William Alatriste for the New York City Counci

Community residents attend a 2014 participatory budgeting event in then-Councilmember (now Speaker) Corey Johnson's district.

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On Election Day, New York City residents will have a chance to vote on three ballot measures. City Limits welcomes op-eds from anyone with a position on one or all of them. Let us know if you want to weigh in.
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Feeling depressed about the state of our democracy? So are we. National politics are a mess, leaving many of us in despair. But in New York voters have the opportunity to help revitalize local democracy. The ballot on November 6th includes several proposals to enhance civic engagement, including Proposal 2 calling for a city-wide “participatory budgeting” process.

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a way for residents to help allocate public funds, and is currently used in 32 of New York’s City Council districts. It works like this: Residents discuss local problems, needs, and potential solutions in public assemblies. Then, groups of volunteers – called budget delegates – develop project proposals and display them online and in exhibitions (the Project Expo). Next, residents vote on the proposals. Finally, city officials implement the projects receiving the most votes.

Last year, nearly 100,000 New Yorkers used PB to decide how to spend over $36 million, funding projects to make improvements in parks, schools, libraries, public housing, and other community spaces. If Proposal 2 passes, PB would be expanded to the whole city by July 1, 2020, and New York City’s participatory budgeting process would become one of the largest in the world, joining Mexico City, Paris, and Seoul.

This past year, we studied PB in the United States and Canada as part of a larger book project covering dozens of countries, Hope for Democracy – 30 Years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide. We found that PB is spreading quickly in the U.S. This may be because it is serving as a partial antidote to the hateful rhetoric and damaging policies coming out of Washington. We see at least five reasons New Yorkers should vote “yes” on Proposal 2.

PB strengthens democracy’s inclusive nature

In the seven years since its inception in New York City, inclusion has been at the core of PB. Local organizers have purposefully sought to involve marginalized groups in this process of direct democracy. The PBNYC rulebook specifically calls for expanding civic engagement for the traditionally unrepresented or disenfranchised, such as young people, people of color, low-income residents, the formerly incarcerated, and immigrants. In the latest cycle, PBNYC provided ballots in 13 languages, allowed those as young as 11 to participate, and only required residents to live in the district in order to vote. In several City Council districts, low-income people and people of color participate in PB at much higher rates than in traditional elections. At a time of extreme xenophobia and exclusion of “the other,” participatory budgeting offers a clear avenue for welcoming all New Yorkers.

PB gives people a voice and a choice

Americans are increasingly feeling disillusioned with democracy. In this context, PB offers residents a public forum to have their voice heard by government officials as well as by their peers. While critics argue that everyday citizens should not have to make budget decisions, viewing it as the responsibility of elected officials, in a climate of growing distrust of government, PB provides a unique opportunity for residents to have a direct say in the use of public funds. In the face of voter apathy and declining civic engagement, PB encourages activism by valuing participants’ local knowledge and offering the chance to make concrete improvements in their communities.

PB helps residents understand how local government works and increases transparency

Participants in PBNYC’s 2013 and 2014 budget cycles reported that their involvement generated greater understanding of complex government (including budgeting) processes. PB is about more than participation; it is about education, skills, and knowledge. Local government and the complex ways in which it functions are often an enigma to citizens. Through participation in PB, residents have greater access to their elected officials and to information about the costs and benefits of potential public projects. Furthermore, education about the budget process also provides a means of accountability, as knowledgeable residents can better hold their elected officials accountable. Participants also gain useful organizational and technical skills by taking part in the assemblies or serving as budget delegates and developing projects.

PB improves voter turnout and energizes community organizations

In addition to including the excluded, giving residents a direct voice in local government, and enhancing understanding and transparency, PB positively affects the likelihood of citizens voting in regular elections and strengthens grassroots organizing by bringing disparate community groups together to discuss local issues. A large alliance of civic groups called the “Democracy Yes” coalition has thrown its support behind Proposal 2 and the other proposed civic engagement measures.

Scaling up PB can help address issues of equity

A final reason to vote for Proposal 2 is that city-wide PB is better than district-by-district at starting to rectify inequalities. In some cities in other countries, PB has been used to redirect resources from wealthier to poorer neighborhoods based on indicators of poverty, public infrastructure, and access to public services, leading to improvements in well-being such as declines in infant mortality. In New York, such differences within city council districts are less than differences across districts. While the current PB rulebook calls for making spending decisions more equitable, “so resources go where they are needed most,” that will take a city-wide process that includes communities in all 51 districts.

Help reverse the tide of deteriorating democracy – say yes to city-wide participatory budgeting on November 6th.

Benjamin Goldfrank is Associate Professor and Department Chair at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. His teaching and research focus on Latin American politics and participatory democracy. Katherine Landes is an M.A. candidate at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations specializing in Foreign Policy Analysis and Global Negotiation and Conflict Management.