The Case for Participatory Budgeting


A slight but important correction needs to be made in this article:

The author refers says “The new organization is “The Rosewood Initiative” and they recently held a conference on the subject of Participatory Budgeting.” Rosewood is not really a new organization but more importantly they were not responsible for the event.

The April 14 Forum on participatory budgeting held at the Rosewood Initiative space but was organized and hosted collaboratively between Healthy Democracy ( and the nascent volunteer driven project Participatory Budgeting Oregon ( The Rosewood Initiative was a supportive partner but really only provided the space and helped with some outreach in the neighborhood.

By Don MacGillivray

Budgets are the lifeblood of government and almost everything else that goes into supporting a complex society. In democracies elected representatives make the decisions in the best interests of the public. While this is usually the best policy there are many times when the public should have a greater level of participation in these decisions. The Participatory Budget (PB) system is a way the  public interest could be better served.

Participatory Budgeting began in Brazil in the 1980s and it has spread to many state and local governments worldwide including dozens of cities in the United States beginning with a Chicago ward in 2009. In the Pacific Northwest, Seattle and Tacoma, utilize participatory budgeting in their decision-making. In Portland, Mayor Wheeler suggested in one of his mayoral debates that Portland might adopt the Participatory Budgeting style that is currently used in New York City.

Participatory Budgeting is a grassroots democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It gives real power to people and involves them in the political process. And it results in good budget decisions because the people in a community know their needs and determine their priorities.

New York allows each of its eight Council Districts to decide on how to spend at least $1,000,000 of the public budgets for capital projects such as: improvements to schools, parks, libraries, public housing, and other community needs. After brainstorming projects, budget delegates flush out the ideas into realistic proposals. The highest priority and most popular projects are then voted on by the community. The government implements the project with the greatest number of votes and this process is then repeated annually.

Well-designed deliberative processes give the voters of communities a structured way to consult with experts, consider trade-offs, and deliberate on the merits, the consequences, and the underlying values of policy choices. If funding decisions were transferred to the community level it may be possible to address some of the small, human scale projects that don’t ever seem included within large projects.

The public often has many diverse opinions and often little sense of their complexity. There are some people that have extreme biases, partisanship can complicate matters, as can race and social status. How to choose participants would need to be determined using a poll, survey, or a community election as part of the process.

Civically minded citizens are part of all communities and these are the people that would be most useful in making decision for their neighbors. By combining everyone together in an open, transparent, and fair process the results will be positive.

After this first tier makes some decisions it would need to be tested through feedback from the entire community.

Through this type of process social capital is created and the diversity of the members of the community are able to participate thereby increasing their education and experience of local decision-making. Financial resources are important to a community, but their support and understanding is equally important.

These ideas are not new. In the 1960s Jane Jacobs, an author on economics and urban planning, wrote in “The Life and Death of Great American Cities” about the wrong direction city planning had taken and how democracy itself was being undermined by egocentric and misguided politicians and bureaucracies along with various private interests.

This changed the way governments made decisions and carried out their work. As with most things, the pendulum has swung back in favor of limited methods of civic participation. Real people need to be involved in the decisions about where they live.

Gentrification exists in part because special interests trump the interests of residents who are without power. The development of cities is not perfect. It can only attempt to satisfy as many interests as possible with equal respect and the satisfaction of all. It is not easy nor is it quick, but the results are more likely to benefit the greatest number of people and with the wider involvement the city as a whole.

Another important character of the “New Urbanest” movement of the 1960s is the architect and educator Christopher Alexander. His work around human-centered design, as illustrated in his book – “A Pattern Language” and demonstrated in the University of Oregon campus plan – “the Oregon Experiment,” taught that humanistic qualities of users should play a major role in the design of the buildings and environments with the architect bringing a project to life. Development is a social process requiring the participation of users, policy makers, and consultants.

Today’s impersonal world seems to have left such ideas in the wreckage of technology and change. Great places are those where the intimacy of the surroundings are custom made to fit the needs, lifestyle, and desires of the community. Today’s users must try to find places to live within our cities that are within their means. It is often a challenge for many people that have demanding lifestyles.

Last year a group of folks from Gresham and Portland formed to study the possible applications of Participatory Budging within the local governments in the Portland region.

The new organization is “The Rosewood Initiative” and they recently held a conference on the subject of Participatory Budgeting. It is just one of many ways to empower Portland neighbors to build safe, prosperous, dynamic, and inclusive communities. For many years Portland has had the infrastructure and organizations that can realize this goal. It will take analyzing our existing institutions and making appropriate changes to allow greater education and participation by all members of the Portland region.

The Rosewood Initiative will work to increase the strengths of our communities, build a positive image of the future, and work for the common good of everyone. There is the involvement and support from six local on-site partners, six foundation and corporate sponsors, twelve government agencies, nine community and non-profit sponsors, and six local faith organizations. With this kind of interest and support good things will happen.

The Case for Participatory Budgeting

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