Greensboro looks to get more residents engaged in budget process

What is the best way to spend government money? Typically, public budgets are decided through a policy-driven budget process that is informed (ideally) by research, best practice, experience, and input from policy makers and politicians. Dollars are then distributed through government agencies or contracted partners that deliver services directly.

What is often missing from this equation is a significant amount of input from local citizens who are the direct recipients of these services. Flipping this script is something called “participatory budgeting.”

Participatory budgeting is a process in which local citizens decide on how to allocate part of a municipal budget through a highly democratic process. Though there are many varieties of participatory budgeting, it generally involves four basic steps: 1) community members identify spending priorities and select budget delegates, 2) budget delegates develop specific spending proposals with the help of experts, 3) community members vote on which proposals to fund, and 4) the city or public agency implements the top proposals.

First developed in the 1980s in Brazil, the first full participatory budgeting process occurred in the city of Porto Alegre in 1989. In an attempt to encourage local participation in government and channel more resources to the poor, a participatory budgeting process was rolled out citywide.

A subsequent study by the World Bank shows that participatory budgeting led to direct improvements in access and services. Sewer and water connections, for example, jumped from 75 percent to 98 percent of households in less than a decade and the number of schools has quadrupled.

Spreading globally

The annual participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre involves a series of neighborhood, regional, and citywide assemblies in which residents and city officials identify and vote on funding priorities for $200 million dollars of construction and services expenses (fixed expenses, such as debt and pensions, are not included). About 50,000 residents among the city’s 1.5 million inhabitants participate in the process – a number that has increased every year.

Based on the success of the model, 140 other municipalities have adopted participatory budgeting in Brazil, and it has spread globally including to North Carolina.

This past year, Greensboro became the first city in the Southeast to launch a test of participatory budgeting. The city council agreed to allocate $100,000 to five different districts that local residents could decide how to spend (out of Greensboro’s $488 million annual budget). It also split the $200,000 implementation fee with local foundations to cover the cost of evaluating suggestions and to hire New York-based nonprofit, the Participatory Budget Project, to oversee engagement.

An initial call for idea submissions yielded 675 suggestions. From those, 90 were ultimately submitted to city staff for cost estimates. A portion of these ideas were dropped due to expense but the remaining ones moved on to community expos across the city. Held in libraries and community centers, the expos provided opportunities for project advocates to share their ideas, which ranged from crosswalks for intersections to a sun canopy at a public pool to bus shelters.

Outreach limited

Over two weeks in April, more than 1,100 residents voted for their favorite ideas. Each district was approved funding for about four to six projects. Additionally, the citizens voted to approve $90,000 to deploy a mobile app proposed by local entrepreneur and N.C. A&T master’s degree student Hassan Black to allow passengers to track city buses. The projects are now included in the City Manager’s recommended budget for the city council. The city council has also tentatively agreed to continue the participatory budgeting process next year.

Council Member Nancy Hoffman says the process has helped city officials better learn what citizens want done and increased understanding of how government works and what projects cost. But some local advocates say the community outreach didn’t go far enough to engage low-income citizens and the projects didn’t align with the real needs of a city with high poverty rates.

Indeed, the World Bank research coming out of Brazil indicates that poor people and youth were under-represented through the participatory planning process. For efforts in Greensboro to truly work, this shortcoming must be taken seriously. One approach: Engage traditionally disenfranchised communities in the design of the participatory budgeting process from the very beginning.

Increasing citizen engagement and connection between government and residents is clearly something we should strive for – as is aligning budget spending with community priorities. There are still clear challenges to overcome, but more experiments like those in Greensboro will only benefit our state.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.