Change Maker: Jennifer Godzeno, Deputy Director, The Participatory Budgeting Project

The United Nations has called participatory budgeting a “key dimension of good governance,” yet many people do not know what it is. First used in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989, participatory budgeting is a process where community members decide how to spend a portion of government funds. The premise is simple: give people total control over a portion of a budget and achieve more accountability and transparency in the outcomes. According to Public Agenda, from 2014 to 2015, $50 million in public funds were allocated based on the decisions of more than 70,000 U.S. and Canadian residents whose districts or cities used a participatory budgeting model.

Within the Equality Indicators, the extent to which residents are able to engage in participatory budgeting is viewed as a good measure of civic engagement, a key topic area under the theme of Justice. The 2016 Equality Indicators report found an increase in the number of New York City (NYC) city council districts engaging in participatory budgeting from the previous year: 28 out of a total of 51 districts, four more districts than in 2015. For disadvantaged groups, participatory budgeting provides a platform and process for more inclusion in the democratic process. For instance, unlike in general elections, participatory budgeting is open to young people under the age of 18 and non-citizens.

The Equality Indicators got a chance to talk with Jennifer Godzeno, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leader, and the Deputy Director at the Participatory Budgeting Project in NYC, about the organization’s work in helping implement participatory budgeting across the country and in Canada.

You provide toolkits, training, and other resources to community organizers and advocates to help them implement participatory budgeting. From your experience, what are the most common obstacles to implementing it? 

One of the most common obstacles to starting participatory budgeting (PB) is the idea that you need “new” or “extra” money to do PB.

What we spend a lot of time telling people is that there is existing money on the table that already requires decision-making. And that a lot of the time those decisions are being made in a way that doesn’t include the people most impacted by them.

For example, I sit on the City of Stamford, CT, planning board where we are involved in allocating a $25-30 million capital budget. We get requests that total over $100 million, and it’s our job to narrow those very worthwhile needs down.

We have a public hearing to ask people to help us do that, but it’s not structured in a way to let people help with tough choices like spending money on street improvements vs. equipment that the fire department needs.

These are real choices that are being made right now and there is no reason that PB can’t be used to make these decisions.

The other major obstacle that we hear all the time builds on that example. We hear that the public doesn’t even show up for public hearings so why would we think that they’ll show up and volunteer for weeks and months to do PB?

For us, the main difference between the public hearing and PB is the power.

When you show up at a budget hearing and get 2 minutes at the mic, it’s disempowering. You sit and wait and listen for who knows how long, sometimes hours. Then, you get 2 minutes to talk. No one is required to do anything based on your recommendations or be accountable in any way. That’s why public meetings are often boring and disempowering.

But when you get the opportunity to dig in to a real PB process, you know that the hours you put in will have a direct impact on what the public sees. That’s what empowerment looks like. Decision makers and your community see your work and, if they vote for it, it gets implemented.

You call your volunteers “amplifiers.” Can you tell us a little about why you chose that description and why it fits with what they do?

PB Amplifiers usually get involved with participatory budgeting in their local context as advocates or volunteers. Then, they decide to build on their experience and expertise to help us bring PB to more budgets, in more communities, so that more people can see the power of community control and democracy in action.

The PB Amplifiers support the work of our organization by reaching audiences that we can’t reach directly. They boost the message and, together, help our tools, materials, and processes make government work better for more people.

PB needs more people who believe in communities to add their voices and amplify the impact of this process!

Your most recent whitepaper, “Next Generation Democracy,” talks about participatory budgeting in the context of “rising civic disengagement.” How does participatory budgeting re-engage people? Are the results sustainable? 

When I joined the Participatory Budgeting Project, I came with experience using existing political and civic engagement systems to win improvements to city streets. It was really hard to get those improvements in the ground, even with strong public support.

The root of the challenge is because the power structures and timelines for decision-making is unclear.

Sometimes public debate drags on for years. Residents don’t want to spend 4 years of Tuesday evenings to fight with a handful of elected or appointed officials over $40,000 of improvements on 5 blocks of street. They want to see an impact!

PB counteracts the uncertainties and ambiguities.

In PB, public input is not advisory, it is binding.

People have real power and that’s what keeps them coming back. It’s not a listening session, it is a guarantee that the will of the people will be enacted. And it’s clear where the power lies. An elected official has promised to hand over authority to constituents to decide throughout the whole process, from start to finish. From brainstorming ideas, through developing proposals that will be on the public ballot.

As interest in PB grows, the stakes should grow, and that will increase the number of people participating and create a virtuous cycle. PB shouldn’t be deciding the same pot of money each year. There is no reason why we couldn’t apply PB in NYC to billions of dollars instead of about $40 million that we have in the pot right now.

To sustain public engagement, the stakes should match the commitment of participants. Our long-term aspiration is to see an across the board allocation of 2%, 3%, 10%, or even 15% of city budgets across the United States and Canada decided through PB.

Participatory budgeting sits at the center of many intersections and areas of expertise: public health, youth engagement, racial equity, and community development are a few you have mentioned. What qualities or past experiences are common among those who tend to be engaged in participatory budgeting work? 

What’s beautiful about PB is that you don’t have to be a budget wonk – a person with deep experience or professional knowledge about budgets. Or an equity wonk.  Or an anything wonk. You don’t have to be a community organizer in the past or one of the usual suspects – the people who actually do show up to those boring budget meetings I mentioned above.

There is a tremendous diversity of expertise and backgrounds in each community and what I love about PB is the way that it’s accessible to people no matter what their background because they are experts in where they live and what they need.

When you set the pot of money so that what it could be spent on is very broad, it allows for people of widely varying interests to come together. There is a common experience of learning more about your neighbors and communities, which makes democracy work better for everyone.

What are some surprises about participatory budgeting and the workings of democracy you have experienced in your time at the organization?

To me the biggest surprise, and joy, of PB is the way that it moves beyond the usual suspects in local government and politics.

Because of the way PB is structured, it brings in more people. This happens because you‘re not just there for your two minutes at the mic. You’re engaging in deep dialogue. It lets you think about how worthy and needed other projects might be for the community.

I love hearing stories about when someone shows up for their own pet project and by the time they reach the end of the process their idea isn’t on the ballot but they’re advocating for a need that they’d never imagined.

Who most inspires the work you do?

The participants. The people who show up to a civic event for the first time. The young people who vote for the first time. The family participating together. The people who never felt like there was room for them in civic life.

It is a constant surprise in PB, how diverse the participants are. We get people who are consistently underrepresented in politics as usual to participate in PB.

An important, tangible way to move equity and racial justice forward in the United States is PB because it gives you a seat at the table.

PB is a new way to gain the knowledge of government that you need to access more conventional ways of being community leader. Participating can be a stepping-stone to running for office or organizing in other ways with new members of your community.

Traditional models of civic engagement aren’t working when we see such a disconnect between the elected leaders and the people they are meant to serve. PB is a new pipeline for the thousands of new leaders who need to rebuild democracy.

This is a part of the Equality Indicators’ Change Maker Q&A series. This ongoing blog series aims to highlight individuals and organizations who are actively working to increase equality. The views expressed here are those of the featured change maker and do not necessarily reflect the views of CUNY ISLG.