Long hours, careful relationship-building, and hands-on community outreach have made New York City’s Participatory Budgeting process a successful experiment in civic engagement. In this post, Betsy Ribble (MPP ’17) explores what it will take to scale PBNYC without losing the qualities that made it work so well.
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By Betsy Ribble
As the largest participatory budgeting (PB) process in the country, PBNYC gives New York City residents direct control over more than $35 million of the city’s budget. Every fall, in each participating City Council district, volunteer community members collect ideas on how to spend the city’s money.
Projects must be “bricks and mortar” community improvements – like renovated playgrounds, school greenhouses, or updated library reading rooms. Over the next few months, the volunteers work closely with city officials to transform these ideas into full-fledged proposals. In the spring, district residents vote on their favorite proposals, and city agencies get to work building the winning projects.
PB gives community members real power over a slice of the city budget. But the more radical innovation is a re-envisioning of the qualifications for participating in civic life. To source ideas and find volunteers, PB advocates focus on communities that are often marginalized from political power, including seniors, non-English speakers, and undocumented immigrants.
Anyone 14 or older, regardless of citizenship status or voter eligibility, can vote in the PB process. The aim is to create a richer process for surfacing and solving community needs, all while empowering new leaders to advocate for the needs of their communities.
In just five years, PBNYC has expanded from a pilot run, with just four of the city’s 51 City Council Members and a few nonprofit groups, to a fully-fledged process run by 31 Council Member offices, several nonprofit partners, and a team of City Council staff who provide oversight and centralized support.
It’s a rare success story for an idea that grew from grassroots longshot to City Council institution. Yet this success compels the Council to grow and institutionalize PB – a transformation that presents new challenges.
How can PBNYC reduce the resource strain – without threatening its inclusive process?
To engage those often left out of democratic decision-making, Council Member district staffs and their volunteers rely on resource-intensive outreach work. They hand out flyers, knock on doors, staff booths at neighborhood events, and host information sessions at community centers.
Each district runs at least three events targeted to areas with less mobile populations or marginalized communities, such as NYCHA housing developments or senior centers. These face-to-face interactions have built trust – and proven crucial to engaging a rich cross-section of the city.
Behind the scenes, the City Council Speaker’s office offers centralized resources and guidance to help each participating district run its process. Meanwhile, nonprofit partners such as the Participatory Budgeting Project and Community Voices Heard spend hours building resources, running volunteer trainings, and evaluating the results of the process.
All of this work adds up to a voter base that is more representative of New York’s diverse population than general elections or other political processes. In 2014-2015 (the last cycle to produce detailed demographic data), 57% of PB voters identified as people of color, compared to 47% of local election voters.
Nearly a quarter of PBNYC voters would have been ineligible to vote in general elections, including 12% who were under 18 and 10% who were not U.S. citizens. It’s a dynamic and inclusive process that more and more Council Members want their districts to join.
Yet as PBNYC continues to grow to more districts and more voters, the long hours and large volunteer commitments become less and less sustainable. It would be tempting to use digital outreach to reach more residents more efficiently. But analysis of past PBNYC cycles shows that tactics like social media and emails from Council Members engage a disproportionately white, highly-educated, and high income group, to the detriment of more diverse voices.
The city faces the challenge of including more residents in the process without drowning out the voices PB was meant to raise up.
In meeting this challenge, PBNYC has rightly put its values first, continuing to emphasize the type of face-to-face outreach that pulls in new participants. The task going forward is to translate those values into new outreach tactics.
For instance, the city should explore digital technologies that expand participation rather than limiting it: using SMS texting rather than online applications, and providing communal digital resources at libraries and community centers. Central staff should continue streamlining their processes and reducing resources needed on the backend. Partnerships that let grassroots organizations continue to take the lead will allow PBNYC to bypass red tape and avoid getting stuck in bureaucratic slowdowns.
Now that the initial excitement has worn off, how can PBNYC continue to improve?
City Council districts vary widely in their demographics, physical characteristics, and needs. Each district’s staff and volunteers must decide what a successful PB cycle looks like. Should they provide translated ballots for those who speak the 5th most common language in the district? The 6th? The 10th? In a world of limited time and resources, how much outreach is enough?
In addition to this district variation, the devolution of decision-making to the district level makes it challenging for central staff to oversee performance or hold districts accountable to any particular standard. In the past, central staff have worked to ensure accountability and consistency through personal relationships. Districts that strayed from best practices were given extra attention and guidance. But as more districts participate, this level of oversight becomes difficult.
Meanwhile, political incentives have inevitably shifted. The original flurry of media attention and public praise has died down. And while there are plenty of incentives for a new Council Member to set up a PB process in her district, doing it well — engaging more voters and ensuring the process is truly inclusive — may seem to offer diminishing returns and little public recognition.
How can PBNYC build structures and incentives for accountability? One promising approach would be to provide more transparency for the public, in the form of open access to PB data. Central staff have considered posting a PB project tracker online to help the public track the progress of projects that have won funding.
The tracker would serve as a focal point for district-by-district praise or analysis, both of which would incentivize districts to continue improving their process. Publicizing yearly statistics on vote counts and other metrics would also help the public judge their districts’ performance and encourage improvement over time.
With the initial excitement worn off and longer-term results not yet visible, the program risks entering a dead zone of usefulness to politicians. As a particularly resource-intensive process, PB needs to start demonstrating tangible benefits or risk being on the chopping block.
Tracking and sharing longer-term results could provide evidence for the broader benefits that advocates have touted — benefits like more equitable government spending, happier communities, and more engaged citizens. Such results have started to come in from PB processes that began several years ago in Brazil. Evidence of longer-term benefits to communities would help re-engage politicians in the process, and would bolster New York City as a national leader in the civic engagement space.
The PBNYC example reminds us that pilot programs are useful testing grounds, but promising experiments are unlikely to translate into large-scale successes without careful effort. Such a transformation requires shifts in strategy and tactics, matched with steadfastness in mission and values. Those interested in government innovation can learn a lot from watching PBNYC as it charts this course for participatory budgeting processes around the world.
Betsy Ribble is a Masters in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. Ribble spent the summer working with the New York City Council to review the 2015-2016 Participatory Budgeting cycle and make recommendations for the future. Before Harvard, she worked in communications and policy at Change.org, the world’s largest petition platform.