In Greensboro, North Carolina, participatory budgeting, or PB, started thanks to the grassroots efforts of community members. Hoping to enable residents to have a say in their local budgets, they held a series of mock PB processes around the city in churches, schools and a homeless shelter. After many years of such advocacy, Greensboro started using PB in 2015.

Organizers of PB in Long Beach, California, wanted to see greater participation from traditionally under-represented communities in their PB process. They adjusted their outreach strategies, inviting members and leaders from these communities to serve on their district’s PB committee. As a result, Long Beach saw a more diverse cross section of residents in its second year with PB.

In a district in San Francisco, voters cast 1,459 ballots online, out of a total of 1,504. And in Dieppe, New Brunswick, PB helped young people realized that they could really make a difference in their community.

These are just some of the stories that emerged from the 61 communities across the U.S. and Canada that used PB in 2015-16. For the second year in a row, we collected data and stories from these communities, bringing it all together in our new report, “A Process of Growth: The Expansion of Participatory Budgeting in the United States and Canada in 2015-16.”

“A Process of Growth” is a follow up to the first-ever comprehensive analysis of PB in the U.S. and Canada, which we published in May 2016. The Kettering Foundation served as a collaborator in the research, which was funded by the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation.

Key Findings from the report include:

PB Is Growing at an Impressive Rate

Sixty-one communities used PB in 2015-16, including 24 that were new to the process. This represents a growth of 33 percent in the number of PB processes from 2014-15. Much of this growth occurred in small towns. Ten of the 24 newly launched processes (42 percent) were undertaken in communities with populations under 50,000 people.

PB also saw a significant growth in the number of people participating and the amount of public money spent through the process. A total of 101,026 people voted in PB processes in 2015-16, a 38 percent increase from the 73,381 people who voted in 2014-15. These voters decided on how to spend $60.8 million in public money, a 30 percent increase from the $46.7 million allocated through PB in 2014-15.

Communities that Allocated More Money to PB and Offered More Voting Sites Saw Greater Participation

Some communities implemented PB in ways that were associated with greater voter participation, including setting aside more money for the process and offering more voting sites. When officials set aside more money for PB, communities saw more residents voting, according to the report. This relationship remained significant even when controlling for the number of residents in the jurisdiction, the number of days the vote lasted and the total number of voting sites. The average amount of money officials allocated to their PB processes decreased slightly from $1,015,756 per process in 2014-15 to $996,914 in 2015-16, though communities varied widely in the amount they allocated.

In communities that offered more voting sites, more residents voted in PB, a correlation also detected in 2014-15. Communities that had PB in both 2014-15 and 2015-16 also showed a positive relationship between number of sites and number of ballots cast. The more these communities increased the number of voting sites from 2014-15 to 2015-16, the more voters turned out. This relationship remained significant when controlling for both total population and for differences in voting days and money allocated between the first and second years.

Stories and Lessons from the Field

The report concludes with a series of case studies documenting PB processes in Long Beach, San Francisco and Vallejo, California; Dieppe, New Brunswick; Greensboro, North Carolina; and New York, New York. These case studies, written by PB implementers and evaluators, illustrate several dynamics that characterized 2015-16 PB processes, including the increase in small towns doing PB, grassroots advocacy to get PB started, the use of remote online voting and increasing voter turnout and diversity. These evaluators and implementers provide practical tips for people who are implementing or considering a PB process in their communities.

Further Reading

This report is the most recent resource from Public Agenda regarding PB. Other publications include:

  • “Why Let the People Decide? Elected Officials on Participatory Budgeting”: Findings from a series of confidential interviews with local elected officials from across the country regarding their perceptions of PB.
  • “Public Spending, by the People: Participatory Budgeting in the United States and Canada in 2014 – 15”: The first-ever comprehensive analysis of PB in the U.S. and Canada.
  • “15 Key Metrics for Evaluating Participatory Budgeting: A Toolkit for Evaluators and Implementers”: A toolkit providing research instruments, tips and other resources for those looking to collect data about PB in their communities.
  • “Brazil Has Reduced Inequality, Incrementally, Can We Do the Same?”: PB in the U.S. and Canada differs in many ways from PB in Brazil, where it has had many social impacts. This white paper explores these differences and how they may affect PB’s impact in North America. It also provides a series of practical recommendations for practitioners and policymakers to strengthen PB’s ability to reduce inequality.
  • “Power to the People! (And Settings for Using It Wisely?)”: PB employs both direct and deliberative democracy. As the Brexit vote has demonstrated, direct democracy doesn’t always lead to smarter, broadly supported policy decisions. This white paper examines the extent to which PB employs deliberative principles and processes, explores the challenges in making PB more deliberative and provides recommendations for public officials and practitioners looking to improve their PB processes.