Webinar Rewind: Participatory Budgeting (January 2017)

Consider a ladder.


Shari Davis

Looks a lot like the P2 Spectrum, doesn’t it? In the January IAP2 Learning webinar, we heard how Participatory Budgeting (PB) lays claim to the topmost rung on that ladder. Shari Davis, Director of Strategic Initiatives with the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), described how PB gives people – especially those who are often cut out of the democratic process – an opportunity to be fully involved with decisions on how to spend public money.



PB is about more than spending money, Shari explains. The process begins with deciding on the amount of money to be set aside for PB. It has to be a large-enough sum to make it “worthwhile” for people to take part. Shari points out that if a major city designated, say, five thousand dollars for PB, no one would take the process seriously. Dieppe, with an annual budget of $50-million, set aside $300-thousand. The City of Boston designated $1-million for a youth-oriented PB project.


Once the “pot” is identified, the city then reaches out to the communities that would be affected, finding leaders who can then draw in other community members. Shari says it’s vital to have grassroots involvement right from the start, in order to make sure people see that their involvement is being taken seriously. It’s also important to define “equity” from the start, to make sure that those who need to be part of the process are contacted and drawn in.

People brainstorm ideas, develop proposals, find champions for those proposals, vote on them and eventually implement the “winners”. At the proposal development stage, city staff join the process to discuss feasibility and impact, and to help cost-out the proposals. This is where some ideas are pursued, while others drop out of the running.

But as we said earlier, the benefits of PB go beyond simply spending money. Communications between government and citizens are improved, and so is learning within the community. What’s more, more people are inspired to get more deeply involved in public affairs: a Harvard University study found that people who got involved in the process had learned more about local government, and were more likely to work with others to solve community problems.

Luc Richard

Luc Richard described how the City of Dieppe, New Brunswick (est. pop. 30,000), where he is Director of Organizational Performance, launched its own PB process. City Councillors realized that their efforts to consult with the community had been superficial, so determined to move more towards the “right” of the IAP2 Spectrum – i.e. “collaborate” or “empower” – and decided a PB process was the way to do it, enlisting the help of PBP consultants from New York City to make it happen.

pb-5Among the criteria approved by the Steering Committee were that the funding was to be one-time-only, but programs and services, as well as infrastructure, would be eligible. They also decided to give voting rights to people who wouldn’t normally be eligible, such as non-citizens living in the area and people age 11 and over (middle-school age).

Booths were set up in public markets and other gathering places to collect ideas; people could also take part online and at workshops held at various times and days, to make sure people from as many different sectors as possible could participate. Over 100 ideas were submitted, and a selection committee consisting of city staff and community members met throughout the summer to winnow that list down to just under 20.

Then came the three-week voting phase, with a Project Expo at the local Middle School, to showcase the various ideas. Project Champions produced videos outlining the proposals.

In the end, four projects were accepted: a

The emergence of new faces is encouraging for future engagement efforts

ball hockey rink, a climbing wall, renovations to a playground and an outdoor fitness equipment park. All but one has been fully implemented.

While voter turnout was a disappointing 5.4%, a lot of positives have come out of the process. For one thing, there were a lot of “new faces” showing up – public involvement was not commandeered by “the usual suspects”, as can happen in such exercises. Having youth involved meant whole families were getting into the act. And the city received a lot of positive exposure in the media.

“Participatory Budgeting is a cure for the skepticism towards politics.”

Le Devoir, June, 2016

Dieppe is by no means the only Canadian city using PB. Toronto is into Year Two of its three-year PB process; St-Basile-le-Grand, Québec, has done it; so have Hamilton and Guelph, and Victoria is about to launch a project this year.

IAP2 Canada members may watch the webinar and get access to collateral materials here.

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