Gale Brewer’s office is conducting participatory budgeting for District 6, which means that Upper West Siders can submit proposals on how to spend $1 million in city capital funding allocated to the district through January 23. Residents can access the application and view other proposals submitted by fellow community members online.
After these ideas have been collected, they will enter into a months-long evaluation and selection process which concludes with the winning proposals’ inclusion in the next city budget, which takes effect starting July 1, 2022.
But UWS residents might note that participatory budgeting only occurs in 14 of the 51 City Council districts, and that most of the UWS above 96th Street (in District 7) is not one of them. Why do the large majority of City Council members not conduct the process in their districts?
Although the City Council website and advocates of the process often point out that participatory budgeting began in Brazil in 1989, and has over 3,000 participating governing districts around the world, they don’t point out how many districts have paused or discontinued it. This information isn’t easily aggregated worldwide, but a report from an organization that monitors participatory budgeting in Germany notes that, from 2014-2017 (the most recent version of the report available), 153 communities discontinued the practice; 102 communities had active programs, and 13 paused theirs.
Communities which discontinued participatory budgeting said that there wasn’t actually enough community participation to make it properly representative (residents of District 6 can decide for themselves if that’s true by looking up the actual number and content of submitted proposals) – and that the process can become too time-consuming and expensive relative to its merits.
Like any tool of government, participatory budgeting has costs and benefits, and these can shift along with a changing municipal context. Residents should perform their own cost-benefit analysis to see how well they think the process works, expanding it where it does and rolling it back where it doesn’t.