Connecting state and local government leaders

Looking at Two Participatory Budgeting Processes

San José, California

San José, California


Connecting state and local government leaders

The Participatory Budgeting Project recently won an award for its work in New York City, while Every Voice Engaged preaches an alternative method of market research.

People don’t talk politics at parties like they used to, and that can make it tough for cities like San José to engage “quieter” residents regarding budget priorities.

So when the economic development director in California’s third-largest city started talking to the founder and CEO of Conteneo, a collaboration software developer, on an airplane in 2009, participatory budgeting with the platform just made sense.

By 2011, the partnership’s earliest events represented what it bills as the first large-scale participatory budgeting effort in the U.S.

“In the modern world, it's kind of hard to go to the pub and hash it out,” Luke Hohmann, Conteneo’s CEO, said in an interview. “We need to find ways where citizens can come together that are convenient to them.”

Since that flight seven years ago, Mountain View, California-based Conteneo developed a nonprofit affiliate, the Every Voice Engaged foundation, which trains volunteer facilitators for public sector participatory budgeting forums using its platform.

Most cities begin their budget process three to six months ahead of the start of their fiscal year, July 1 in the case of San José, so in late January or early February, Every Voice Engaged hosts a large participatory budgeting forum in the city.

City Hall employees pull together budget numbers and create questions for the event, in which hundreds of participants are split into groups of five to eight people moderated by trained, volunteer facilitators from as far away as London, Paris and Amsterdam.

The questions function as market research to gain insight into civic priorities for large chunks of the budget: infrastructure like roads, public safety and park maintenance. A question could gauge whether to spend $20 million on 40 police officers or paving streets.

From there, some attendees are given a website URL to participate in additional online forums, where they’re dynamically slotted into groups by Conteneo’s platform.

Direct Control

When some in the local government sphere think about participatory budgeting, the New York City-based nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project often comes to mind. In September, its partnership with the New York City Council and community organizations, PBNYC, won the Harvard University Ash Center’s 2015 Innovation in American Government Award.

The PB Project also claims to have started the first national participatory budgeting process in Chicago in 2009 and now supports dozens, including some in Canada.

In New York City, council members provide $1 million to $2 million of their discretionary funds for residents to brainstorm projects and then vote on which ones to fund during an eight-month period. Only four council members offered up $4 million in PBNYC’s first year, 2011, but last cycle 28 members provided $32 million for neighborhood improvements voted on by 51,000 citizens.

Taken as a whole, the districts’ participatory budgeting project constitutes the biggest such process in the United States, said PB Project spokesman David Beasley.

Unlike Every Voice Engaged, PB Project gives people direct control of part of the city’s budget, and it’s that direct control, Beasley argues, that makes his program’s model PB and Hohmann’s model more akin to “consultation.”

“We think that soliciting public input is great, important and leads to better decisionmaking,” Beasley said. “But without direct community control, we don’t think it’s participatory budgeting.”

Hohmann’s outfit does great, empowering work, he added, but it lacks the direct control definition of participatory budgeting pioneered in Brazil in 1989 and used by the White House and World Bank, as well as the “sense of urgency” needed to convince large groups of citizens to devote their time to budgeting.

Depends on How You Count

Meanwhile, Hohmann prefers to think of direct control as one participatory budgeting “technique” and his market research another, “particularly powerful” method. While a district’s participatory budgeting spending money amounts to a small sliver of New York City’s total budget, he said, Every Voice Engaged deals with hundreds of millions of dollars in projects—albeit conceptually.

“Are we really moving the needle of the problems that we’re facing when we’re giving citizens control of such tiny portions of the budget?” Hohmann asked.

Beasley said yes, with a process that engages more traditionally unengaged demographic groups for spending that better reflects community needs.

Each cycle, PBNYC refines and experiments with its procedural rules with input from community and council representatives. Beasley expects more measured growth than in years previous in both the money pool and voters, but new PB Project efforts are about to go into voting in Seattle, home to the second youth-only process; Boston; Buffalo, New York; Greensboro, North Carolina; and several new Chicago wards.

Another unique element of Every Voice Engaged is that every small group member is given an equal portion of the total budget to spend on solo-funded projects of jointly funded ones.

“So it’s a collaborative, not competitive, process,” Hohmann said.

His foundation also runs budgeting forums in Missoula, Montana, and Dayton, Ohio, and Conteneo recently developed a new software platform for non-monetary problems called Common Ground for Action.

Schools in the Los Altos School District of California faced overcrowding and needed capacity, and Common Ground for Action visualized their options, the required actions for each and the associated set of drawbacks for things like redistricting. Small groups were presented with that visualization and then the degree of support for each option determined within the platform.

Just as PB Project dabbles in budgeting exercises and games, Every Voice Engaged has run smaller—think $100,000—direct-control participatory budgeting events in San José’s various districts as the desire arises and the funds become available.

Agree to Disagree

That said, the bulk of Hohmann’s work is viewed by PB Project to deepen the practice but not fundamentally change how governments work—a new version of the same system, Beasley said.

“It’s that change in the way power works that will make government more accessible,” he said. “That will renew public trust.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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