Citizen Action Monitor

Participatory budgeting, a great way for cities to directly engage residents in spending part of a public budget

Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and even Guelph have already implemented participatory budgeting.

No 1464 Posted by fw, September 30, 2015

“PBP is a non-profit organization that empowers people to decide together how to spend public money, primarily in the US and Canada. We create and support participatory budgeting processes that deepen democracy, build stronger communities, and make public budgets more equitable and effective.”

Having recently written a post about the disappointing experience my partner and I had at a Windsor City ward meeting, I am excited to share this post about participative budgeting presented by the Participatory Budget Project Organization. Hopefully, this outline of participatory budgeting might inspire highly motivated, civic-minded citizens to consider introducing PB to progressive members of their city council.


Participatory Budgeting Project: Who we are / About PB / What We Do

What is PB?

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a different way to manage public money, and to engage people in government. It is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It enables taxpayers to work with government to make the budget decisions that affect their lives.

PB gives ordinary people real power over real money.

Real Money, Real Power: Participatory Budgeting by Participatory Budget Project Organization, 2014, (4:13 minutes)

The process was first developed in Brazil in 1989, and there are now over 1,500 participatory budgets around the world. Most of these are at the city level, for the municipal budget. PB has also been used, however, for counties, states, housing authorities, schools and school systems, universities, coalitions, and other public agencies.

Though each experience is different, most follow a similar basic process: residents brainstorm spending ideas, volunteer budget delegates develop proposals based on these ideas, residents vote on proposals, and the government implements the top projects. For example, if community members identify recreation spaces as a priority, their delegates might develop a proposal for basketball court renovations. The residents would then vote on this and other proposals, and if they approve the basketball court, the city pays to renovate it.


What is the Role of the Participatory Budgeting Project Organization?

PBP is a non-profit organization that empowers people to decide together how to spend public money, primarily in the US and Canada. We create and support participatory budgeting processes that deepen democracy, build stronger communities, and make public budgets more equitable and effective. For more information on PBP’s Mission & Approach, click on the above heading…



The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) grew out of informal collaboration between PB activists and researchers in the US and Canada, starting in 2005 at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. At the Social Forum, Josh Lerner, Mike Menser, Gianpaolo Baiocchi, and Daniel Schugurensky connected while organizing a session on PB in the Global North. Afterward, Josh and Gianpaolo launched a PB resource website ( and listserv. Over the next three years, we worked with a growing group of activists to organize conference sessions and workshops, publish articles, and put PB on the radar in North America. To learn more about the PB history, click on the above linked subheading…



Q? Why do PB?

A/ — Different people get excited about PB for different reasons, but these six angles attract the most interest:

  • Deeper Democracy: Ordinary people have a real say—and they get to make real political decisions. As a result, PB tends to engage many people who are otherwise cynical about government. Politicians build closer relationships with their constituents, and community members develop greater trust in government.
  • Transparency & Accountability: Budgets are policy without the rhetoric—what a government actually does. When community members decide spending through a public process, there are fewer opportunities for corruption, waste, or backlash.
  • Public Education: Participants become more active and informed citizens. Community members, staff, and officials learn democracy by doing it. They gain a deeper understanding of complex political issues and community needs.
  • More informed decisions: Budget decisions are better when they draw on residents’ local knowledge and oversight. Once they are invested in the process, people make sure that money is spent wisely.
  • Fairer Spending: Everyone gets equal access to decision making, which levels the playing field. When people spend months discussing project ideas, they end up prioritizing projects that address the greatest community needs.
  • Community Building: Through regular meetings and assemblies, people get to know their neighbors and feel more connected to their city. Local organizations spend less time lobbying and more time deciding policies. Budget assemblies connect community groups and help them recruit members.

Q? What needs to be in place for PB to work?

A/ — At the most basic level, you need political will from above and community support from below. You need someone with control over budget money (an elected official, agency head, department director, etc.) to agree to let the public decide how to spend part of the budget. And you need community organizations, in particular those working with marginalized communities, to engage people and push the process forward.

Q? Could PB work in my city?

A/ — Participatory Budgets are carried out in cities of all sizes, from less than 20,000 inhabitants (e.g. Icapuí and Mundo Novo in Brazil, or Grottomare, Italy) to mega-cities like Buenos Aires or São Paulo. They exist in rural municipalities (like Governador Valadares, Brazil) and totally urbanized ones (Belo Horizonte). They also occur in cities with scarce public resources like Villa El Salvador in Peru, and in European cities with higher levels of funds.

Q? Isn’t it the job of elected officials to decide how public money is spent?

A/ — Voters elect politicians to improve their community, not just to make decisions. If elected officials share the responsibility of budgeting with residents, they can better address local needs and desires. PB helps officials do their job better, by putting them in closer touch with their constituents, and by injecting local knowledge and volunteer energy into the budget process.

Q? Can you do PB if there is no extra money in the budget?

A/ — PB does not require a new pot of money, just a change to how existing budget funds are decided. Some resources are necessary to carry out the PB process, but this investment saves money down the road, as participants discover new ways to make limited budget dollars go farther.

Q? Won’t the usual suspects and groups with the most power dominate the process?

A/ —This is a valid concern for any kind of public participation, and PB is not immune. But if you reduce the barriers to participation for marginalized groups, invite them to both plan and lead the process, and do targeted outreach in underrepresented communities, you can prevent any one sector from taking control. For instance, low-income community members are more likely to participate if PB is done with money that especially matters to them – such as for housing, jobs, and schools. Regardless, when people are given real responsibility to make budget decisions, they tend to rise to the occasion, and think about the broader community. For additional information on designing an inclusive process, take a look at this article in the Journal of Public Deliberation.

Q? Is PB legal?

A/ — In order to be implemented, PB usually does not require legal changes to budgetary authority. The Mayor, City Council, or other authority retain legal power to approve budget decisions – but they make a political commitment to honor the PB vote. Once the process is established and the initial kinks are ironed out, some governments have sought to revise their charters to make PB legally binding.

Q? What pot of money does the community allocate?

A/ — PB usually starts with “discretionary funds”—money that is not set aside for fixed or essential expenses, and that is instead allocated at the discretion of officials or staff. While this is typically a small part of the overall budget, it is a big part of the funds that are available and up for debate each year.

There are many sources of discretionary money. It could come from the capital budget (for physical infrastructure) or operating budget (for programs and services) of your city, county, or state. City councilors or other officials could set aside their individual discretionary funds, as in Chicago and New York. These officials may also have control over special allocations like Community Development Block Grants or Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money. Alternatively, housing authorities, schools, universities, community centers, and other public institutions could open up their budgets.

The funds could even come from non-governmental sources like foundations, community organizations, or grassroots fundraising, if this money is oriented towards public or community projects. Some PB processes mix funds from different sources, to build up a bigger budget pot.

Q? How much money is enough to do PB?

A/ — Almost no pot of money is too small to start. PB has worked with a few thousand dollars and with many millions of dollars. Most processes involve 1-15% of the overall budget. PB usually starts as a pilot project with a small budget. If the process is successful, it can build political will to increase the pot of money.

How much money you need depends on what it will be used for. If students are allocating the money to school activities, a couple thousand dollars will go a long way. If residents are deciding on significant physical improvements for public parks, streets, and buildings, you’ll probably want at least a million dollars. These capital projects typically require more money than programs and services, since they are built to last multiple years.

Regardless, you’ll want funds that are renewable from year to year, so that PB isn’t just a one-year fling. And in the long run, the more money, the more you can do!

Q? What other resources are necessary to implement PB?

A/ — Creating a new experiment in democracy is not easy. It requires months of planning to design a sound process and build community buy-in. Successful PBs draw on the expertise and resources of dozens of organizations and agencies. Bringing all these people to the table is not easy—and getting them to agree on a plan is even harder!

Once the process gets going, it needs an extensive outreach and communications effort. Without the financial and human resources to conduct outreach, print materials, and run scores of public meetings, community participation will be limited. Usually, the elected official, city, or agency pays most of these expenses. Foundations and other funders can also help cover costs—especially at first, when the work is greatest.

Note: Some of these questions and answers are adapted from an article that we published at “How to Start Participatory Budgeting in Your City


PB Stories  (For more stories, click on the link)

Tell us about yourself.

IJenny Aguiar’m Jennifer Aguiar (Jenny for short) from the PB Vallejo Youth Committee and I am going to be a senior at Jesse Bethel High School. I live in East Vallejo by Stephan Maner Elementary School and have lived in Vallejo practically my whole life.

How did you first get involved in PB, and why?

I was one of the many students at the Jesse Bethel Assembly that PB Vallejo held, and that is where I first heard of the Participatory Budgeting process. Actually, I came in for the free pizza (I was attracted by a sign that said “FREE PIZZA!”), but I stayed because I saw an opportunity to make a change. Before this, I had little to no experience in working with my community, but I had always been interested. When I saw the video about what a district in New York had done and what they had accomplished I thought, “I wanna do something like that.” Just fixing the cracks on some basketball courts made all the difference to many people, something that I had yet to experience. During the assembly I still did not really know what PB was all about, but I wanted to. So when they asked who wanted to be a PB delegate, I said go ahead and sign me right up.

I came in for the free pizza… but I stayed because I saw an opportunity to make a change.

What did you end up doing in the PB process?

I signed up to be a delegate on the Youth Committee. We were a committee full of collaboration. It was interesting to see a project only one person was interested in turning into a proposal that everyone wanted to pitch in on. When it came time to meeting the people a particular project involved, such as meeting the Inter-tribal Council for the Powwow, all of us wanted to go! Even when we tried to assign one person to work on writing the draft of one proposal, we all ended up working on them as a group, one at a time. Everything we did we tried our best to do it together.

What most surprised you about your experience with PB?

What surprised me the most about this experience was the enthusiasm of the other youth delegates. It’s not every day that I talk to people my age who are truly willing to put in the time and the effort to bring about change in Vallejo.

What were the biggest impacts of PB on your community? On you as a person?

In some parts of the Vallejo community there was a stronger sense of unity that has emerged from PB. Personally, it just opened my eyes to what it was like to actually do something that means something to people, if that makes sense. A lot of the youth don’t realize the power they can possess to make a better change in Vallejo by taking part in the PB process. I now know I have the ability to help not just this community, but many more, and it is in part due to getting involved in the PB process. I want to see Vallejo progress towards a better future where people can say they were proud to grow up here.

– October 2013


Where Has It Worked?

The Brazilian city of Porto Alegre started the first full PB process in 1989, for the municipal budget. In Porto Alegre, as many as 50,000 people have participated each year, to decide as much as 20% of the city budget. Since 1989, PB has spread to over 1,500 cities in Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. In the US and Canada, PB has been used in Toronto, Montreal, Guelph, Chicago, New York City, and Vallejo (California).

Tiago Peixoto of the European University Institute has developed a GoogleMap to display many of these examples, using a broad definition of PB. View Participatory Budgeting in a large map


Examples of PB

There are over 1,500 cities and institutions implementing Participatory Budgeting (PB), and it is almost impossible to keep track of them all. However, mapped below are some of the most developed and interesting PB processes in North America, Latin America and Europe that illustrate the diversity of PB models. Click on the markers or view the tables below the map to see basic information about each process.

North America
Location Institution Summary Years Active Annual Amount Allocated Annual Participants
Toronto, Canada Toronto Community Housing Since 2001, Toronto’s public housing authority has engaged tenants in allocating $5 to $9 million of capital funding per year. Tenants identify local infrastructure priorities in building meetings, then budget delegates from each building meet to vote for which priorities receive funding. 2001- $5M
Montreal, Canada Plateau-Mont-Royal Borough The Montreal borough Plateau Mont-Royal implemented a PB process in 2006-2008 for its capital budget. The process evolved each year, starting as one large assembly and later incorporating a series of meetings and the election of neighborhood delegates. Up to $1.5 million per year was allocated by residents.  2006- 2008 $1.5M
Guelph (Ontario), Canada Neighborhood Support Coalition A coalition of grassroots neighborhood groups in Guelph, has been allocating a pot of public and foundation funds since 1999. Each year, the groups decide how to spend roughly $250,000. The funding is generally used for services and programs, which are delivered by the groups themselves. 1999- $250K
Vancouver, Canada Ridgeview Elementary School Students at Ridgeview Elementary public school decided how to spend $2000 from the Parent Advisory Council budget through a PB process in 2005. Students developed project ideas in classes, decided on each class’s top idea, and then voted on the top idea in a school-wide assembly. 2005 $2K
New York City, US New York City Council Districts (24 of 51) New York City is host to the largest PB in the U.S. in terms of participants and budget amount. First introduced in 4 council districts in 2011, the annual PBNYC process now spans 24 Council Districts and lets residents directly decided how to spend $25 million in capital discretionary funds. 2011- $25M
($1-2M each)
Chicago, US City of Chicago Wards (3 of 50) In 2009, PBP and Chicago alderman Joe Moore launched the first PB process in the U.S., in the city’s 49th Ward. In the current process, residents of three Wards decide each year how to spend $3 million of taxpayer money. 2009- $3M
($1M each)
Vallejo (CA), US City of Vallejo In 2012, Vallejo established the first citywide PB in the U.S., through a City Council Resolution. Through PB, the community decides how to spend $2.4 million of revenue from the city’s Measure B Sales Tax. Vallejo residents propose spending ideas, develop project proposals, and vote on which to fund, then the list of winning projects is submitted to City Council for approval. 2012- $2.4M 4,431
San Francisco, US San Francisco Board of Supervisors Districts (3 of 11) San Francisco’s District 3 introduced a pilot PB program in 2013, empowering residents to directly decide how to spend $100,000 of discretionary funding for capital projects, programs and activities. The pilot program has since expanded to three districts. 2013- $460K
($100-260K each)
Boston, US City of Boston Boston’s PB process, the first youth PB initiative in the U.S., was launched in January 2014 as an initiative of the Mayor’s office. The process lets the city’s youth ages 12-25 decide how to spend $1 million of the capital budget. 2014- $1M 2,000
St. Louis, US City of St. Louis Wards (1 of 28) Participatory Budgeting St. Louis began in 2013 with 6th Ward alderman Christine Ingrassia committing a portion of the neighborhood improvement budget for a pilot program. Over several months, residents brainstormed spending ideas, developed concrete proposals, and voted on which to fund. 2013- $100K 736
New York City, US Brooklyn College In 2012, the student government of Brooklyn College started a participatory budgeting process to better address the needs of students and to cultivate a more bottom-up and inclusive budget allocation process on campus. 2012-2013 $20K 600


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This entry was posted on September 30, 2015 by in community action, government action, grassroots planning, NGO counterpower, political action and tagged .
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