An audience of at least 70 people packed into the library of P.S. 192 in a far uptown corner of Harlem. It was June 2014, and they were there to attend one of a series of events to kick off the first participatory budgeting cycle in the history of NYC Council District 7.
“Does anybody know why this process is so important?” asked Council Member Mark Levine. Participatory budgeting allows communities to have a direct say in how resources get deployed in their own neighborhoods. From 2014 to 2015, more than 70,000 residents in 46 jurisdictions across the United States and Canada directly decided how their cities and districts should spend nearly $50 million in public funds through participatory budgeting.
“The neighbors know best,” replied one constituent, seconded by many nodding heads and murmurs of approval. That was supposed to be the easy question.
“Does anybody know what capital budget means?” Levine asked next. It’s an important concept, as NYC’s participatory budgeting only involves capital or “bricks and mortar” funding, not funding to hire people or organizations to run programs. Someone in the audience knew the answer, but that wasn’t the whole point. With something new like participatory budgeting, elected officials in cities are taking the opportunity to use moments like that one in P.S. 192 to begin to strengthen democracy and citizenship among constituents, especially with people who have historically been disenfranchised from the political process.
According to a new report from Public Agenda, it’s working: In most communities’ participatory budgeting voter demographic surveys, residents from lower-income communities were over-represented or represented on par with census data. In nearly all communities, black voters were over-represented or on par with census data. On gender, 62 percent of surveyed participatory budgeting voters overall were women. Also, while data on citizenship status was not widely collected, all jurisdictions allowed residents and resident business owners to vote in participatory budgeting regardless of citizenship status.
Percentage of participatory budgeting voter respondents by race and income (Credit: Public Agenda)
“We found a correlation between doing outreach with community-based organizations and increased participation of low-income and people of color at the vote,” says Carolin Hagelskamp, one of the report co-authors. In many cases, she says, engaging community-based organizations often starts with inviting them to be part of the jurisdiction-wide steering committee.
“A lot really starts with who is in that steering committee,” says Hagelskamp. “For the most part it’s the steering committee that sets the goals and the rules and also monitors throughout how things are going and are they achieving their goals.”
Person-to-person outreach also helps bring out historically disenfranchised groups. “Talking to people on the street, coffee shops, fast food restaurants, laundromats, barbershops, churches, community centers, street corners, schools, wherever people hang out a little bit,” Hagelskamp adds.
The trend lines are looking up. Jurisdictions that started out doing well when it comes to low-income voter turnout or black voter turnout are keeping up their performance along those lines, while jurisdictions that weren’t doing well are learning from others and improving their performance. “Many still are doing it for the first time, so they don’t have much to go by, but they’re learning from each other,” says Hagelskamp.
Hispanic or Latino outreach remains a weak point, however. Sixty-eight percent of communities under-represented their census level of Hispanic or Latino populations when it came to voter demographics in participatory budgeting. Many jurisdictions still had trouble translating ballots and other informational documents into languages other than English. It’s something Public Agenda hopes to monitor more closely in subsequent reports.
In NYC’s own evaluation of the fourth participatory budgeting cycle, which involved 24 out of 51 city council districts, one out of five participatory budgeting ballots were cast in a language other than English.
“Also, you may have a lot of the materials translated into Spanish but at the voting site you may not have someone who speaks Spanish,” Hagelskamp adds.
Public Agenda collected the data in partnership with local organizations in each jurisdiction, often limiting the depth of data they could collect. Participation data was collected through voter surveys, which were not always translated into a language other than English. Also, they did not collect data on how deeply low-income communities or communities of color were engaged in the participatory budgeting process beyond the voting phase.
In the standard participatory budgeting model, volunteer budget delegates from the community take ideas through the process of figuring out which are viable, often working with relevant city agency staff, and ultimately creating a full project proposal. Hagelskamp says Public Agenda and its partners are looking into how to collect participation data in these phases for next year.
Another upcoming project: indicators to determine who is really benefiting from any given participatory budgeting project. “We’re working on equity indicators for each of the projects that win, looking for who are they serving,” Hagelskamp says.
But perhaps the most important impact, that cultivating of democracy and citizenship, remains something that can’t be captured by any indicator. “Some people call it participatory budgeting becoming institutionalized, or say participatory budgeting is building civic infrastructure,” says Hagelskamp. “Officials use it to learn about their communities, and residents are starting to learn how they can use the process to advocate or voice opinions about certain things, even if they don’t get funded.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.