A Critique of Participatory Budgeting

The potential is there but reality leaves much to be desired

This weekend starts the City of Cambridge’s[1] week long Participatory Budget vote. Participatory Budgeting is “a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget”. The idea was conceived by a non-profit called the Participatory Budgeting Project. Many cities, districts, and schools throughout the world are now using the concept. The city where I live now, Cambridge, is one of those places.

When I first heard about Participatory Budgeting it got my attention. Government to me always sounded great in theory, but in reality, felt too complex or too distant for individuals to do much of anything besides vote in elections. A representative democracy, like what we have in America, definitely has its benefits but I’ve always felt a direct democracy might be a more interesting model. So, when I heard about Participatory Budgeting, I thought it was a great opportunity to see direct democracy in action.

What makes Participatory Budgeting unique from something like a ballot initiative is the difference in voting requirements. Unlike a ballot initiative, any resident, not only citizens, can cast a vote. Even children 12 years old and above can vote. You can argue there may be downsides to these voting requirements but it’s hard to argue that this wouldn’t be the best representation of the people within a city. On top of this, many interesting projects have come out of past Participatory Budgeting years. Including projects such as protected bike lanes, solar panels on top of the public library, and kinetic energy tiles in Harvard Square.

This lead me to volunteer this year as a budget delegate in Cambridge’s Participatory Budgeting process. A budget delegate helps the city’s budget office sift through all the ideas that are submitted by residents to help narrow them down to what ultimately goes on the ballot to be voted on by the community. I wanted to get more involved in the idea selection process because I felt it would be an opportunity to get more meaningful ideas on the ballot for this year’s vote. It also allowed me to “see how the sausage is made”. I was able to see how the process worked all the way from idea submission to the final ballot. Perhaps unsurprisingly however, I came away from it all a bit disappointed.

The entire process is pretty straightforward. First residents submit ideas. Then budget delegates help filter those ideas down to a select few. Those ideas get sent to the city’s budget office for evaluation. Finally, budget delegates select the final list of ideas that end up on the ballot to be voted on by all residents. There is a bit more involved in the actual vetting of ideas but in the interest of keeping this post brief, that’s a high-level summary of what goes on behind the scenes.

My frustration was with the city’s handling of the final ballot proposals. Many of the interesting ideas that were submitted to the city’s budget office from the subcommittee[2] I was a part of were denied outright. Since the city is responsible for implementing the projects, it makes sense that they have a say in what gets put on the ballot and what does not. The frustrating part was their reasoning behind the rejections.[3]

One of the most popular ideas submitted (based on number of votes and related ideas) was for more protected bike lanes throughout the city.[4] This idea not only was popular from the perspective of bikers but it was also popular from the perspective of drivers, who felt it was a lot easier to drive on roads with protected bike lanes than those without. This type of project is also the type of project that makes Participatory Budgeting great because without Participatory Budgeting these projects may have never gotten off the ground.

However, this year the city rejected any protected bike lane projects for the final ballot with the reasoning, “The City has its own process and timeline for installing separated bike lanes. The City wants to evaluate the separated bike lanes that were recently installed before committing to additional separated bike lanes via the PB ballot.”

Again, I think the city has the right to deny projects that are included on the ballot. They have a lot more information and better know what is required to implement a project. But upon further questioning about why these specific ideas were rejected, the city’s budget office representative said that the city needed to re-evaluate the existing bike lanes because of the feedback they received from citizens.

I understand why the city may want to re-evaluate something that they have gotten a lot of feedback on. But in this particular instance, it raises a lot of questions. Namely, is submitting formal complaints a more effective way to get things done around the city than through something like Participatory Budgeting? If so, that’s highly disappointing for something like Participatory Budgeting. That significantly dismisses the value of it. In addition, it raises the question of why community feedback has more impact than the community voting?

Presumably only a small minority of people ever submit a formal complaint about a city project. Yet, any resident of Cambridge can vote in Participatory Budgeting. This would lead one to think residents of Cambridge again have less say than the select group of people submitting complaints to the city. This isn’t to say that there is no place for submitting feedback to the city but instead is to ask why Participatory Budgeting exists if more power can be had by submitting complaints? Another potential consequence of valuing feedback over Participatory Budgeting is that feedback is most likely to be only critical of existing ideas, not proposing new solutions that improve the city.

As a resident of Cambridge this bothers me. I would like to think that something like Participatory Budgeting would have more influence in our government than the complaints of a few people. After all, isn’t that exactly what a direct democracy is trying to accomplish, to directly hear the voices of the people, not just some of them but all of them?

I hope by writing this post I can bring more attention to what goes on behind the scenes and to further champion something like Participatory Budgeting because I think it’s a great idea. It’s now up to us to make sure the leaders of our communities help bring out its potential, rather than its demise.

You can find all of the projects that did make it on to this year’s final ballot here. You can also read the bike lane project’s final proposal to the city’s budget office here. And finally, you can see every idea that was submitted for consideration here.

[1] Cambridge, MA not Cambridge, UK

[2] In total, there were 5 subcommittees: Community Resources, Environment, Parks and Recreation, Streetsmarts, and Youth and Technology.

[3] Other budget delegates may have had a different experience. This post is just a reflection on mine.

[4] For full disclosure, I helped work on this proposal.