Gale Brewer’s office conducts participatory budgeting: where should we spend our money?

Gale Brewer’s office is conducting participatory budgeting for District 6, which means the 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 app and see other proposals submitted by other community members in line.

Once these ideas are collected, they will enter in a month assessment and selection process which culminates in the inclusion of the winning proposals in the city’s next budget, which takes effect July 1, 2022.

But UWS residents might note that participatory budgeting only happens in 14 out of 51 City Council districts, and that most of the UWS above 96th Street (in District 7) is not one of them. Why aren’t the vast majority of city council members leading the process in their districts?

Although the city council’s website and proponents of the process often point out that participatory budgeting began in Brazil in 1989 and has more than 3,000 participating government districts worldwide, they do not specify how many districts have discontinued it or interrupted. This information is not easily aggregated around the world, but a report from an organization that monitors participatory budgeting in Germany notes that from 2014 to 2017 (the most recent version of the report available), 153 communities abandoned the practice; 102 communities had active programs and 13 have suspended theirs.

Communities that abandoned participatory budgeting said there was not enough community participation to make it properly representative (Residents of District 6 can decide for themselves if this is true by looking at the number and actual content of the proposals submitted) – and that the process may become too time-consuming and costly in relation to its merits.

Like any tool of government, participatory budgeting has costs and benefits, and these can change as the municipal context changes. Residents should do their own cost-benefit analysis to see how well they think the process is working, expanding where it works and reinstating where it doesn’t.

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