The Ash Center, in partnership with the Democracy Fund and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, hosted a two-day convening on participatory budgeting in February in the nation’s capital. In attendance were nearly 75 elected officials and other municipal officials, academics, technologists, community members, and representatives from the federal government all with an interest in expanding and strengthening participatory budgeting programs across the US.
Participatory budgeting (PB) is a relatively new model of citizen engagement in which community members directly decide how to allocate public funds. The winner of the Center’s 2015 Roy and Lila Ash Innovations Award for Public Engagement in Government was New York City’s participatory budgeting program, known as PBNYC, the largest such effort in the country.
As part of the Center’s efforts to help spread research, case studies, and best practices of winners of its innovations award, the Innovation in Government Program worked with the White House to convene key participatory budgeting stakeholders from around the county to discuss how to expand PB to increasing numbers of cities across the country. “We are placing a renewed emphasis on replication and dissemination with our innovations award winners by taking advantage of our institutional convening power and relationships with practitioners to get these innovations in the hands of policymakers across the country,” said Stephen Goldsmith, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and director of the Innovation in Government Program at the Ash Center. The convening provided attendees the opportunity to strengthen community decision-making by developing commitments to concrete action for deepening public participation in government in their own communities.
At the conference, city councilors and community members active in PBNYC described the successes and challenges in administering PB in America’s largest city. “It really brings out in people a powerful sense of being shared stewards of the public realm,” said New York City Councilmember Brad Lander during an earlier interview when he was pushing to get New York’s then-fledgling PB program off the ground. Lander, who has been a forceful advocate for PB in New York, has worked tirelessly to expand this innovative initiative in civic engagement to offices throughout New York’s 51-member large city council.
Representatives from other cities interested in starting PB programs of their own took the opportunity to pepper panelists for advice about how to build support for PB in their communities. “There is this growing interest in participatory budgeting across the country, and this conference was a crucial opportunity for cities to connect with academics, foundations, and federal officials to understand the universe of resources targeted towards PB,” said Ash fellow Hollie Russon Gilman, who moderated a panel on community outreach and engagement. Russon Gilman is the author of Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America, a groundbreaking academic study of PB published jointly by the Ash Center and the Brookings Institution Press.
The White House invited participants to an evening reception in the ornate Indian Treaty Room, where senior administration officials and HKS faculty spoke about the importance of PB as a tool for reengaging the public with government. “When participatory budgeting is at its best, ordinary citizens became creative actors in the process of determining what government should do, government is more knowledgeable about their needs and responsive to them, and justice is served because public action benefits those who need it most, not just the loudest or wealthiest voices,” said Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Academic Dean of Harvard Kennedy School. Professor Fung gave opening remarks at the White House along with John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy who is on leave from his position as the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.