REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY–the operation of government via elected proxies who are charged with representing the interests of their constituents–has long been heralded as the most efficient way to operate a democracy. But in Cambridge, Mass., and several other municipalities across the U.S., a different, more direct model is emerging: participatory budgeting at the city level. 

 “Participatory budgeting allows people to participate in public life in a more direct way,” says Archon Fung, academic dean and Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Fung has studied participatory budgeting and its effects on public life, beginning with the origins of the process in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

In 1989, the Brazilian progressive Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, known as PT) pioneered the participatory model in Porto Alegre, giving citizens a chance to vote on the allocation of budget resources in their city. Despite logistical frustrations during the first few years, the process has enjoyed dramatic success, shifting city resources to neighborhoods that previously lacked amenities such as paved roads, reliable sewage systems and schools.

“The common thinking in these matters is that advantage predicts participation in public life,” Fung explains. “Under that rule, people whose interests are already being served by the city will likely show up to budget meetings. But in Porto Alegre, poor people came to the meetings because they and their families, their neighborhoods, lacked these resources.” Residents of high-need neighborhoods were able to make their voices heard loud and clear: they voted on projects that reflected their interests, and the government acted on those needs.

In the U.S., Fung readily admits, participatory budgeting is less about combating corruption in city government (a longstanding problem in Brazil) and more about “a renewal of civic spirit.”  

“How do you combat the pervasive distrust of government?” he asks. When the process works, Fung says, it allows “the rebuilding of trust in local governmental structures.” It also gives government officials a better – and more immediate – sense of what people really want.

Linda Bilmes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at HKS, has been teaching participatory budgeting in her classes for several years.

“The public budget is supposed to be a place where competing demands get reconciled,” Bilmes says. “It is supposed to be a way to allocate the benefits of the commons. However, the national budget today does not reflect the priorities that many people have.”

Bilmes’ coursework, which often includes assigned readings from Fung’s work, examines several angles of participatory budgeting: structure, process, governance and fairness. The discussions in her class inspired at least two students to go on and effect change in their city government – which happens to be right down the street in Cambridge.

Leland Cheung MPP 2010 was elected to the Cambridge City Council while a student in Bilmes’ class. Interested in the idea and curious to see if it would work in Cambridge, he worked with the city’s finance department to develop a pilot program for participatory budgeting. The city is currently in the middle of its second participatory budgeting cycle. Residents voted in December 2015 on a slate of 23 projects, resulting in seven winning proposals, which will be implemented with funds from the 2017 fiscal year budget. This year’s winning projects include a freezer van to transport healthy meals via the Cambridge Prepared Food Rescue Project, five water bottle refill stations around the city, and three separate proposals related to bike lane safety and signage.

“It’s useful to policymakers to see what people are voting for,” Cheung says. “The results feed back into our policy discussions about how we spend our dollars. And we have more people participating and thinking about how we spend our collective dollars than ever before.”

Michelle Monsegur MPP 2014, another former student of Bilmes’, is now a budget analyst with the Cambridge City Council. She has been instrumental in the development and implementation of the Cambridge participatory budgeting process.

“I feel like I’m one of the constituents in Cambridge,” Monsegur says. “I didn’t know I would be a city budget analyst when I started as a student at HKS. I had worked for the federal government before, and felt really far from the ground in the projects I was working on. During my time at HKS, I got really interested in city government.”

Monsegur notes that participatory budgeting, like anything else, is a process: the city has learned a few key lessons from its first cycle and has begun implementing them in its second cycle.

“We’ve shifted the timeline,” Monsegur explains. “Last year the proposal process took place in midwinter, which was really difficult, especially given the record-breaking snow.” This year, the proposal process took place in the fall. Budget delegates (Cambridge residents who volunteered to serve on committees) spent several weeks reviewing the proposals to determine feasibility.

“Budget delegates are the heart and soul of this process,” Monsegur says. “And there’s a lot of trust here. We [at City Hall] trust the residents of Cambridge to have a process like this. They trusted us to get the process off the ground.”

Many participatory budgeting initiatives allow and encourage young people to participate: in both Cambridge and Boston, any resident age 12 or older can submit a proposal and vote. Monsegur praises the city’s five youth centers and one budget committee made up of young people for coming up with creative ideas and engaging with them thoughtfully.

Both Monsegur and Cheung have returned to HKS to share their experiences with the Cambridge participatory budgeting process in Bilmes’ classes. After discussing the theory of participatory budgeting and reading case studies, Kennedy School students undergo a process of their own: voting on initiatives proposed by their fellow students. The winning project is then implemented on campus. This year, it was a bank of phone chargers installed in the Taubman and Littauer Buildings.

Hollie Russon Gilman, a Technology and Democracy fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, has written a book on participatory budgeting, Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America.

“I was pretty skeptical of the idea initially,” Gilman admits. “I wasn’t sure that kind of democratic reform was possible.” But after hearing about similar programs in New York and Chicago, Gilman began digging into the research, eventually writing her dissertation on participatory budgeting. She has worked with the White House and the Participatory Budgeting Project to increase public support for participatory budgeting on a national scale. In February 2016, Fung and others participated in an event at the White House, which focused on how the federal government can support communities interested in launching participatory budgeting initiatives. 

“This process enables people to feel efficacious in their communities,” Gilman says. “People feel like they’re a part of something. And it’s a way for citizens to build relationships with elected officials – they may live near one another, but have never worked together.”

 Although digital technology (such as the Cambridge City Council’s participatory budgeting website) has a key role to play in this process, Gilman sees the model as a shift back to grassroots politics. “It’s a kind of ‘slow democracy’ movement,” she says. “It’s putting democracy back into the hands of the people. There’s such a push in our society for modernizing and mechanizing everything, and while that can be good, there’s also value in this return to a kind of democracy that’s much more personal.” 

Fung agrees. “The great thing, ideally, is that you get a sense of ownership of these projects, a sense of investment: ‘We built this.’ Whether it’s a park or a community center or a new set of bike lanes – people can point to it and say, ‘That’s ours.’ And the other great thing is – when this process is done well, you get a better park.” 

Related Faculty

Archon Fung Photo

Archon Fung

Director, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government
Linda Bilmes Photo

Linda Bilmes

Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy

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