Cambridge, MA is doing a participatory budget because participatory budgets are the best budgets

Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live, is doing a participatory budget. What is a participatory budget? One of the best democratic institutional maneuvers a local government can implement.

While participatory budgeting can be implemented in a number of different ways, varying from city to city, the basic idea is pretty simple. As I wrote last year:

The process goes something like this: A percentage of the city’s budget is set aside to be allocated by deliberative bodies of regular citizens…who then meet to discuss how best to allocate the budget. Decisions are made by majority vote, but not before everyone who wants to speak has spoken. Neighborhoods then elect representatives to argue for their district’s interests at regional meetings, where the budget is finalized and sent to the mayor for approval. If the mayor vetoes the budget, the regional council can either modify their budget or override the veto with a two-thirds vote.

The process was first pioneered in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, which implemented participatory budgeting as a way to push back against clientelism and corruption in their city government. By deferring to a direct, deliberative body to allocate a percentage of the city’s budget, they were able to invest in new public infrastructure and services while improving trust in government and democratic participation.

While Porto Alegre relied on a series of in-person, local meetings, Cambridge’s participatory budget is slightly less decentralized.. They have started by forming a steering committee of 24 community members, including a local high schooler, community organizers, a pastor and two urban planners. They are currently meeting to finalize the rules for this round of participatory budgeting, including determining who can submit ideas, who can be a budgetary delegate and who can vote on proposals.

The committee hopes to build on the success of last year, the first in which the city conducted a participatory budget, which saw the approval of six projects totaling $528,000 in funding included in the city’s budget for the 2016 fiscal year:

  • Healthy trees for a healthy Cambridge ($120,000)
  • Laptops for the Community Learning Center ($27,000)
  • Bilingual books for children learning English ($7,000)
  • Public toilet in Central Square ($320,000)
  • 8 bike repair stations ($12,000)
  • Free public Wi-Fi in 6 outdoor locations ($42,000)

Initially, over 380 ideas were submitted. The steering committee then selected over 40 volunteer budget delegates, split into four committees, to research and prioritize each of them. They narrowed the list to 20 proposals; city residents were then able to vote for up to five of them. Elections were open to all Cambridge residents — including non-citizens — over the age of twelve.

A participatory budget meeting, via Costa Constantinides / Flickr

A participatory budget meeting, via Costa Constantinides / Flickr

Participatory budgeting isn’t a great policy simply because it helps communities better allocate their budget. If done right, it can improve metrics of citizenship, including voter turnout and civic associations. This is a big deal when one considers that traditional academic work on social capital, most commonly associated with Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone, suggests that civic traditions are very difficult to create. Porto Alegre’s experience with participatory budgeting offers a counterexample to that hypothesis, suggesting that deliberative mechanisms with tangible effects on local governance can set incentives for citizens to associate in ways that extend beyond the budgeting process itself.

Last year was the first open to a participatory process, so a relatively small percentage of the city’s budget was allocated to it. However, Porto Alegre’s continued success with participatory budgeting led them to use it for a steadily larger percentage of the city’s budget over time. Hopefully Cambridge will see similar success and follow suit.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • GeorgeMokray

    BTW, Jon Green, I live in Cambridge, MA and publish a weekly listing of Energy (and Other) Events around town that looks at public events in the community and at Harvard, MIT, and other educational institutions: http://hubevents.blogspot.com

  • Indigo

    That was long before Stephen King’s ‘The Dome’ was published. No subliminal connection happened.

  • Indigo

    That approach can easily bring local issues to the table, the kind of issues that professional politicians and dabblers in the common weal too easily overlook. Free Wi-Fi and trees and public toilets are genuine concerns, it’s good to bring them to the table.

    But . . .

    About 25 years ago I lived in a small town on the northern prairie near the Manitoba border. We had a community meeting once. The idea was to initiate a similar kind of budgeting and public discussion. One of the topics presented by a local dabbler was to build a dome over the town in order to better control the effects of wind and cold and blizzard. The idea proved to be a popular one. No further meetings were ever called. My point? These kinds of popular experiments in town meetings and expressions of democracy happen at the whimsy of administrators, many of the bureaucrats who were not elected but hired by officials whose basic interest is the status quo. It’s all to the good as long as it doesn’t push into the weird and the wonderful and the daringly innovative.

  • Skye Winspur

    “Elections were open to all Cambridge residents — including non-citizens — over the age of twelve.” That’s a courageous policy. Good on Cambridge for opening up democracy to (almost) everyone who has a stake in the outcome. (Not sure how I feel about 13-year-old boys voting, but in the aggregate it can’t hurt to introduce teenagers to civic participation.)

  • GeorgeMokray

    Cambridge, MA also passed a zero net energy building standard this year. The city is not nearly as progressive or liberal as advertised but sometimes we do take some advanced positions.

  • The_Fixer

    Who’d a thunk that a good idea about Democracy could come from someplace other than ‘Murika!

    Now if we could do this on a widespread basis and keep more of the budget(s) away from the influence of cronyism, we might have something here.

    I wonder how this would work on a national basis, if it could work? It’s something I think is worthy of investigation and a trial.

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