Panel Paper: Beyond Participation: Evaluating the Impacts of Participatory Budgeting for the City of Cambridge

Friday, April 7, 2017 : 9:00 AM
Founders Hall Room 478 (George Mason University Schar School of Policy)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Marcia D. Mundt, University of Massachusetts, Boston
Participatory budgeting (PB) is a tool combining direct and deliberative democracy which was first implemented in Brazil in the late 1980s and has since spread to over 3,000 communities large and small throughout the world. The City of Cambridge, Massachusetts was an early adopter of this innovative process in the United States beginning in 2014. As the practice continues to expand to municipalities across the US, currently introduced in fourteen US-cities and growing rapidly across North America, it is important for city officials and tax payers across the nation to understand how this process can impact the community through a review of PB benefits and limitations as a tool for democratic participation and public policy decision-making. This evaluative study brings together quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews to answer the research question: has the City of Cambridge Participatory Budgeting program achieved its stated impact goals? Data is operationalized to explore if the process has achieved its five stated goals: 1) expand and diversity civic engagement, 2) have meaningful social and community impact, 3) promote sustainable public good, 4) create easy and seamless civic engagement, and 5) promote civic-mindedness.

Findings suggest that the City of Cambridge is achieving most of its stated goals. Voters strongly associate the process with meaningful impact on the community and endeavor to select sustainable projects. Voters and volunteer participants report that they’ve learned more about their neighbors and the city overall through participatory budgeting. Youth participation is indisputably supported. Though the city has successfully expanded the electorate pool to include youth and non-US citizens unlike traditional democratic processes in the US, they have not reached minority communities such as African Americans, Asians, and those of Hispanic heritage to a degree proportionate with local population demographics. Voter turnout remains a challenge. Outreach has not yet succeeded in targeting marginalized communities, reticent voters, or those with opportunities to engage in the political process. While the technologically advanced and flexible online voting process is highly accessible to most voters, for those without computer access or comfort using technology, it can be limiting. Community member budget delegates invest significant time and energy as volunteers which eliminates some populations from deliberative engagement. The city has indeed achieved many of its stated goals for the PB process, but there is still room for improvement to reach traditionally marginalized populations, expand the budget and scope of eligible projects to effect systemic change, and enhance outreach throughout the program cycle. Implications of these findings for the case of the City of Cambridge and municipalities across the US suggest that PB can be a powerful tool for community impact, but will require an increased effort to move the needle on large-scale democratic or social change.