Participatory budgeting is a community-level democratic approach to public spending in which local people directly decide how to spend millions of dollars in public funding. Participatory Budgeting in New York City (PBNYC), called “revolutionary civics in action” by the New York Times, is the largest and the fastest-growing participatory budgeting process in the United States.
Participatory budgeting had been practiced in Latin America and Europe since 1989, but wasn’t attempted by a US government entity until 2009. Founded in 2011 by four members of the New York City Council, in partnership with the Participatory Budgeting Project, Community Voices Heard, and other community organizations, Participatory Budgeting in New York City was created to move beyond traditional models of civic engagement. This process educates participants on what has been one of the most obscure and complicated aspects of governing, and makes budgeting accessible. At the same time, it allows the council offices to open channels of communications with constituents that go beyond letters, e-mails, and town hall meetings, to hear in depth what the people they represent care about and what their priorities are for their neighborhoods.
PBNYC is the largest and fastest-growing participatory budgeting process in the United States. Over the eight-month period of each participatory budgeting cycle, thousands of people from all over the city participate in over 200 neighborhood assemblies that meet citizens where they live 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.
During each PBNYC cycle, a Steering Committee is formed with representation from grassroots organizations, government officials, community stakeholders, and diverse residents. This Steering Committee lays out the framework and rules for PBNYC with the mission of engaging residents who have the highest barriers to civic participation. District Committees, which have a similar makeup but are local to each Council District, are also convened. This approach builds much broader support for PBNYC and systematically changes relationships between government and the people, leading to a more genuinely participatory democracy.
In PBNYC's 2014-2015, 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 affects four million people in the city. Of those who participated in PBNYC’s most recent cycle, 23% had a barrier to voting in regular elections, including those who had felony convictions or who were under the age of 18. More than a quarter were born outside of the US, and nearly half earned under $50,000 a year. The majority of participants – 57% – identified as people of color.
PBNYC’s community-led grassroots approach is serving as a new model for participatory budgeting across the US and elsewhere. The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), together with other PBNYC partners, is using the success of PBNYC to spread similar approaches to over a dozen other North American cities.