Participatory Budgeting Processes Spend $50M Across U.S. and Canada

First-ever comprehensive analysis reveals wide variety in how communities implement PB, with allocations ranging from $61k to $3.4 million

Date of Release: Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

New York

From 2014 to 2015, more than 70,000 residents across the United States and Canada directly decided how their cities and districts should spend nearly $50 million in public funds through a process known as participatory budgeting (PB). PB is among the fastest growing forms of public engagement in local governance, having expanded to 46 communities in the U.S. and Canada in just 6 years.

Cities and districts in the U.S. and Canada that used PB in 2014-2015 varied widely in how they implemented their processes, who participated and what projects voters decided to fund, according to a new report from Public Agenda. Overall, communities using PB have invested substantially in the process and have seen diverse participation. Yet officials vary in how much money they allocate to PB and some communities lag far behind in their representation of lower-income and less educated residents.

“PB can empower residents and alert elected officials to community needs they may not learn about otherwise,” said Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda. “PB has the potential to strengthen civic engagement, help rebuild the public’s trust in government and better distribute public funds to meet community needs. But PB is still a young innovation in the US and Canada, we have a lot to learn about if and how it can strengthen communities and local democracy.”

The report, “Public Spending, By the People: Participatory Budgeting in the United States and Canada in 2014-15,” synthesizes data collected from communities that implemented PB between 2014 and 2015, offering the first-ever comprehensive look into the state of participatory budgeting in the U.S. and Canada. The report is a collaboration between Public Agenda and local evaluators and practitioners of PB. It was funded by the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation and completed through a research partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Key findings include:

PB varies from community to community

  • Dollars allocated: While communities allocated $1 million to PB on average, allocations ranged from $61,000 to $3.4 million. “Critics have questioned whether PB can have long-term impacts on community well-being and equity in the U.S. and Canada within current budget allocations,” said Carolin Hagelskamp, Public Agenda’s director of research. “We will need more time to assess that question. What we do know is that PB overall has brought out large numbers of residents from communities that are underrepresented in the mainstream political process. This is promising for the long-term impacts practitioners are expecting from PB.”
  • Number of participants: More than 70,000 people voted in participatory budgeting across the U.S. and Canada between 2014 and 2015. These included youth and non-citizens who are typically ineligible to participate in traditional elections. On average, 1,595 ballots were cast, although that ranged from 85 ballots in one community to over 6,000 in another.
  • Winning projects: The average cost of a winning PB project in 2014-15 was $195,506, but project costs ranged from $1,071 to $1 million. Overall, PB has especially benefited local schools, which received one-third of all allocated PB funds in 2014-15. Projects related to public housing rarely won PB funding.

Some communities are lagging in their representation of traditionally marginalized residents.

  • Variation: Cities and districts vary in how closely voters in their PB processes reflect local demographics. In some cities and districts, PB seemed to encourage more participation of traditionally underrepresented populations than in others, with some PB organizers investing in person-to-person outreach and collaboration with community groups.
  • Race/ethnicity: In nearly all cities and districts using PB and surveying their voters, black residents were overrepresented or represented proportionally to the local census among voter survey respondents. However, in 68 percent of communities, Hispanic residents were underrepresented among PB voters compared to local census data.
  • Education: Residents with less formal education were also underrepresented among PB voters in most communities. Overall, 39 percent of voter survey respondents reported not having a college degree.
  • Income: Communities differed the most in their success with engaging lower-income residents, according to voter surveys. In 25 percent of communities, residents reporting annual household incomes of less than $25,000 were overrepresented among survey respondents. However, in 3 out of 10 communities, such residents were underrepresented.

“Public Agenda’s report provides an important benchmark for future evaluation of PB’s impact on democracy,” said Friedman. “Much of that impact will likely depend on officials’ willingness to continue investing in and improving the process, and on our collective patience in letting PB become a more stable part of local government and the civic infrastructure of a community. It will also depend on residents thinking broadly about the needs of their communities.”

About Public Agenda

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on higher education affordability, achievement gaps, community college completion, use of technology and innovation, and other higher education issues. Find Public Agenda online at publicagendaarchives.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/PublicAgenda and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda.

About the Democracy Fund

The Democracy Fund invests in organizations working to ensure that our political system is responsive to the public and able to meet the greatest challenges facing our nation. www.democracyfund.org.

About the Rita Allen Foundation

The Rita Allen Foundation invests in transformative ideas in their earliest stages to leverage their growth and promote breakthrough solutions to significant problems. It enables early-career biomedical scholars to do pioneering research, seeds innovative approaches to fostering informed civic engagement, and develops knowledge and networks to build the effectiveness of the philanthropic sector. Throughout its work, the Foundation embraces collaboration, creativity, learning and leadership. Find out more at www.ritaallenfoundation.org.

About the Kettering Foundation

The Kettering Foundation, established in 1927 by inventor Charles F. Kettering, is a nonprofit, operating foundation that does not make grants but engages in joint research with others. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation. More information may be found on www.kettering.org.

Brian Scios, Public Agenda
Phone: 212-686-6610, ext. 127