Participatory Budgeting, Practical or Pointless?

December 4, 2012 “How would you spend three million dollars?” is the provocative question written in big, bold letters across flyers advertising Vallejo’s citywide participatory budgeting project. The city will allocate 30% of the Measure B tax sales to projects suggested and voted on by the residents of the city. The first city-wide project to be implemented in the United States, participatory budgeting (PB) is a relatively new concept in this country having just been realized for the first time in Chicago in 2009 and then later in New York City in 2011. An interesting time for PB to take root in the U.S. as people continue to feel the effects of the recession and as disillusionment with the government has continue to prevail in the American spirit since the financial crisis. Even more interesting for the project to be brought to Vallejo, which in 2008 was the largest city at the time in California to declare bankruptcy. The city was just released from this perilous financial legal status in 2011.

The November 18th assembly, held in a community room in St. Vincent’s Church, is one of nine where residents and community members are asked to share their personal experiences and brainstorm with other strangers in order to decide what is the greatest need and provide ideas on projects that will address these needs. This was the only assembly to be held in Spanish (two other assemblies provided interpretation for Spanish speakers). A PHD student in sociology, two other graduate planning students and I seized on the opportunity to use our Spanish speaking skills and volunteered as facilitators or as scribers. As a student who came to graduate school for city planning with the interest in studying participatory processes, getting to partake in one of the assemblies was a rare opportunity to experience direct democracy in its rarest form. Democracy as a rule is messy. Even more so, it’s costly and usually a lengthy process. PB may have been bought to Vallejo but certainly not without some ridicule and skepticism, only passing in the city council by a slim margin of 4 to 3, with the Mayor Osby Davis voting against it.

Many of my peers and colleagues who have organized or engaged in community-led projects can attest to its shortcomings. Still, even I was (perhaps naively) surprised during the first weeks of starting UC Berkeley’s City and Regional Planning program when I seemed to be in the minority opinion that participatory planning is a vital and useful component of the profession. As one member of my cohort put it “City Planning is a professional degree, I mean we don’t tell doctors how to do their jobs.” I was stunned. Isn’t this Berkeley after all, the hallmark of progressive, radical thought? Perhaps we don’t tell doctors how to do their jobs but maybe we should, or rather we should recognize that there are key answers to be found when consulting the people themselves as to how their health needs can be better met. And in fact there are many in the medical field that have long been championing community-based treatment strategies such as the infamous Dr. Paul Farmer. Founder of Partners in Health, Farmer’s international organization debunked the myth that drug-resistant tuberculosis (DR TB) and HIV/AIDS could not be treated in developing nations. The solution? It wasn’t enough to offer free treatment to the poor but by also consulting and monitoring their needs for food, housing, and safe water, Farmer was able tackle DR TB in places like the rural, squatter settlement neighborhoods in Haiti. The success of this holistic approach all started with his simple insistence on asking patients what else they needed so they would keep taking their treatment. It started by including the patient in the process of their recovery.

Participatory budgeting is a lot like the community-based health approach model. Eventually, experts (city planners, engineers, architects etc.) will presumably sit down to discuss the plausibility and logistics of implementing the projects that get the top pick. Before then, residents are asked to go above their usual call of civic duty (voting on election day) and give their personal experience the respect it deserves by offering solutions to the issues they are concerned about.

At 2:00pm we walked into the community room. Fifteen minutes later I’m disappointed, as more folks haven’t showed up, there are approximately 30 people from the community. Today will be a small group it seems especially in comparison to the first two assemblies that boasted around a 100 residents each. After an introduction and a video explanation of the project, the residents are broken up into groups depending on the randomly assigned number on their nametag. There are just 6 people in my group and my task will be to keep track of the proposals as well as keep the facilitator aware of time. Forty-five minutes is all they’ll get for brainstorming, which normally might mean heavy tight constraints on a larger group. Some residents of the group include two employers of an insurance company, a woman who works in a wine shop and her elderly aunt. There are moments of lingering silence in the beginning, as the facilitator attempts to get the conversation going. In the end though, folks got really excited about the ideas they proposed. Some creative ideas included a mobile library with wifi and purchasing a van for free transportation to local businesses.

Do I think participatory budgeting or planning will solve all our urban problems? Of course not, and the 3.2 million allocated to citizens is just a small portion of the overall budget in Vallejo. The spillover effects of participating in decision-making processes, however, are innumerable. For residents I think it means a better understanding of the variety of opinions that must be heard and mediated with for these types of political decisions. It can mean a greater sense of community and maybe even a little less disillusionment with the way government is operating. Participatory processes may not be the end all solution but I think it is a step towards meaningful civic engagement.

Sydney Céspedes is a student at UC Berkeley in the Master of City Planning Program. Previously she attended Hunter College of the City University of New York for her bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Sydney has also been published in the Hunts Point Express, a local newspaper serving the Bronx community of Hunts Point and Longwood. She can be reached at