Participatory Budgeting – What is it and How Can We Implement it?

With the public expectation of being involved in government spending on the rise, Participatory Budgeting is becoming a much more common way that all levels of government are engaging with their local community. Participatory Budgeting is the most direct way to give stakeholders a say in how tax dollars are spent by allowing the community to identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects and empowering them to make decisions about how or where money is spent.

When Participatory Budgeting is taken seriously and is based on mutual trust, local governments and citizens can both benefit, but where do you start?

Use something simple that is easy for your community to understand

Too often when we begin to talk about money and budgets, we add in all of the information when only key details and figures are needed. Lots of numbers can scare people off and will decrease your participation; all you are interested in are the choices of your community between spending on one expenditure or another. Keep costs as a rounded estimate and keep the detailed accounting information out of your engagement.

Include a discussion area for the community to talk about the budget

When opening up the floor for the community to discuss allocation of budgets, people will often want to talk about why they have made their choice - tell stories about the areas they love that might be changed, an area they feel strongly about that needs improvement or how a change in budgeting might directly affect them. These discussions can provide even further insight into your stakeholder's priorities and can be a great way to build your online community for future discussions.

Include Participatory Budgeting discussions as part of your traditional community engagement activities

We are all using some form of online tools for our community engagement these days, but that makes face-to-face engagement even more critical. Using an online tool for participatory budgeting can be a fun and accessible way to reach a vast cross-section of your community, but nothing will beat utilizing this tool in person with your stakeholders after a community meeting or in an area that may be affected by the budget allocation.

Lay out all of the negotiables and non-negotiables

Make it clear to your community what is and isn't an option with a potential change in budget and only ask about elements you are considering changing. Honesty is the best approach to take and avoids stakeholders feeling they are wasting their time providing input into decisions that have already been made. Setting the scene for the community and informing them about each potential outcome will ensure stakeholders feel their voice will truly be heard.

Make it clear what consequences may come from their budget choice

When asking the community to participate in setting a budget and you are looking for actionable and meaningful data, stakeholders need to understand the trade-offs for their decisions. For example, if by prioritizing one project over another, the other choice may be significantly pushed back or may not happen at all or if the community elects to go over the allocated budget, it may result in a tax increase of $300 per year. Providing this visibility to the community fosters accountability and ownership of the spending choices that are made.

So when is participatory budgeting a good idea? In any project, determining what the community wants is essential. Giving them a look into the community budget against realistic costs for various projects is a great way to keep them informed. The applications are limited only to your imagination, and there are practical uses for Participatory Budgeting in land use planning, healthcare, parks and rec, transit and many more.

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