BLOG: The Spillover Effect: Participatory budgeting
21 August 2014 at 9:51 am
In her latest blog, Fulbright Professional Scholar in Non-profit Leadership, Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine discusses the prospect of participatory budgeting in an Australian context following its successful implementation in New York.
Imagine a place where locals got a direct say in their council’s budget for programs, services and infrastructure. Imagine if that involved a process where a community could brainstorm what they wanted their local government to do, prioritise those ideas, vote on them and then receive an allocation within the local budget to fund them.
Welcome to participatory budgeting in New York City. Over the past four years local government Councillors have begun to hand over portions of their budget to their constituents to choose how it should be spent. Projects funded under this participatory budgeting process include accessible bathrooms and other improvements in Senior Centers, electronic bus stop signs advising waiting times, new fridges and stoves for public housing, playground renovations in settlement (community) services, pedestrian and street safety, landscaping and performance spaces.
Commencing with four City Councillors in 2011-12, New York’s City Hall recently announced the highest number ever, 23 Councillors, would be participating in the 2014-15 budget cycle, giving to their communities a minimum of $1 million from the discretionary spending within their District budgets.
Unsurprisingly, nonprofits have been instrumental in bringing about this revolution in government budgeting. As part of the Australian Progress US Study Tour, I met with Community Voices Heard, a membership-based organisation of people on low incomes, predominantly women with experience receiving welfare payments, building power in New York City and State to improve the lives of their families and communities.
CVH has been key in bringing participatory budgeting to New York City Council: initially seeding the idea with individual Councillors, facilitating its policy development and now acting as a resource to assist those new to the process and maximise the impact of community participation. In line with CVH’s own mission, the participatory budgeting process is a prime example of how community organisations can combine a focus on policy and a process of grassroots organising to achieve great effect for their communities.
(L-R): Josh Lerner, Executive Director, Participatory Budgeting Project; Sondra Youdelman & Agnes Rivera, CVH; Tessa Boyd-Caine; Alexa Kasdan, Executive Director of the Community Development Project, Urban Justice Center; Pam Jennings, Project Coordinator, Participatory Budgeting Project; & Christopher King, CVH at the City Hall Press Conference announcing the expansion of participatory budgeting in 2014-15.
Participatory budgeting is not unheard of in Australia; it has been underway for several years in the City of Canada Bay in NSW, among other examples. At a time when Australia’s Federal Budget is being severely criticised for its harshness towards those who can least afford cuts to income and services, participatory budgeting holds the possibility of a very different approach to the decisions we as a community want about government spending. To be clear, the day is far off when recipients of social security payments in America have a direct say on how much they receive, or what programs they can access. But imagine if the dissatisfaction with the current Federal Budget enabled Australia, in part or in whole, to begin a discussion about a more participatory approach to how our governments budget for our community needs.
- What I’m reading: Eugene Steurle’s blog, http://blog.governmentwedeserve.org/. I’ll be thinking about the BOGGSAT effect in policy-making from now on.
- I’ve enjoyed watching: The Book of Mormon, the best Broadway show I’ve ever seen.
- Follow me on twitter: @tboydcaine
 Thompson, Nivek K. (2012) "Participatory budgeting – the Australian way," Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 8: Iss. 2, Article 5.