Vandercook, Chief of Staff to Chicago Alderman Joe Moore, demonstrated a new online voting tool piloted just the week before in Chicago’s 49th Ward.  The tool is already showing great promise as a way to help community members easily access information about their voting options.  Leading researchers such as Gianpaolo Baiocchi of New York University, Tiago Peixoto of the World Bank, and Alexa Kasdan of New York's Community Development Project, also spoke about the impacts of participatory budgeting, and new evaluation approaches for measuring and communicating these impacts.

Participatory budgeting first began in Brazil 25 years ago and spread to countries around the world, making its debut in the United States in Chicago’s 49th Ward in 2009, when residents voted to determine how $1 million would be spent.   Since that first round of projects, more and more cities have begun participatory budgeting efforts, including New York, San Francisco, Vallejo, and Boston. 

As Josh Lerner of the Participatory Budgeting Project noted, “Five years ago participatory budgeting was an obscure idea in the U.S. Now, as the White House has recognized, it's a best practice for civic engagement, used by over 40 cities, districts, universities, schools, and other institutions across the country".

Lynn Overmann is Senior Advisor to the U.S. CTO and Vivian Graubard is Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer.

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