Boston moving toward giving residents voice in ‘participatory budgeting’

Reform aims to open the door to citizen input, but concerns raised over who’s shaping new policy

WHEN CITY COUNCILOR Lydia Edwards proposed an amendment last year to the Boston City Charter to reform the city’s budget process, she wanted to shift power out of the hands of the mayor and into the hands of the city council and the people of Boston. She approached the work with a sense of urgency, arguing that new budget rules would make a positive difference in the lives of her constituents. Along with an expanded role for the City Council in the city’s annual budget process, a key feature of the amendment was the introduction of an approach known as participatory budgeting, which Edwards felt could give a voice to otherwise disenfranchised Bostonians by allowing them to decide how some of the city’s money gets spent.

The charter change was approved by voters in the November 2021 city election. However, Edwards, now a state senator, has distanced herself from the participatory budgeting component of the reform — partly because of the demands of her new job, but also because she has lost faith in the city’s ability to realize her original goals for the program. She is raising questions about a lack of transparency and timeliness in the program’s design stage, and asking whether the community advocates involved are capable of creating a program that is truly inclusive of all Bostonians. 

Lydia Edwards championed the participatory budgeting proposal while on the Boston City Council, but has grown concerned about the process playing out over its implementation. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

With Boston’s Office of Participatory Budgeting set to open in fiscal year 2024, which begins next July, the government officials and community organizations partnering to make the office a reality have yet to agree on some of the most basic details about how it will function — including where it will be located, what rules will govern the process, how much money it will handle each year, and who will run it.  

Many in the community remain hopeful that participatory budgeting represents a meaningful step towards direct, equitable democracy for Bostonians. But as details of the policy get hammered out behind closed doors, even advocates of participatory budgeting admit that some of the same interest groups who currently have the ear of the mayor and city council in shaping the program, may be able to wield disproportionate power in a budgeting system meant to open up decision-making to all.  


Participatory budgeting is a 30 year-old concept, designed to facilitate direct participation in local politics while lifting the veil on city government. First attempted in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the hope was that citizens who were given a direct role in budgeting would be able to allocate money toward worthy projects that might not otherwise get funding. Various forms of participatory budgeting have been used in New York City, Toronto, and just across the river from Boston in Cambridge.

Elected officials retain control of the lion’s share of the local budget in all of these cases, with the “participatory” process generally involving some very small portion of the municipal budget. 

Wherever participatory budgeting has been used, it begins with a group of volunteers and/or city officials who reach out to the community for funding ideas. Residents — of all ages and regardless of citizenship — vote by ballot on the most popular proposals. The city is then responsible for implementing the winning projects. 

In 2018, New York City allocated nearly $40 million of its $87 billion annual budget through a public budgeting process. Citizens spent that money on a variety of things, including MacBooks for public schools, library and playground renovations, and improved signage at bus stops.  

At its best, participatory budgeting “fills the need for democratic participation in the things that shape our daily lives,” said Kathy Hernandez, a program associate at Boston’s Center for Economic Democracy, a nonprofit group that has advocated strongly for resident control of the participatory budgeting process. “It also actually brings great material improvements to these neighborhoods.” 

While some cities have embraced participatory budgeting, others have been forced to shutter their programs due lackluster community buy-in, insufficient staffing and resources, limited possibilities for how to allocate the modest funding usually involved, and dismal voter turnout, according to an analysis released earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute.

A program in one voting ward in Hamilton, Ontario, closed following two cycles after just 550 residents out of 38,000 voted on how to spend the $1 million allocated to their program. In other cases, critics say city governments may undermine local civic participation by denying residents the power to effect meaningful change. In Long Beach, California, residents complained that participatory budgeting simply wasn’t worth their time with only $295,000 on the line. The city shut down its program after three cycles. 

Supporters of the Boston effort say they’re out to avoid these pitfalls and make it a more significant part of the budgeting process. 

Boston City Councilor Kenzie Bok has taken the lead role on the council in working with advocates and the Wu administration to draft an ordinance governing the new participatory budgeting office. (Photo via Creative Commons by Maynard Clark)

“The reality is that a lot of the places in the US do it in a pretty circumscribed way for capital projects only,” said Boston City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who chaired the council’s Ways and Means committee last year when the charter amendment was on the ballot and is the councilor playing the biggest role working with advocates and the Wu administration to draft rules governing the new initiative. “Actually doing something that has the potential to grow to be more substantial … it’s kind of a new thing,” Bok said in a September interview. 


In Boston, participatory budgeting was part of Edwards’s broader vision of democratizing the budget process. Passing a charter amendment required a major collaborative effort among Edwards, other city councilors, and a coalition of community groups, ranging from unions to professional organizations to progressive nonprofits.

“The whole thrust of the charter amendment was that we have a very centralized, strong-mayor system in the city of Boston,” said Bok. “Sometimes that doesn’t lead to the kind of robust community discussion and debate, leading to actual results, that folks want to see.” 

When the charter amendment passed in 2021, along with granting the City Council new powers to modify the mayor’s annual budget proposal, it gave the city three years to create an Office of Participatory Budgeting. The city hasn’t settled on how much money the program will be able to allocate — that figure will be determined annually as part of the overall city budgeting process. 

Mayor Michelle Wu, who was a vocal supporter of participatory budgeting as a city councilor, remains committed to it as mayor even though it effectively reduces some of her office’s control over city spending. “The City of Boston looks forward to engaging the Council and community stakeholders to create an Office of Participatory Budgeting that delivers the democratic and transparent process voters asked for in last year’s election,” said a spokesperson for Wu. 

This won’t be the first time Boston’s citizens have a chance to get involved in budgeting. Youth Lead the Change, a committee of 16 teenagers, already oversees the allocation of $1 million of annual city spending. They steer money toward projects chosen by local youths through a process of deliberation and voting. 

Those who participate in the youth-led effort say it brings out the best in people. “Being able to advocate for not only me, but for people of color, for the people that can’t speak … is very empowering to me and very honoring as a woman of color,” said Liliana Palencia Garcia, a 16-year-old high school student and a member of the Youth Lead the Change committee. 

But the new participatory budgeting initiative, which will aim to draw in thousands of Bostonians of all ages, is a considerably more complicated endeavor.

To launch the new budgeting program, the charter amendment approved last year by voters calls for the City Council to pass an ordinance delineating the structure and powers of the new participating budgeting office. Even some supporters of the initiative, however, voice concern over who will shape the new office. The “loudest people and the ones who show up are the ones that are going to be making the decisions,” said Elizabeth Crews, director of the Democracy Beyond Elections Campaign for the Participatory Budgeting Project, a national nonprofit. That’s why, she says, the key to a genuinely equitable participatory budgeting process lies in the “design decisions.” 

Crews says that those designing Boston’s budgeting process should be asking how the program can be inclusive of all of the community members who want to engage. Structural barriers to participation can include lack of access to childcare and translation services and, for the community members who conduct outreach and sift through project proposals for the city, being asked to donate their time without pay.

The group working hardest to influence the City Council on this issue is a coalition of community organizations known as the Better Budget Alliance. The alliance is run by representatives from the three local nonprofits: the Center for Economic Democracy, Families for Justice as Healing, which works to end the incarceration of women and girls in Massachusetts, and the Boston Ujima Project, which promotes investing in the artistic and business endeavors of Boston’s communities of color. 

Bok said she is working with the advocacy community to draft legislation that everyone involved can stand behind. But that may be easier said than done.  

The groups trying to shape the new city initiative want an Office of Participatory Budgeting housed not in City Hall, but in the community where it can be more accessible to residents. Hernandez cited Roxbury and Dorchester as potential office locations. Its physical location aside, the Center for Economic Democracy wants the participatory budgeting effort to be directed by community organizations, not the city. In the Better Budget Alliance model, community-wide assemblies would form the foundation of the process. With that approach, the group believes that the neighborhoods would drive decision-making “with the least amount possible of involvement from city officials,” said Hernandez. 

Edwards has concerns about the community organizations who want primary authority over the participatory budgeting process, and suggests part of their plan for greater citizen voice in budgeting would actually make the process less transparent. Moving the process out of city government and putting it under the umbrella of a community nonprofit, Edwards said, would make its operations exempt from the Open Meeting Law that applies to city offices. She is concerned that a participatory budgeting office based in the community and run with less government oversight could end up less accountable to residents. “If you want to be participatory and you want to truly believe that you’re empowering people,” Edwards says, “you need to be totally transparent.”

Meanwhile, even some of the work now underway to craft the ordinance establishing the new office is taking place quietly out of public view. Helen Matthews, the Center for Economic Democracy’s communications manager, conceded that the Better Budget Alliance’s work with city councilors on participatory budgeting is currently in “a less public phase,” but stressed that community oversight of the process will be a priority once the design phase is complete. 

Edwards says that when she was a city councilor, she saw how the Budget Alliance-led process could help interest groups consolidate their power, “turning their microphone into a megaphone.” She says that the alliance “wanted to ultimately write [the participatory budgeting rules] and hand it to a city councilor to just kind of carbon copy and paste it. I wouldn’t do it because I’m not a bobblehead.” 

Edwards wanted to propose legislation to establish the Participatory Budgeting Office herself, before she left the city council in spring 2022. But said the community organizations at the table insisted on a slower timeline and more say in the final product, which she characterized as “putting perfection over progress” and delaying the rollout of this new service for Bostonians.  

If she had it her way, Edwards said, “the office would have been up by now. And I would have made sure that there was a budget, because with the new powers that we have as a city council, that office would have had a huge budget, and it would have been hiring people. … We’d be working with advocates right now.”  

“I think time is of the essence,” Edwards said. “I don’t know that my former colleagues or the advocates seem to feel that way, but I am always impatient.”

The Better Budget Alliance, for its part, counters that its approach to participatory budgeting puts equity, justice, and community participation front and center. “We want to make sure that … we can create a space where folks can dream,” said Hernandez, the Center for Economic Democracy official.  “A lot of times in our communities, those spaces don’t exist because we are just struggling to survive.” 

Bok, the city councilor working on rules for the new office, says she expects the enabling ordinance for the Office of Participatory Budgeting to be filed within the next few months. Bok believes it is possible for the City Council and the alliance of community groups to reach agreement on how the office should operate. If that’s taking longer than some would like, she suggested that’s the price of a more inclusive process. “Working to get there together has meant that we’re going a little bit slower than we might have ideally anticipated,” she said.

Meet the Author
Chloe Courtney Bohl is a junior at Tufts University. This article was written as part of Student Dispatch, a journalism project overseen by political science professor Eitan Hersh and editor Rachel Slade in which a group of Tufts students are covering state and local issues. The pilot program is funded with a grant from the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts.