1. Motivations to Adopt Participatory Budgeting

Officials who implemented PB typically saw it as a chance to get more constituents excited about local politics and to educate them about how government works. Most also said they expected PB to increase their popularity with constituents.

Among officials who had adopted PB, virtually all worried about constituents’ political apathy and lack of knowledge of how government works. Most said when they first heard about PB, they saw an opportunity to educate constituents and energize them to get more involved in local political affairs. In the process, most also expected to build trust and gain popularity in their communities. The officials we interviewed were not typically motivated to adopt PB by a desire to make budgeting decisions more responsive to community needs or to transform the political system. More often they were motivated by their interests in civic education, increasing political engagement and building better relationships with constituents.

2. Impacts on Participants, Communities and Government

Most officials felt their PB processes had succeeded in generating enthusiasm and getting constituents more engaged in political life. Many also noted their PB processes raised constituents’ awareness of government inefficiencies, for better or for worse. Generally, officials said PB helped them understand constituents’ needs better.

Most officials we interviewed saw their PB processes generating excitement and engaging residents who previously were less politically involved. Some discussed examples of participants’ learning how to advocate for their interests and building leadership skills through PB. Many officials noted that new alliances among residents and community groups had formed through PB, which they felt contributed to stronger civic infrastructures in their communities. A few said PB provided a forum for more frank public discussions about equity in public spending across their communities. At the same time, many officials said PB sometimes frustrated residents by revealing government inefficiencies. Some saw this as a learning opportunity for both residents and government. Talking about their own work, interviewees reflected that their PB processes had helped them understand and respond better to their residents’ concerns. Some added PB had improved their relationships with city agencies. Generally, interviewees felt PB improved their political prospects, even in instances when officials encountered criticism from those residents who felt the process was not serving them

3. Implementation Challenges

The need for adequate time, money and staff to implement PB was a challenge cited by most officials who had adopted it. Several discussed the challenges of ensuring their processes were not dominated by the most advantaged groups in their jurisdictions. Explaining the process effectively and responding to residents’ criticisms and concerns were also common themes.

While nearly all officials who had adopted PB agreed the biggest challenges in implementing it were mobilizing adequate time, money and staff, they felt the process was nevertheless worth continuing. Explaining the PB process and its potential value to constituents was harder than some officials expected. Several said it was a challenge to ensure their processes were not dominated by the most powerful or advantaged groups in their jurisdictions and to respond to some constituents’ negative feedback or frustrations about PB. Including youth was more controversial for some than they had expected. Officials found digital tools could be useful but also described their drawbacks and limitations.

4. Reasons Some Elected Officials Have Not (Yet) Adopted PB

Officials who had not adopted PB often saw themselves as already sufficiently attuned to constituents’ needs. They often worried about resources for implementation if they did decide to adopt it. Several said the budgets typically allocated to PB were too small for projects to have much impact.

Typically, officials who had not adopted PB told us they were satisfied with their current public engagement efforts. They often said they could make budgeting decisions that met constituents’ needs and account for budgeting realities in ways that residents could not. Many of these interviewees expected only affluent and well-connected residents to benefit from a PB process and more disadvantaged residents to be alienated by it. Many also worried PB would take up too much staff time and effort. And several of these officials criticized current PB budgets in the United States for being too small and, therefore, not allowing for projects to have meaningful impacts on communities. Some said current forms of PB in the United States give residents a false sense of empowerment.

5. The Future of PB in the United States

Securing more resources for implementation is important for PB’s future, most officials who had adopted the process agreed. At the same time, some suggested ways to make implementation more efficient. Several also suggested PB must expand beyond capital budgets, and that the budgets allocated to it should be larger if PB is to affect communities and government meaningfully over the long term.

Resource challenges impeded the implementation and expansion of PB processes, most officials who had adopted PB said. Several discussed ways of making implementation more efficient, including more centralized support from their city governments. Some said they wanted more opportunities to share PB experiences with colleagues and to learn from each other. Moreover, several officials argued that, to fulfill its promises, PB needed to be applied to much larger budgets. Most officials with PB experience were looking forward to improving their processes in years to come.