What is the best way to spend government money? Typically, public budgets are decided through a process driven largely by policy makers and politicians.
What is often missing from this equation is a significant amount of input from local citizens who are the direct recipients of these services. Flipping this script is something called “participatory budgeting.”
It’s a process in which local citizens decide on how to allocate part of a municipal budget through a highly democratic process. It generally involves four basic steps: 1) community members identify spending priorities and select budget delegates, 2) budget delegates develop specific spending proposals with the help of experts, 3) community members vote on which proposals to fund, and 4) the government implements the top proposals.
Developed in the 1980s in Brazil, the first full participatory budgeting process occurred in the city of Porto Alegre in 1989. In an attempt to encourage local participation in government and channel more resources to the poor, a participatory budgeting process was rolled out citywide.
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A subsequent study by the World Bank showed that participatory budgeting led to direct improvements in access and services. Sewer and water connections, for example, jumped from 75 percent to 98 percent of households in less than a decade and the number of schools quadrupled.
Based on the model’s success, 140 other municipalities have adopted participatory budgeting in Brazil, and it has spread globally, including to North Carolina.
This past year, Greensboro became the first city in the Southeast to launch a test. The city council agreed to allocate $100,000 to five different districts that local residents could decide how to spend (out of Greensboro’s $488 million annual budget).
An initial call for ideas yielded 675 suggestions. From those, 90 were ultimately submitted to city staff for cost estimates. Held in libraries and community centers, the expos provided opportunities for project advocates to share their ideas, which ranged from crosswalks, a sun canopy at a public pool, and bus shelters.
Over two weeks in April, more than 1,100 residents voted for their favorite ideas. Each district was approved funding for about four to six projects. Additionally, the citizens voted to approve $90,000 to deploy a mobile app proposed by local entrepreneur and NC A&T master’s student Hassan Black to allow passengers to track city buses.
Council member Nancy Hoffman says the process has helped city officials better learn what citizens want done and increased understanding of how government works and what projects cost. But some local advocates say the community outreach didn’t engage low-income citizens enough and the projects didn’t align with the real needs of a city with high poverty rates.
Indeed, the World Bank research indicates that poor people and youth were under-represented through the process. For efforts in Greensboro to truly work, this shortcoming must be taken seriously. One approach: Engage traditionally disenfranchised communities in the design of the process from the very beginning.
Increasing citizen engagement and connection between government and residents is clearly something we should strive for – as is aligning budget spending with community priorities. There are still clear challenges to overcome, but more experiments like those in Greensboro will only benefit our state.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact and a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. authors@