Local government is one of the most accessible levels of government for residents, and the City benefits from frequent and direct feedback on infrastructure and daily life, ranging from your streets …
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Local government is one of the most accessible levels of government for residents, and the City benefits from frequent and direct feedback on infrastructure and daily life, ranging from your streets to your parks and libraries. But it can still be difficult to understand how the city spends tax dollars and why some projects are prioritized over others.
I am always looking for ways to expand public understanding and engagement to address this challenge. Denver has utilized vigorous public input on capital funding priorities in the past, including, most recently, to develop and provide feedback on our list of potential projects for a 2017 General Obligation bond.
While voters will get to vote “yes” or “no” on the overall package, some cities take public participation even one step further: they invite residents to vote on individual projects to fund during their city’s annual capital budget process. Denver’s Council has been exploring what is involved and the possibility of piloting this process, known as Participatory Budgeting.
Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a democratic process that involves residents collecting ideas on how to spend a given amount of the public budget in their community, most often one time capital dollars for infrastructure. PB started in Brazil in 1989 and since then, it has spread to over 3,000 cities all around the world. In the U.S., cities like Chicago and New York are using PB.
If Denver were to pursue PB, we would begin by identifying funds that can be used for capital dollars, create eligibility criteria for what kind of capital projects could be funded, and then commit to including the results of the process in our annual budget. Then, a public process would be launched based on PB best practices.
First, a steering committee of representative community members is formed to decide how the PB process will be run. For example, how many meetings will be held and who can vote. Many communities allow youth over the age of 16 to vote as a way of educating them on civic engagement, as well as residents, regardless of immigration status.
Second, the community comes together to brainstorm ideas for projects that the area needs. Ideas are collected at events across the community, similar to the bond open houses that were held in late 2016. Projects might range from repairs to a dangerous intersection, a playground, beautification or an improved bus stop.
Third, volunteers take the ideas that came out of the brainstorm and work with city staff to determine if they are eligible, price them, develop them into proposals, and narrow the list of finalists to a manageable number. This step also assesses the feasibility of the proposed projects.
Finally, residents vote for projects they want to see funded in their community. Voting occurs over a predetermined amount of time and depending on the process, could include electronic voting or other innovative methods. When voting ends, results are tallied and winning projects are placed into the city’s next budget to be funded.
Why do I think PB would be beneficial for our city? PB is intended to develop a deeper sense of democracy by allowing ordinary people to have a say in how their tax dollars are spent. Through PB, city leaders and staff build closer relationships with constituents, and community members develop a deeper understanding of the tough decisions faced by government. Additionally, participants in PB become more active and informed citizens, which sets people up to be more engaged in other areas of the community or local government.
PB is very time and labor intensive. For PB to succeed, we would need to be open to experimentation and learning, and would need to foster strong buy-in from the community, including from diverse participants who might be new to civic engagement. Community organizations can play an important role in helping to identify, train, and support new residents to participate, especially those with barriers.
Participatory Budgeting allows the community to get more involved in matters of government and by having a direct say in how public monies are spent, communities can begin to see the impact of their voices. The next step for Denver is a City Council discussion of what our goals would be if we decided to pursue PB, and if we do pursue it, a conversation with the Mayor’s office.
To learn more about PB please visit participatorybudgeting.org. If you have feedback or questions, please reach out to me at email@example.com or (720) 337-7712.
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