Participatory budgeting: When government really is by the people

I learned that participatory budgeting is relatively new in the United States, but, globally, it’s been around for several decades. That said, the way that we practice it in the US is also a bit different. The first thing that happens, and my favorite part to ensure transparency, is that community members come together to write the rules that will govern a participatory budgeting process. Then we enter the idea-collection phase, where we collect hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas on how to spend a pot of money to make a community better. We’re not talking about the entire public budget; we’re talking about identifying a space, a line item in the budget, where we can make some decisions together.

After we collect those ideas, we go into the next phase, maybe my most favorite. This is proposal development. This is where community members come together and form a couple of committees to review all of the ideas that have come in based on need, feasibility, and impact. This is an important piece around ensuring equity, not only for the projects that come in but the projects that make it onto the ballot. They work alongside agency or institutional staff to distill and vet those projects so that we have final projects for the ballot. Nothing makes it on a participatory budgeting ballot unless it can really happen if it gets enough votes.

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