Participatory Budgeting: Re-imagining Civic Engagement in the City of Boston

This post by Crosby Burns recounts the first session of a new Cities, Technology and Democracy Study Group at Harvard Kennedy School hosted by student groups Tech4Change and Regional, State, Local and Tribal Professional Interest Council, along with the Ash Center. The session featured HKS Professor Archon Fung and Chris Osgood and Shari Davis from the City of Boston. The subject was Boston’s first-in-the-nation youth participatory budgeting initiative, with a focus on the practical challenges of implementation from political leadership to performance indicators.


By Crosby Burns


On February 19, the Ash Center for Democratic Innovation and Governance and two HKS student groups hosted the first of a four-part study group series called “Cities, Technology, and Democracy.” This study group explored the topic of participatory budgeting, a novel social innovation that aims to re-imagine citizen engagement, the appropriations process, and democratic participation. Specifically, study group members heard from officials from the City of Boston about the city’s ongoing participatory budget initiative that aims to engage and empower Bostonian youth.

As Hollie Russon Gilman recently explained here on the Challenges to Democracy blog, participatory budgeting transforms the management of public money by flipping the traditional appropriations model on its head. Rather than a top-down approach, where city officials have complete control over capital outlays, participatory budgeting starts from the bottom-up, engaging with citizens who propose ideas and have complete deciding power on how they would like to see their taxpayer dollars spent. In doing so, participatory budgeting transforms the relationship between policymakers and the constituents they serve.

Participatory budgeting was born in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, where as many as 50,000 people have participated in the participatory process each year to decide how to spend as much as 20% of the city’s budget. Since then, more than 1,500 cities have spearheaded participatory budgets across the globe, according to the Participatory Budget Project. While prolific throughout the Latin America and Europe, participatory budgets are still in their infancy in the United States. Policymakers in Chicago, New York City, St. Louis, and Vallejo have administered participatory budgets at some point in the past decade.


As Shari Davis, Executive Director of the Boston Youth Fund, highlighted at least week’s event, most participatory budgeting initiatives have five components. First, policymakers dedicate a pot of money from their operating or capital budgets for a participatory budget. Second, residents come together and form various committees that brainstorm ideas for how they would like to see that money spent. Third, citizen “budget delegates” develop proposals based on those ideas. Fourth, residents vote on proposals. Lastly, the government then implements those projects that received the most votes.

The benefits of participatory budgeting flow in two directions. First, participatory budgeting changes the way citizens participate in their communities and engage with their government. Allowing constituents to make informed and fair decisions about spending and revenue empowers participants, builds trust between the government and citizens, and gives constituents a greater sense of agency in their neighborhoods. As Professor Archon Fung noted at last week’s study group, participatory budgets usually result in “the thickening of civil society.”

Moreover, participatory budgeting not only changes how citizens see government. It changes how government sees its citizens. It puts the constituent first, such that appropriators and budgeters—who are often removed from the process of deliberative democracy—rethink how their day-to-day work impacts citizens on the ground. The benefits of participatory budgeting have even been recognized by the White House, which recently signaled its support for participatory budgeting as part of its Open Government National Plan for Action.


Looking specifically to Boston, last year the city set aside $1 million in its capital budget for a participatory budgeting initiative. This is the first time Boston—a city known for its novel forms of civic engagement and social innovation—will administer a participatory budget.

Boston’s foray into participatory budgeting is unique in two respects. First, Boston is the first city in the United States to administer its participatory budget initiative through the mayor’s office. In the United States and elsewhere, local councilmembers usually tap into their discretionary funds to administer a participatory budget targeted to their jurisdiction and tailored to their constituents. Participatory budgeting through Mayor Marty Walsh’s office may present some logistical challenges given the breadth of constituents it covers. At the same time, leading the initiative through the mayor’s office could ensure a broader impact on the Boston community.

Two ingredients are critical for a successful participatory budgeting initiative. First, you must have top-down political will from policymakers who authorize municipal funds. Perhaps more importantly, you must also have “bureaucratic will” from city officials who would otherwise appropriate those funds. This is certainly the case in Boston, where Former Mayor Menino, Mayor Walsh, and city officials in the Capital Budget Department remain committed to a successful participatory budget implementation.


Second, a successful participatory budgeting initiative requires genuine community involvement from the bottom-up. As Russon Gilman wrote, the youth spearheading the participatory budgeting process as part of the steering committee remain engaged and excited to be part of that process.

In its first months, Boston’s experiment with participatory budgeting has generated excitement among community members and civic innovators throughout the country. Still, a number of questions regarding the effectiveness and efficacy of the initiative remain. For example, how will city officials measure the outcomes of interest such as citizen engagement, knowledge of municipal government, trust in government, and future community involvement? Counterfactually, what would the $1 million have gone toward had the city not engaged in participatory budgeting with the city’s youth? These are just some of the questions the city is grappling with.

With a capital budget of $1.8 billion, $1 million towards participatory budgeting may appear insignificant. But this small investment has huge potential for scalability. If successful, the City of Boston expects to increase its investments in participatory budgeting initiatives, realizing even greater returns in civic engagement and the deepening of democracy. By targeting youth specifically, this initiative will serve as a guidepost for state and local governments—such as Vallejo, CA—seeking to engage youth through a participatory budget framework. And Boston’s participatory budgeting initiative will further serve as yet another example of municipal governments using participatory budgeting to transform the relationship between the government and the governed.


Crosby Burns is a Master in Public Policy Candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is a Research Fellow with the City of Boston investigating and evaluating the city’s participatory budget initiative.




Filed under Boston Participatory Budgeting, Cities, Participation, Participatory Budgeting, Technology

2 Responses to Participatory Budgeting: Re-imagining Civic Engagement in the City of Boston

  1. Great article exploring this topic and particularity enjoyed your comment about changing how citizens see government and how government sees its citizens. We created a tool which works towards that same goal. Great work!

  2. Pingback: Participatory Budgeting: Reimagining Civic Engagement in the City of Boston | Kennedy School Review

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.