“Participatory budgeting” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. And it has to do with municipal budgets. So given its built-in challenges as a public engagement tool, it’s somewhat surprising that participatory budgeting is emerging as a dynamic way to strengthen local democracy in the United States. Another surprise: one of the most inclusive and grassroots participatory budgeting processes in the US is taking place in Greensboro, a city whose citizen engagement practices haven’t always grabbed headlines for the right reasons.
PB (which everyone agrees is less alienating to both speaker and listener than “participatory budgeting”) is a democratic process by which community members decide how to allocate a portion of a municipal budget. Residents propose projects they need—better streetlights in their neighborhood, bike lanes downtown, afterschool programs for their children—and then vote to implement the most popular proposals.
PB started in one ward in Chicago in 2009-10 and is now in a half-dozen communities within the US (1,500 cities around the world have some sort of PB process). In US cities with a process, PB typically happens in a few districts or wards, and it’s usually funded through discretionary monies that individual councilmembers have decided to devote to PB. Greensboro has one of only two citywide processes in the US, the only one that comes from general funds, and the only process that was driven by grassroots organizing, not elected officials.
This didn’t happen overnight. Community volunteers began meeting regularly in 2011 about the possibilities of a PB process in the city. They called themselves PB Greensboro. The movement outlasted several city councilmembers and senior staff. PB Greensboro focused on organizing both officials and residents. By meeting one-on-one with councilmembers, getting in front of initially wary City budget staff, and speaking from the floor at council meetings, the organizers introduced the concept to officials and laid out their case for how a PB process could build trust between residents and officials, give voice to community needs, and give residents firsthand experience with the challenging tradeoffs their officials are forced to make each year when creating a budget with limited resources. While engaging public officials, PB Greensboro organizers were also meeting with community groups around the city and leading them through simulation PB processes. In this way, PB Greensboro built grassroots interest that created upward pressure on elected officials.
Four and a half years later, Greensboro is in the midst of its first citywide PB process. Each of five council districts will determine how to allocate $100,000 toward capital projects in the FY 2016-17 budget. This is happening through neighborhood assemblies around the city at which residents are proposing ways to address the issues they and their neighbors face and voting on the projects they like most. Then, delegates will be spending months refining those ideas, in close collaboration with subject matter experts from the City, and preparing them for implementation. In the process, residents and officials alike hope that PB will prove itself a useful tool for increasing communication, trust, and engagement in a city that, like most, needs more of all three.
About the Author: Andrew Trump is a student in the Master of City and Regional Planning and Master of Public Administration programs at UNC-Chapel Hill, focused on community economic development.