Our city, our money: U of T event highlights benefits of participatory budgeting

Imagine a government that keeps its constituents actively involved long after the election. This is the idea behind participatory budgeting, a concept first implemented in 1989, where public budgets are managed in part by community members.

A panel of experts discussed the successes, challenges and implications of participatory budgeting and how the model is working in Toronto at an event hosted by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG) at the Munk School of Global Affairs on May 5.

Toronto launched a Participatory Budgeting Pilot in Ward 33, Ward 35 and Ward 12 in May 2015. Shelley Carroll, Toronto city councillor for Ward 33 Don Valley East, stressed participatory budgeting as a way to enable citizens to not only engage with the government, but also others in their community. “Participatory budgeting moves the process from a ‘no’ moment to a ‘yes’ moment that focuses on picking projects, not killing them,” said Carroll. “Under this model, community members are champions of the movement.”

Josh Lerner, executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), offered a keynote presentation highlighting examples of participatory budgeting across Canada and the U.S. “We essentially empower people to decide together how to spend our money,” says Lerner.

He presented successful examples of participatory budgeting and how they have the power to galvanize underrepresented members of the community. In Boston, for instance, youth residents between the ages of 12 and 25 are invited to vote on how to spend $1M of the city’s capital budget. In New York, nearly a quarter of participatory budget voters in 2015 reported a barrier to voting in regular elections; demonstrating that this spending model could be a way to invite more marginalized communities into the democratic process.

Alex Mazer, co-founder of Better Budget Toronto, mentioned that this inclusive way of managing money helps governance make more sense to the average citizen. “Budgeting is an under-appreciated part of our democracy. In general, other budget tools are interesting, but hard to relate to. Participatory budgeting, on the other hand, is very relatable.”

Enid Slack, director of IMFG, agreed, highlighting that this budget model is an important tool for overall community engagement. “Participatory budgeting is more than just deciding how a portion of the city’s budget should be spent,” said Slack. “It is about engaging people in city issues, getting them to understand the trade-offs that have to be made in local spending decisions, improving communication between people and local government, and including marginalized groups in local decisions.”

Part of the Big Cities, Big Ideas (BCBI) lecture series, the Participatory Budgeting event was hosted in collaboration with the School of Public Policy and Governance, the Department of Geography & Planning, the Innovation Policy Lab, the Global Cities Institute, the Martin Prosperity Institute, and Urban Strategies Inc. 

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