2017 Bright Idea
City of Cambridge, MA
January 1, 2017

Participatory Budgeting (PB) lets Cambridge community members make real decisions about real money. After recruiting a 22-person volunteer Steering Committee in October 2014 to guide the process, the City set out to collect ideas from community members in December about how they would spend $500,000 on capital projects to improve Cambridge.  The 380 ideas that were submitted ranged from public toilets and peace gardens to performing art spaces and playgrounds for adults. From January to March 2015, over 40 volunteer Budget Delegates worked in four committees to research, assess, prioritize, and develop the 380 submitted ideas into 20 final proposals for Cambridge’s first PB ballot. Budget Delegates consulted with City staff, community groups, academic experts, and residents; conducted site visits and reviewed demographic and GIS data; and evaluated ideas on need, impact, and feasibility to develop the final ballot projects. The first PB vote was held from March 22-28, 2015.  Any Cambridge resident age 12 or older could vote, including students and non-US citizens, making PB a key tool to engage those who might not normally have a voice in traditional decision-making processes. In all, 2,727 Cambridge residents voted online or in person in English, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Spanish in the City’s first PB process, ultimately choosing six winning projects: 100 new street trees, a public toilet in Central Square, 20 new laptops for the Community Learning Center, eight bike repair stations, over 400 bilingual books for children, and free public Wi-Fi in six outdoor locations. Based on an independent evaluation of the first process, the City altered the timeline of the second PB process, built in more support for Budget Delegates, expanded online voting, and enhanced outreach efforts. These changes contributed to a 53 percent increase in voter turnout for the second PB vote, in which 4,184 Cambridge residents participated. As of 2016, more than $700,000 in capital funds will be distributed via the third round of PB in Cambridge.