By Hollie Russon Gilman, PhD
There is a general sense that young people don’t want to engage in politics. And yet, we are seeing young people increasingly using new technologies to express their civic identities. Maybe young people are engaging politically in new ways? From crowdfunding for good or using social media to convey political preferences, perhaps young people can help us imagine and innovate new relationships with traditional governance institutions.
Boston’s Participatory Budgeting (PB) is an interesting example in envisioning just what is possible. The City of Boston has been on the cutting edge of innovation. The New Urban Mechanics office started in Mayor Menino’s administration, serving as an incubator for a more participatory and tech-enhanced approach to a handful of basic city services. Menino and new Mayor Martin Walsh have both sought to engage young people. The Mayors’ Youth Council has given young people an active role in deciding relevant public policy issues.
Thus, the Boston Mayor’s Office is uniquely placed to introduce the first youth-driven PB in the United States, working closely in partnership with the Participatory Budgeting Project. This year young people will decide how to spend $1 million from the city’s capital funds. City agencies that serve young people are driving the process, including the Boston Centers for Youth and Families.
PB is an exciting process to empower young people to define community needs, work closely with elected officials to craft viable budget proposals, and vote upon which projects to implement. Beginning in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, PB has expanded to over 1,500 localities globally.
Starting in 2009 with one ward and one million dollars, PB in the United States has today expanded to $27 million dollars. Chicago and New York officials have pledged to scale PB efforts within their cities. Boston’s youth PB will be especially instructive as PB continues its domestic expansion.
PB is a unique opportunity for civic engagement. It aims to empower citizens as decision makers throughout every part of the process. The first part involves a participatory approach to the process design itself. For this, a diverse coalition of young people has formed into a Steering Committee, which has the difficult task of developing the rulebook to guide the PB process. Critical questions include determining voter eligibility and process values.
The Steering Committee has been meeting after school in convenient locations. These meetings are filled with opportunities for discussion and eating pizza – creating a fun atmosphere. The young people sitting on the Steering Committee take their roles and responsibilities seriously. One theme was continually repeated: this is the time for young people to shine.
Many were excited that young people were being asked to genuinely make decisions. There was a collective sense that PB was enabling genuine empowerment for those typically marginalized from civic life and decision-making. The norms of inclusivity and respect were underscored.
Members of the Steering Committee were also excited to employ new techniques and technologies to engage other young people. Some were brainstorming how best to engage as many diverse youth as possible. There was a discussion around the potential opportunities and challenges of using online platforms. The question continued to arise around validating identity.
Throughout these tough decisions, the young people stayed energetic, focused, and excited to be a part of this process. Strong facilitation encouraged nuanced discussions and deliberations. The enthusiasm and willingness to discuss complex issues in a comprehensive way suggest that young residents can be a critical part of politics. Boston’s youth driven PB may shed light on the opportunities for deepening youth engagement in concrete public decision-making.
In the upcoming weeks the Steering Committee will be doing outreach to engage other young people to participate in the process. There will be many opportunities for them to share ideas about how to spend capital funds, work with city officials to craft viable budget proposals, and vote upon projects. This is an exciting opportunity for young people to not only deepen their civic knowledge but also actively feel a part of their community.
We will continue to follow Boston PB initiative and will update on the City’s progress here on the Challenges to Democracy blog!
Hollie Russon Gilman holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Government at Harvard University. Her research interests include the impact of technology on government transparency and accountability, citizen engagement, and implementing democratic innovations. She most recently served in the White House as the Open Government and Innovation Advisor working on a second term Open Government agenda — including Participatory Budgeting as part of U.S. Open Government commitments.