Dueling visions for Boston’s new ‘participatory budgeting’ office

WHAT LOOKED LIKE a minor disagreement last week about the size of a committee guiding Boston’s new participatory budget process may have been more of a referendum on how far the city will go in giving residents a direct say in spending decisions. 

As part of a broader overhaul of the city budgeting process, a 2021 voter-approved change to the city charter authorized creation of a new Office of Participatory Budgeting, putting Boston on course to join other cities, here and abroad, that have established systems for letting residents directly oversee a small share of of city spending. 

A progressive bloc of city councilors tried last week, but failed to muster the votes needed, to amend Mayor Michelle Wu’s plan for the office by adding more members to its nine-person panel and providing compensation for them to encourage involvement from lower-income residents. 

But it isn’t just the make-up of the office that has drawn differing visions. Boston activists have pushed for the new citizen-led effort to direct 1 percent of city spending, or $40 million of Boston’s $4 billion annual operating budget. 

That’s a far higher share than is allocated through the participatory budgeting in place in Cambridge, now in its ninth year. The Cambridge process started with $500,000, an amount that rose along with community engagement. It’s now up to $1 million, but that still represents only a little more than 0.1 percent of the city’s roughly $800 million total budget. In New York City, the citizen budgeting effort controls even less spending, about 0.03 percent of its $104 billion budget. 

It will be up to Wu to determine how much to set aside for the resident-driven budgeting exercise. 

Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded city watchdog organization, said most people expect the city to earmark $1 to $2 million, which she called a safe place to start. It’s essential to “test drive this thing and have the opportunity to tweak it if necessary,” Kocher said.

Advocates have pitched participatory budgeting as “a way to advance racial equity and social justice, and economic justice.” But the idea that the process represents a radical break in which residents will have direct say over a significant share of city spending seems to be colliding with the reality that most participatory budgeting programs are far more modest exercises in civic engagement. 

“It’s really important to put a lot of energy into community engagement,” said Kocher. “On the other side, there’s the challenge of managing expectations.”

Projects funded through participatory budgeting are often indistinguishable from normal budget items – trees, infrastructure improvements, traffic safety measures, bike stations. But the process can be an opportunity for residents to draw attention to under-funded initiatives and neighborhoods and make city governance feel more transparent.

It’s important to establish the goals for the process at the outset, said Jackson Price, budget analyst and participatory budgeting coordinator in Cambridge. “Defining it is essential,” he said. “That’s not to say every single piece needs to be ironed out from the jump, but you need to be clear about why you want participatory budgeting. Is it focused on resource allocation, civics education?”

Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo says it comes down to making sure that community voices get to direct some city budget priorities and feel enfranchised by their role in the process. Proponents point to age and racial inclusivity as key tenets. Boston already has a separate $1 million youth-led participatory budgeting program in place. Cambridge allows any resident over 12 years old to vote in its budgeting effort.

“Yes, it’s civic participation, but more importantly actually allowing community advocates to have a voice in where those dollars go,” Arroyo said. Some of his council colleagues have argued that it’s their role to bring constituent voices into the normal budget process. Arroyo said that’s a fair point but misses the investment people feel when granted access to direct democracy.

Or, as Price puts it: “The value is in the process itself.” 



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