Last week, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School celebrated the conclusion of a two-year search and evaluation process to name the winner of the $100,000 Roy and Lila Ash Innovations Award in Public Engagement in Government.
For the past two years, in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Ash Center, the center has hosted a public dialogue series on Challenges to Democracy. The goal of the series was not only to explore the challenges facing democracy in the United States today but also to identify and highlight promising solutions. To this end, the Ash Center offered the Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement in Government, alongside its longstanding Innovations in American Government Award, with the specific goal of recognizing government-led innovations that demonstrate enhanced public engagement and participation in the governance of towns, cities, states, and the nation.
We were pleased to receive over one hundred submissions of programs, policies, and initiatives that enhance citizen engagement and participation in the development of policies, regulations, and community spending decisions, and in taking action to solve public problems in a variety of creative ways. Many programs leverage digital technologies or other government resources to broaden or deepen public engagement and utilize crowdsourcing and collaboration to drive problem-solving. Through a multistage evaluation process that included two application rounds, a research round, a site visit, and a final public presentation, the Ash Center named Participatory Budgeting in New York City (PBNYC) as the winner of the Roy and Lila Ash Innovations Award.
Participatory budgeting is a process that promotes direct public participation in the spending of public monies by engaging citizens in a community to help decide how to allocate these funds. The first participatory budgeting program began in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 1989, and over the past two decades has been adopted in over 1,500 cities in Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Variations of the process exist, but essentially the process involves several steps, including providing information to the public, forming neighborhood assemblies and selecting budget delegates, drafting proposals, voting by the public, and implementation of winning proposals. Through this process, residents, local experts, and public servants, are empowered to make decisions together.
Participatory Budgeting in New York City is the largest and fastest-growing participatory budgeting process in the United States. PBNYC began in 2011 with four members of the New York City Council, in partnership with the Participatory Budgeting Project, Community Voices Heard, and other community organizations. PBNYC provides citizens in those districts with the opportunity to make hands-on decisions about how to allocate portions of their council budgets, while educating participants on complicated aspects of governing, and making budgeting accessible. At the same time, it allows the council offices to open new channels of communications with constituents to hear what the people they represent care about and what their priorities are for their neighborhoods.
Over the eight-month period of each participatory budgeting cycle, thousands of people from all over the city participate in hundreds of neighborhood assemblies to brainstorm spending ideas that could improve their communities. From these meetings, hundreds of participants go on to become “budget delegates” and work with their elected officials to represent their community’s spending priorities and create project proposals. In PBNYC's most recent cycle, over 51,000 people voted on the projects they want to see implemented in their communities, and oversaw the spending of approximately $32 million in neighborhood improvements. The program has grown from four initial City Council districts to more than 27 in just four years, and now affects four million people in the city.
On behalf of the Ash Center, Executive Director Marty Mauzy presented the award to New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and commended the New York City Council, the Participatory Budgeting Project, Community Voices Heard, the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center, and the thousands of community participants for their remarkable achievements.
“The Innovations in American Government Awards program honors PBNYC tonight with our Roy and Lila Ash Award because of their impressive record of engaging citizens, in recognition of the lives touched by the program’s broad reach, and for finding ways of engaging those who are too often left out of civic processes. The adaptability, creativity, and passion demonstrated by the program are an inspiration to us all. It is our hope that by shining a light on PBNYC, others who hope to do the same will be inspired to adopt not only its methods but its ethos that no program can truly represent the people if it does not work to meet citizens where they live and amplify the voices of the marginalized,” Mauzy said.
Echoing this, Esther DeVore, a member-leader of Community Voices Heard, remarked at the event, “The only way we’re going to counteract the apathy in our communities is if we give people real power and we value their voices. As a resident of East Harlem, I’m particularly interested in PB because the smallest voice can be heard.”
Participatory Budgeting in New York City will now receive a $100,000 grant to conduct a series of activities designed to disseminate the program model across the United States and encourage its replication even further.
The Ash Center will continue to study and highlight examples of participatory budgeting with a series of events and activities in the coming months. Please follow the Government Innovators Network for updates on this exciting movement.
Please also keep an eye out for Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America by Hollie Russon Gilman coming in February 2016.
Pictured from left to right: Sondra Youdelman (Executive Director, Community Voices Heard), Esther DeVore (Member-Leader, Community Voices Heard), Josh Lerner (Executive Director, Participatory Budgeting Project), Melissa Mark-Viverito (Speaker, New York City Council), John Medina (Board Member, Community Voices Heard), and Marty Mauzy (Executive Director, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation).