Participatory budgeting was implemented in New York City for the 2012-2013 fiscal year in order to introduce greater transparency and citizen engagement in the decision-making process.
Problems and Purpose
Historically, New York City's budgeting process has not been transparent and has faced charges of corruption. The New York City Council is also known for its non-transparent funding structure whereby the Speaker of the majority can determine a city council member's discretionary budget within a range of $3-$11 million. The New York City Council has also had a slew of corruption scandals linking council members to patronage and clientialism. In this climate, Participatory Budgeting in New York City (PBNYC), for Fiscal Year (2012-2013) is the largest pilot program of Participatory Budgeting to be implemented in the United States. PBNYC aims to bring about greater transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement into the New York budgeting process with the dual aims of 1) having citizens directly create and vote upon projects and 2) bring about greater civic awareness and ultimately putting pressure for a more transparent budgeting process.
Background History and Context
While Participatory Budgeting (PB) has proven to be a successful model for citizen engagement throughout the world, starting in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, it had yet to take hold in the United States (Fung 2011). Since starting in Brazil, PB has expanded to more than 300 municipalities worldwide (Cabannes n.d.; Wampler 2004; Wampler and Avritzer 2005). The only other instance of PB in the United States is in the 49th Ward of Chicago. PB is a generative process that can take many forms depending on the size of the political unit to which it is applied. It is inextricably linked to the given political structure that empowers PB, i.e. city level, state-wide level, etc. For example, the 1988 Brazilian Constitution set up the structural spaces in which PB could flourish (Baiocchi et al. 2011, p. 39).
While it is often recognized that PB has large potential and impact in the developing world, it is less clear if PB is a transferable model for the United States. Writing in a recent World Bank report about PB, expert Brian Wampler notes “one of the reasons why participatory budgeting is transferable to other locations, especially in developing countries, is that clientelism and social exclusion are everyday realities in many part of the developing world” 
When discussing Participatory Budgeting, it is important to distinguish the many types of participatory democratic innovations, some even involving budgeting, from the specific form of Brazilian Participatory Budgeting that first took place in Brazil in 1989. There, the Workers Party (PT) is a democratic socialist party, which used PB as a way to mobilize citizens and win popular support and legitimacy. Motivations for implementing PB in the United States are different as the U.S. has a disparate political and social environment than Brazil. Joe Moore, Alderman of Chicago’s 49th District, was the first to ever implement PB in the United States.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
PBNYC was co-chaired by two organizations, Participatory Budget Project (PBP) and Community Voices Heard (CVH). These organizations co-chaired the City Wide Steering Committee, which was comprised of representatives from the four council member districts and representatives from different community based organizations (CBOs) in New York City. Additionally, there were District Steering Committees made up of citizens and representatives from local organizations and civic associations within each of the four districts.
The council member's offices provided funding for the process, some of it directly, some through in-kind donations, and some channeled through CVH through the expense fund process. The process received outside grant and donor support. Notably, the research and evaluation team, run through the Urban Justice Center (UJC) lacked specific monies to run the process. The process also received around $200,000 less than anticipated to run the process, therefore the majority of staff on the governance level were donating their time and resources to staff and run PBNYC.
Four council members in New York City signed up to use their discretionary capital funds for participatory budgeting for Fiscal Year 2012-2013. The pilot program ran through August 2011 - March 2012. The four council members who signed up to use their discretionary funds were: D8 Melissa Mark-Viverito (Manhattan/Bronx), D32 Eric Ulrich (Queens), D39 Brad Lander (Brooklyn) and D45 Jumaane Williams (Brooklyn). The council members each pledged at least $1.4 million in discretionary capital funds that can be put toward infrastructural projects. For the second year, Fiscal Year 2013-2014, four additional council members signed up for a total of $15 million in discretionary funds to be allocated through the PB process.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
At the neighborhood assemblies, people signed up to be Budget Delegates: the people who met between November and February to actually create and draft proposals. Being a resident of a given district was not required for participants to come to a Neighborhood Assembly or serve as a budget delegate. Participants did need to be a resident in the community in order to vote, but the vote was open to all people aged over 18 including non-citizens.
Methods and Tools Used
This initiative is an example of participatory budgeting, a method of democratic innovation broadly described as "a decision-making process through which citizens deliberate and negotiate over the distribution of public resources." There are many benefits associated with participatory budgeting including increased civic and democratic education; increased government transparency; and an increased opportunity for participation by historically marginalized populations.
What Went On: Proccess, Interaction, and Participation
The process ran in September 2011 with the final vote in March 2012, beginning with district information sessions in which community members, leaders, and civil society organizations came together to learn more about the process and volunteered to serve on the District Steering Committees. The District Steering Committees helped to divide each district into Neighborhoods, which hosted a first round of Neighborhood Assemblies in October 2011. At these events, community members learned about the process and broke up into smaller groups to brainstorm potential projects in their neighborhoods, of which there are four or five in each district.
Throughout the various stages of the process there were moments and opportunities for deliberation, decisions, and public interaction. The District Committe members decided where to hold all events and worked directly with the Council Members' offices to publicize events. At the first round of Neighborhood Assemblies, Council Members were present, speaking, and interacting directly with residents and stakeholders in the community. These were opportunities to meet new people and discuss both the common and disparate themes and problems. In the first round of Neighborhood Assemblies, citizens deliberated and drew up project proposals. There was a wide exchange of ideas as they brainstormed on the different parts of their communities where they wanted to see capital improvements made.
The list of projects from this first round of Neighborhood Assemblies were consolidated and then presented to the people who signed up to be Budget Delegates. Each Budget Delegate group was divided by theme such as Parks and Recreation and Transportation. Each Budget Delegate committee had a facilitator who was either trained as a moderator or already serving on the District Committee. At these committees, experts from the specific government agencies were involved; for example, if a project was about education, a staff member from the Education Department attended, and consulted the delegates in the process. The Council member offices served as an intermediary between Budget Delegates and City agencies.
The bulk of deliberation and discussion took place in the Budget Delegate theme groups as they were typically comprised of a small enough number of people to enable true discussion and deliberation. Some theme groups had subcommittees within the committee, such as the Streets and Sidewalks subcommittee within the broader Parks and Recreations committee. Budget Delegates met roughly every other week over a span of many months and often communicated via email and phone. The level of online interaction varied through the districts with D-39 and D-8 using online tools the most for the process. In D-39, 180 project proposals were submitted online; 40 in D-8; 17 in D-45, and 8 in D-32. D-45, D-8 and D-39 all used social media as part of their project council member communication strategy including Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. The various demographics within each district and Council member capacity with technology influenced the usage of Internet Communication Technologies (ICT) in PBNYC. Overall, the process was "low tech."
In February 2012, a second round of Neighborhood Assemblies took place in which people deliberated, discussed, and commented on the proposals. After these revisions, there was a community-wide vote in March 2012 for projects. Council Members pledged to fund at least $1 million dollars in projects, including over $5 million from Councilmember Lander. Additionally, Council Members have pledged to try to find other revenue streams, including expense funds, to fund project ideas beyond those that were voted upon, that emerged during the course of the process.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Preliminary Budget Options from the Votes:
District 39: 2,200 Voters Total $1.4 Million
- Renovation of two dysfunctional bathrooms at PS 124 ($150,000, 958 votes)
- Innovative community composting system near Gowanus Canal to turn 1 ton/day of food waste into soil ($165,000, 919 votes)
- Planting 100 new trees on blocks throughout the district with few or no trees ($100,000, 767 votes)
- New technology for PS 130 and PS 154 ($140,000, 758 votes)
- Repairing Prospect Park pedestrian paths to prevent flooding, and adding trash cans in the park ($205,000, 648 votes)
- Repairs and safety improvements at the dangerous Prospect Expressway/Church Avenue pedestrian crossing ($200,000, 606 votes)
- New books and equipment for the Kensington public library to enhance the branch’s use for meetings, storytelling, rehearsals, and small performances promoting Kensington's cultural diversity ($80,000, 582 votes)
District 8: 1,132 Voters Total $1.54 Million
- Transportation for Seniors and Meals-on-Wheels Delivery Van ($100,000) - 579 votes. The transportation and Meals-on-Wheels vans will be operated by Union Settlement Association
- Security Cameras in Several NYCHA Developments ($525,000) - 499 votes. Includes Jefferson, Johnson, Betances, Millbrook, Washington, Taft, Clinton, & Wagner complexes
- Playground Improvements ($500,000) - 300 votes. At both Douglass and Millbrook Houses
- A Home for Harlem RBI and Dream Charter School ($250,000) - 292 votes
- Ultrasound System for Metropolitan Hospital ($105,000) - 252 votes
- New Technology for New York Public Library's Aguilar Branch ($60,000) - 248 votes
District 45: 1,100 Voters $1.05 Million
- The installation of two security cameras at several locations district-wide
- Funding towards the purchase or renovation of a space for a proposed community resource center
- The installation of flood lights in each park in the district
- The purchase of desktops, laptops, a security cart and a smartboard for students at the CAMBA Beacon Program located at P.S. 269 Nostrand
District 32: 1,639 Voter total $1.32 Milion
- Technology Upgrades at PS47, PS317/MS318, PS114.
- Cascade (Oxygen Refill) System for Volunteer Fire Departments.
- Water Pump for Volunteer Fire Departments to Alleviate Flooding
- Pagers for Four Volunteer Fire Departments
- Knights of Columbus, Rockaways – Handicapped Bathroom Upgrade
- Gazebo-Bandstand/Outdoor Performance Space on Shorefront Parkway
- Library Vending Machine in Breezy Point
- Six Argus Security Cameras for the 100th Precinct (3 locations)
- Library Renovation/Upgrade at Peninsula Library Branch
Analysis and Lessons Learned
There is concern about the scalability and feasibility of the project. Although four additional Council Members have tentatively signed up for the second cycle, some contend that CBO's are too deeply embedded in the process and lack the necessary resources to maintain the process. There is also concern about how representative the process was because people had to make active decisions to participate. This is surely not a problem if the emphasis is on deepening participation, but it might also not necessarily ensure accurate representation of the community. Within the process of deliberation and decision making, there are the traditional critiques of deliberative processes such as that they re-establish socio-economic divides and favor those able to speak and be heard. Also, the micro-decision-making of moderators and heterogenous organization of district level committees, as well as varying levels of Council Member resources, created variation in the process.
There are also ongoing concerns regarding the resources not only of CBOs but also of Council member offices since the process is very labor intensive. Additional concerns relate to the political nature of the process, including Council member motivations. At what point can the political motivations be separated from a desire for genuine civic engagement? Do the motivations of council members even matter? Is this process about bringing people to vote for projects and building coaltions around their Council members or to form deeper civic associations and bonds? If the project is ambitiously aiming to do all of these things how can they be achieved with substantative political and capital resources?
While the first cycle of participation has come to a close, there is concern about the ability of citizens to effectively monitor the projects implemented. PB in the United States has not used Internet Communication Technologies (ICT) as effectively as PB in some other places, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. Therefore, the question remains as to which tools participants will use to follow up on project monitoring and implementation.
Lastly, there is the challenge of how to turn PBNYC into a process that calls for greater transparency and accountability for larger sums of money. The Participatory Budget Project co-Founder and Brown Professor Gianpaolo Baiocchi notes that "The challenge is to use the discretionary funds as a stepping stone towards other kinds of decision-making. Imagine how transformative it would be to actually control the way the city works and runs!"
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