What does a city do when its residents propose an alternative way of engaging them in the budget process? The city of Greensboro, North Carolina, was faced with that question when Participatory Budgeting Greensboro (PB GSO), a coalition of community members, urged the city to pass a resolution allowing for participatory budgeting.
Larry Davis, ICMA member and budget director for Greensboro, explained that for many residents the budget process was "too complex and intimidating for most people to want to engage in and citizens felt like participatory budgeting would allow them to talk about relative priorities of different projects and participate in a closer-to-the-street level.”
After years of discussion, the city council passed the resolution in 2014, and Greensboro became the first city in the southeast region of the United States to launch a test of participatory budgeting. Most city councils believed that if the participatory budgeting process "helped residents feel like their local government was a little less alien and distant" then it was worth the time and effort of the city.
At the core of participatory budgeting is citizen engagement. This process allows for residents to decide how to allocate part of a municipal budget directly. For the Greensboro staff, they were confronted with not only implementing this new strategy but also faced with how to engage the community in a different way.
With $500,000 allocated by the council and support from the community, the budget office staff and PB GSO representatives came together to officially plan the implementation strategy for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
The city worked in collaboration with Participatory Budget Project (PBP) staff, who shared best practices of engagement from other partner cities, while city staff shared their knowledge of the community and how they liked to be engaged. Together, this helped shape a new way of community engagement for the city’s budget process.
Staff considered where in the community people wanted to be engaged and where they already gathered. Rather than trying to convince residents to meet the staff at places they believed were convenient, the staff decided to hold meetings at the spaces community members already frequented. Davis also noted that these spaces change from year-to-year and staff has continued to engage with the community on potential new locations.
To assist in the education of the participatory budget process, the city also recruited volunteers, mostly from local high schools and universities, to attend meetings and educate residents on the process and how they can participate. In addition, volunteers assist at voting events and with project research. City staff also began working with local social organizations, hosting pop-up meetings, and talking with people at community-wide events.
Through this high level of engagement, the initial call for submissions yielded 675 suggestions from residents and more than 1,000 participants in the process. During the past two cycles, the winning projects have included new bus shelters, revamped playgrounds, greenways, and crosswalks.
Words of Advice:
Greensboro has proven what successful resident engagement can look like in the budget process. For local governments interested in improving their community engagement or participating in participatory budgeting, Davis advises to:
1. Know Thy Community.
If you are getting great engagement across all political spheres and those in your community with the least amount of power still feel like they have a pathway into government, you have accomplished what PB sets out to accomplish. You have to be honest with yourself, however, and ask "Is that really happening?" If not, participatory budgeting may be an avenue to increase engagement.
2. Critique the Process.
If your process stops serving that role [of engagement] and the same people are participating from the same neighborhoods and community groups, plus you do not see underrepresented portions of the community participating, then you have to say this process is no longer meeting the goals of engagement and the community needs to either change it or look for something better.
3. Facilitate Understanding of the Process.
In addition to the participatory budget process, Greensboro has sought other ways to engage community members in the budget process, including the creation of Balancing Act, an online budget simulation tool to help residents understand how the budget process works and how it affects their daily life.
Learn more about Greensboro's Participatory Budget Process at http://www.greensboro-nc.gov/departments/budget-evaluation/participatory-budgeting.