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Making Participatory Budgeting Work: Experiences on the Front Lines

Giving Americans a louder voice in political processes is central to restoring trust in government.

August 23, 2022
City council meeting
MediaNews Group/Getty


It’s no secret: levels of satisfaction with America’s political system — consumed by partisan enmity and unable to address a host of urgent challenges — have dipped to alarmingly low levels. Recent surveys have found a large majority of Americans want substantive changes to the system, think most politicians are corrupt, and say U.S. democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.”

But that’s not the whole story. Though polls find low levels of trust in the federal government, they also show that state and, especially, local governments — where people tend to have closer contact with their representatives — are much more popular. Meanwhile, nearly four out of five U.S. respondents to a Pew poll released last year supported the idea of “creat[ing] citizen assemblies where citizens debate issues and make recommendations about national laws.” Nearly as many backed the idea of letting people vote directly to pass laws on some major issues, as is often done through state referenda and other ballot initiatives.

Support for both ideas was higher in the United States than in Britain, France, or Germany, the three other countries Pew surveyed — perhaps reflecting America’s extensive history of deliberative and direct democracy. A separate 2019 poll found strong support for several innovative approaches to local civic engagement, such as holding community discussions on relevant issues, surveying residents’ views, or proposing how to spend public money.

These findings suggest two things: Americans are hungry for a louder voice. And their satisfaction with government is closely connected to their ability to participate effectively in the democratic process and impact political and governmental decision-making. Enhancing civic participation by finding new ways to engage people in political processes is, therefore, central to restoring trust in the system.

The reform that does this more directly than perhaps any other is Participatory Budgeting (PB), which allows city residents to collectively determine how a portion of their local government’s budget is spent. This paper provides a brief overview of PB’s history, both internationally and in the United States, and explains how it typically works. It then uses interviews with people involved in PB processes around the United States and Canada to better grasp which approaches have proven most successful.

Two major positive impacts of PB emerged from the interviews. The first is that it served to boost civic participation, strengthen community ties, and demystify city government, resulting in residents’ increased sense of civic agency. Second, it helped identify community needs often overlooked in a city’s conventional outreach process.

Interviewees also identified several operational pitfalls that localities should be aware of when considering or implementing PB. Among them were:

  • failing to fully empower residents by keeping too much control in the hands of city government;
  • not providing enough project funding to generate excitement among residents;
  • not providing funding to hire dedicated staff, thus requiring government staff to run PB on top of existing job responsibilities;
  • placing tight restrictions on the types of projects allowed by PB and enforcing these restrictions rigidly; and
  • encouraging residents to believe that PB would have a transformative effect, leading to disillusionment when outcomes were more modest.

Continuing to improve our understanding in this area is crucial because the North American processes vary greatly, particularly regarding the details of implementation. Past studies have drawn lessons from interviewing elected officials about the PB processes in their districts. But there’s been relatively little attention paid to the views of the people who are often most central to the day-to-day implementation and management of PB: advocates who successfully organize to launch PB processes and in some cases go on to help run them, staffers in the offices of elected officials or city agencies who play key roles in administering PB, volunteers who serve as budget delegates or in other leading roles, and expert observers.

By focusing on those who are on the front lines of the process, this paper aims to provide insights for PB advocates, elected officials, legislative and agency staffers, volunteers, and anyone else creating, running, or helping to run a PB process. And, for those less familiar with PB, it is an introduction to the opportunities and challenges that PB offers.

An Overview of Participatory Budgeting

No two participatory budgeting processes are exactly alike, but in the United States and Canada, it typically works like this: 

  1. A city — or in some cases an individual council member, using discretionary funds — decides to conduct a PB process and sets aside a portion of the annual budget to fund it. Usually, separate funds are reserved for program administration. 
  2. A steering committee of volunteers sets the rules and schedule for the process. Inclusion is central to PB: many processes allow voting by groups shut out from the normal political processes, including high schoolers of all ages, noncitizens, and the formerly incarcerated.
  3. Residents submit ideas (either at in-person meetings or online) for projects they’d like to see in their communities. Because ongoing funding is rarely assured, proposed ideas must often — though not always — be for capital projects or other one-time expenses. 
  4. Volunteer “budget delegates,” sometimes with help from elected officials’ offices, shape the ideas into formal proposals. This includes working with city agencies to determine cost and feasibility and modifying or eliminating projects as needed.
  5. Residents vote on approved projects. 
  6. The winning projects are funded and implemented. 
  7. The following year, the process begins again.

PB was pioneered by the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989 in response to grassroots social movements calling for government transparency and responsiveness in the face of rampant clientelism and corruption. It has since spread to over 7,000 cities around the world and has been recognized by the United Nations as a best practice of democratic governance.

PB hasn’t been a runaway success everywhere. In Peru, researchers found it did not have an impact on basic water provision, a much-needed service. And in Indonesia, low-income neighborhoods received less than their fair share of the PB budget because of low participation rates among poor residents. But Brazil, where nearly half of the country’s 250 largest cities adopted PB during its first two decades, remains a key success story. Brazilian cities have typically allocated relatively large sums of money to the process, ranging from 5 to 15 percent of a city’s total budget and sometimes as much as 100 percent of capital spending projects. Porto Alegre and the city of Belo Horizonte each have contributed the equivalent of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars to PB projects thus far.

This commitment has produced impressive results. Two separate studies have found that Brazilian cities that adopted PB achieved substantial declines in infant mortality compared to those that didn’t. A study by the World Bank linked PB to “reductions in extreme poverty.” Researchers have concluded that Brazilian cities with PB programs “improve the lives of their citizens.”

Direct democracy has existed in America since (male, property-owning) colonial New Englanders gathered on village greens to deliberate and vote on public issues. During the Progressive era, it played a key role in efforts by many western states to rein in the power of corporate interests. But it was not until 2009 that Chicago Alderman Joe Moore, working with the Participatory Budgeting Project, launched the United States’ first PB process. Two years earlier, Moore had nearly been voted out of office by constituents who felt he was not responding to their needs. At a social justice forum, he learned about Porto Alegre’s experience with PB and thought it might be a way to give residents of his ward a louder voice as well as counter Chicago’s notoriously patronage-dominated politics. Eight other Chicago wards have since adopted PB. Canada’s first process began in 2002 at Toronto’s housing authority, and the process has spread to scores of other U.S. and Canadian cities, several of which are explored in this paper.

Learning What Works

To this point, the improvements to living conditions achieved by PB in Brazil appear not to have been replicated in the United States or Canada. PB researchers have identified several important differences between how each place tends to run PB that likely explain this. For example, Brazil’s processes are usually citywide, while those in the United States and Canada are often limited to one or more council districts or wards. In Brazil, residents tend to have more control over the process, including often getting to decide the amount of money to be spent. And PB in Brazil was explicitly designed to reduce economic and political inequality, with strong mechanisms embedded to ensure that resources go to the communities in greatest need. In North America, there’s much more variation in the commitment to this goal.

But achieving the kinds of material improvements seen in Brazil need not be the goal for PB in North America, at least in the short and medium terms. Successful PB processes can play an important role in strengthening democracy and civic participation by letting decision-makers better understand and prioritize a community’s needs; by helping to restore trust in government among residents, especially those from underserved communities; and by serving as a gateway to other forms of political participation, such as voting, getting involved in other local campaigns, or even running for office.

Participatory Budgeting Research Cities

While some American and Canadian PB processes have flourished, becoming yearly features of their city’s budgeting cycles, others have struggled to grow their participation or have been downsized or eliminated. In background conversations for this paper, some PB advocates noted what they see as the relatively slow rate at which new processes are launching, especially over the last five years — even accounting for the Covid-19 pandemic. At this stage in PB’s growth, it’s more important than ever to continue gathering knowledge on how to make it as effective and enduring as possible.

To better understand why PB thrives in some cities and fails in others, I conducted phone interviews with 23 people involved with PB processes in eight different locations. Interviewees were identified using a contact list maintained by the Participatory Budgeting Project, as well as through additional research by the Brennan Center.

The interviewees for this project provide crucial insights into what helps advance PB’s goals and what hinders them. Among other key issues, they saw the role funding plays, the impact of a process’s rules and restrictions, and the largest-looming threats to genuine popular control of the process. Their candid views on issues like these — organized into seven overarching takeaways — offer important guidance for those designing and implementing PB in the United States and Canada. Secondarily, by underscoring the value of these insights, the project encourages much-needed further study of the experiences of key actors beyond elected officials.

Of course, this paper is not comparable to the rigorous expert assessments conducted for most processes on behalf of city governments. For one thing, it aims as much as possible to avoid characterizing or making judgments about the processes, in favor of letting interviewees speak for themselves. And though the pool of interviewees is diverse in terms of race, gender, and role in the process, it isn’t intended to provide a representative sample from which sweeping broader conclusions can be drawn. It’s also worth noting that many of the insights found here will not be new to PB specialists. But hearing them directly from people who have the closest view of the process can allow even experts to gain a more nuanced and specific understanding of the opportunities and challenges PB presents. 

The following basic information about each city examined for this study offers context for interviewees’ responses.

Durham, North Carolina

Durham launched its PB process in 2018 when the city council voted to allocate $2.4 million, divided equally among the city’s three wards. In its first cycle, Durham’s process generated 517 project ideas, with 10,179 people — out of a city population of about 275,000 — voting on the proposals that made the ballot and over 100 applying to be budget delegates. 

A second cycle was completed in 2021, though the amount allocated for projects was reduced to $1 million in total. Because of a shift in community needs exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, proposals were required to be service projects, funded through grants to local nonprofits, rather than capital projects, as was the case in the first cycle.

Greensboro, North Carolina

Greensboro conducted its first cycle as a pilot in 2015 after a multiyear advocacy campaign by local activists. Since then, two additional cycles have been completed, with a fourth currently underway. For every cycle, each of the city’s five council districts receives $100,000 to allocate to projects, with a total of $200,000 in additional funding for program administration. 

Total turnout for the first two cycles was around 1,200 voters each time, out of a city population of about 280,000. But this figure jumped to over 4,000 by the third cycle. The official evaluation for the first cycle found that non-white residents were slightly underrepresented as voters and participants in the PB process when compared to their numbers in Greensboro’s total population. But they were overrepresented when compared to their share of the electorate in conventional local elections — perhaps a more meaningful measure.

Hamilton, Ontario

PB was launched in 2013 in Hamilton’s Ward 2 — one of the city’s 15 wards — with $1 million in discretionary funds allocated to the ward. The first cycle saw turnout of 1,024, which dropped to 550 in the second cycle, out of a total ward population of about 38,000. The program was shuttered at that point.

Long Beach, California

In 2014, the city of Long Beach in Los Angeles County launched PB processes in District 9, one of nine city districts, using $295,000 in discretionary funds. The process lasted for three cycles before it ended. In the first cycle, 2,676 people voted, out of a total district population of about 50,000. Since 2019, a different PB process, run by a local nonprofit with grant funding, has provided social programs that support parents with young kids. 

New York City

New York City launched PB in 2011, with separate processes in four of the city’s fifty-one council districts. In 2014, the city created a central office to help coordinate and provide resources for PB, but individual council members continue to run the processes in their districts.

When the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted the 2020 cycle, 33 council districts were participating, each allocating at least $1 million for projects. Council District 39, which includes neighborhoods in central and western Brooklyn, was one of the original four districts to pioneer PB and completed its eleventh cycle in April. The process allocated $1.5 million for capital projects and an additional $50,000 for programmatic projects run by nonprofits. In 2021, 5,446 voters turned out, out of a district population of about 154,000. 

San Francisco

PB was launched in San Francisco’s District 7 in 2013. The amount of money allocated has grown over time, and this year it will be nearly $1 million, $250,000 of which must go to traffic-safety projects. Several other districts adopted PB after seeing it in District 7, but all have since ended their processes. Total turnout in District 7 has averaged around 2,100 people, out of the district’s roughly 84,000 residents.

San Jose, California

PB was launched in 2015 in District 3 after work by Councilmember Raul Peralez (D) and Mayor Sam Liccardo (D). The amount allocated for projects began at $100,000 and ultimately peaked at $250,000. The program ran for five cycles before ending in 2020. Turnout averaged around 500, in a district of about 100,000 residents. 

Toronto, Ontario

Toronto conducted three cycles of a pilot PB program in three separate neighborhoods from 2015 to 2017. In the first year, each neighborhood received $150,000 to spend on projects, which was increased to $250,000 for the second and third years. Turnout for the three neighborhoods combined averaged about 550 per cycle, out of a total eligible population of around 66,000. The city ultimately declined to expand the pilot into a citywide program.

Key Takeaways

Below are the seven most important takeaways that emerged from the interviews, along with supporting quotes from interviewees. Versions of each of these points were emphasized by multiple interviewees. 

Give residents actual control. Interviewees from several different cities described a range of ways in which the process became co-opted or undermined by other interests, making it less democratic and bottom-up than intended and leading residents to become disillusioned. Interviewees said projects approved by voters were too often changed, delayed, or canceled by big-city bureaucracy or by individual agency staff. (Some staff countered that there are practical, financial, and legal issues they are required to consider before projects can be implemented, suggesting that solving this challenge will not always be straightforward).

In Hamilton, Ontario, a local councilor sought to control the process and ultimately used it for political gain. Numerous interviewees stressed that for PB to succeed, residents must have confidence that they are actually running the process and that their votes matter — that is, that when they turn out to support a project, it will be implemented in a timely manner and in a form that is close to what was asked for.

“Participatory Budgeting kind of risks becoming co-opted. It just becomes another box for the city to check. Like: ‘This is what we did for public input.’ And when that happens, it becomes undermined.”

—Vincent Russell, Greensboro

(Russell, a professor of communications at Western Carolina University, was president of the grassroots organization that worked to create PB in Greensboro. He then served as an evaluator of the process for its first cycle.)

Provide enough project funding to motivate residents. Interviewees recounted the challenges that arose when too little money was allocated for PB projects. Most importantly, it was difficult to excite volunteers about the process or motivate them to volunteer if the amount at stake was not large enough to allow for ambitious proposals that might have a lasting impact on their communities. Exacerbating this issue was the extensive time commitment that PB often required of volunteers and city staff. For many, the relatively small amounts of money being considered were not worth putting in the time to organize or attend meetings, refine proposals, and mobilize voters.

Ultimately, interviewees said, cities should ensure they are making a sufficient financial commitment to PB for it to be successful. The striking consistency with which this point was stressed raises the question of whether it would be better not to conduct PB processes at all in cases where the funding allocated is too low, since an unsuccessful process resulting from underfunding can lead to disillusionment among residents and city officials.

“I was told by the residents, ‘Unless we get more money, we’re just not going to do it. It’s not worth the time.’ And that’s been the biggest challenge.”

—Gary Hytrek, Long Beach

(Hytrek, a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach, played a key role in getting Long Beach’s PB process approved and launched in 2013–14 and went on to help run it.)

Don’t forget funding for full-time staff. Many interviewees strongly emphasized that asking staff from city agencies or elected officials’ offices to run PB on top of their existing responsibilities is a mistake — as is asking volunteer residents to do it on their own with no compensation. The workload — community outreach, project development, coordination with city agencies, and so on — is just too great. Overloading city staff or volunteers burns them out, and lacking full-time staff dedicated to community outreach can lead directly to lower participation rates. Further, failing to fund dedicated, independent staff tends to mean the process is run by staff from the office of the elected official, making it easier for them to control the process and make politically expedient decisions.

For all these reasons, interviewees stressed the importance of allocating enough money to program administration — that is, separate from the money that goes to fund projects — to hire at least one full-time staff member, and ideally more. Again, the widespread and strongly held nature of this view among interviewees suggests that PB advocates should make a funded full-time staff a requirement for launching a PB process. 

“That is probably the number one reason why other districts either didn’t start it or didn’t keep with it — because it is a tremendous amount of work . . . The Supervisor and I completely believe in the power of Participatory Budgeting — but it’s a lot of work for not having separate staff to do it.”

—Erica Maybaum, San Francisco

(Maybaum served as a legislative aide to Supervisor Norman Yee. She was responsible for running PB for five of the seven years that it existed under Yee.)

Limit restrictions on the types of projects allowed. Because most PB processes only involve one annual budget cycle, ongoing funding for a project can rarely be assured. As a result, many processes require that proposals be capital projects or other one-time expenses. This means that projects providing community services often aren’t allowed. Some processes also were subject to strictly enforced legal, compliance, cost, or zoning restrictions that limited the types of proposals that could appear on the ballot.

Interviewees noted several challenges posed by these restrictions. In some cases, residents felt that only service projects would address their most urgent needs, especially a year or two into the process after several capital projects had already been approved. More broadly, seeing project ideas rejected before they could be put on the ballot was said to dampen residents’ enthusiasm for the process, reducing participation rates. In several cases, interviewees described successes in which organizers found ways to work around or soften restrictions. Some interviewees suggested that in setting rules for the process, organizers should aim to include as few limitations of this kind as possible. 

“There was a lot of demand for other projects that couldn’t be accommodated. If we hadn’t limited it to certain capital projects, we would have probably had more interest and momentum.”

—Rich Whate, Toronto

(Whate was brought into the city manager’s office to run the PB pilot program for the 2016 and 2017 cycles.)

You can never do enough outreach. Interviewees spoke about the need for energetic, deliberate, and thoughtful outreach that is conducted over a lengthy period of time and in locations where residents naturally find themselves. They noted that this outreach was especially important for reaching underserved communities and should be conducted in multiple languages. Some said insufficient outreach — usually because of a lack of resources rather than any deliberate choice — was the primary cause of lower-than-expected participation rates. Even some of those who said this outreach had occurred added that more of it could have further boosted participation.

“[Organizers] need to be thinking at least a year to get out there and get the idea on the radar and to identify key community leaders and work with them to make sure the process is designed so that it does include their community. But also so that there’s trust — because without that, I don’t think we would have had half the level of participation we did.”

—Norman Kearney, Hamilton, Ontario

(Kearney, at the time a graduate student in political science at Carleton University, spearheaded the campaign to win PB and then played a leading role in running it during its first cycle.)

Be clear from the outset about what PB can and can’t do. Interviewees said some residents, encouraged by organizers to think big, went into the process imagining that PB could deliver almost any project they could envision. But limited budgets, city regulations, and restrictions on the types of projects that can be proposed mean the final product may be more modest. As a result, interviewees stressed the need to manage residents’ expectations about what PB can and cannot accomplish to avoid disenchantment with the process. Some interviewees acknowledged, however, that this could conflict with the obvious need to excite residents about the possibilities of PB in order to convince them to participate. Ultimately, organizers need to find the right balance — communicating in compelling terms what PB can achieve, without overpromising.

“It’s important to manage those expectations. PB is not there to solve all of the issues. But it can start a conversation and open up the doors of government so that more and more people can get involved.”

—Andrew Holland, Durham, North Carolina

(Holland was hired by the city to oversee the PB process as budget engagement director.)

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Several interviewees laid out innovative ideas aimed at avoiding potential pitfalls. To prevent richer neighborhoods from having an advantage, organizers in Hamilton created a recommended list of proposals that prioritized underserved communities. And to avoid implementation delays, Greensboro let voters choose shovel-ready projects that were approved through the city’s conventional planning process. Beyond these specific ideas, the lesson is that PB offers ample room for experimentation, and a willingness to be flexible can be key to success.

“What we found is that we kind of exhausted the process in these small neighborhoods in three years. Had we been able to maybe tweak it halfway through and try a new neighborhood or try a different type of scope, that might have told us even more interesting things about its potential.”

—Whate, Toronto


These responses from interviewees were not as consistently or strongly held as the takeaways above. But most were expressed by multiple interviewees, and they contain insights that can be valuable for PB processes going forward.

PB processes served to boost civic participation, strengthen community ties, and demystify city government, making it easier for residents to wield influence going forward.

“We saw folks step up and learn about what democracy looks like and how it should function. We’ve seen individuals become much more involved in local politics — as elected leaders, as members of commissions and boards. We’ve seen residents interact across space in ways they’ve never done before — neighborhood associations, for instance, sharing resources and having folks go from one neighborhood association meeting to another and sharing some of their concerns.”

—Hytrek, Long Beach

PB helped identify ground-level community needs that had been overlooked in the city’s conventional outreach process.

“In our community was a basketball court that flooded a lot, and so people couldn’t use it. So we went in and did some work in the area funded through PB, and it made that court more useful, and that makes a park more usable . . . That might be something that feels kind of low down the city totem pole — they’re dealing with police issues and how to create more affordable housing and things like that. But that stuff could really matter to a community.”

—Jeff Lail, Greensboro

(Lail chairs the city’s PB commission, on which he has served for two years.)

PB processes that use a council member’s discretionary funds can give that council member too much control.

“[PB] should be treated more seriously, incorporated [through] policies and bylaws, and not left up to [one person]. Because that also really tips the scales of power in the process. If people think if they rock the boat too hard, the councilor is going to say, ‘No, enough’s enough,’ that’s really not empowering at that point. That’s just kind of a nicer form of consultation.”

—Kearney, Hamilton

Moving too many PB functions online can create access challenges, especially for underserved communities.

“Not as many people participate online. And there’s also that technology gap, where there’s a lot of people who want to see these community ideas funded but don’t communicate in English or don’t have access to the internet or something like that. So we’ve seen the number definitely drop.”

—Angelica Ramdhari, New York City

(Ramdhari has been volunteering in the District 39 process since 2018 as a budget delegate and later a facilitator.)

Budget department staff may not be well suited to running PB.

“[PB] is by and large an outreach project . . . Most people who work in the budget office are numbers people and are focused on that aspect in an overarching way for the city. They weren’t hired for their outreach skills.”

—Karen Kixmiller, Greensboro

(Kixmiller is an analyst in Greensboro’s budget department, where the city houses its PB process. She works closely with volunteers and other city staffers to administer PB.)

It’s crucial to keep volunteers informed about the status of their proposals.

“People wanted to know what happened to their request, and they weren’t being given that information back . . . Keep the person who submits the original request engaged throughout the whole process.”

—Antonina Ettare, San Jose

(Ettare was a lead PB volunteer for two cycles, serving on a committee of 12 volunteers who worked with residents and city staff to vet projects and get them approved for placement on the ballot as well as conduct outreach to the community.)

Conducting separate processes for each city district, and allocating the same amount of funding to each, can conflict with PB’s equity goals.

“If one of the purposes of Participatory Budgeting is to promote social justice, to promote equity, requiring money to be spent equally across all five districts makes that very challenging. Because in Greensboro, the east side of the city has been neglected, divested from, and if we’re talking about equity, they really need more of the money. But they required that it be spent equally, so rich folks in the west side of Greensboro get the same amount of money from PB as poor folks on the east side of Greensboro.”

—Russell, Greensboro


The comments from interviewees underscore an important reality about PB: Effective, well-organized PB processes can build trust in government, strengthen civic ties, address urgent local needs, and give underserved communities a louder voice in decisions that intimately affect their day-to-day life. Less effective processes, by contrast, can lead to demoralization and disappointment, potentially further decreasing trust in government for some residents. So exactly how PB is set up and implemented is crucial.

Though interviewees’ views and experiences varied widely, by and large, most saw certain key decisions — often taken by policymakers and organizers at the outset — as essential in determining the level of success of the process: Is enough funding provided both for projects and PB administration? Are government-imposed constraints on residents’ choices kept as minimal and flexible as possible? Are residents given ultimate control of the process when conflicts with government inevitably arise?

Ultimately, these questions point to a larger reality: the more that city governments are prepared to fully lean into PB by providing necessary resources and by genuinely trusting and empowering residents, the more successful it is likely to be. Ensuring that PB lives up to its potential in the United States and Canada will take a full-blooded commitment to the process.


This appendix provides additional material from the interviews in support of the takeaways identified in the report. It is designed to be of particular use to participatory budgeting advocates and practitioners who want to get a granular and detailed view of each process’ successes and challenges and of the interviewees’ perspectives on them.


Wayne Abraham (Greensboro, North Carolina) was a leader of the grassroots organization that worked to create participatory budgeting in the city. He then served on the steering committee for the process and went on to chair Greensboro’s newly created commission for the third cycle, leaving the commission.

Antonina Ettare (San Jose, California) was a lead participatory budgeting volunteer for two cycles, serving on a committee of 12 volunteers who worked with residents and city staff to vet projects, get them approved for placement on the ballot, and conduct outreach to the community.

Andrew Holland (Durham, North Carolina) was hired by the city to oversee the participatory budgeting process as the budget engagement director. 

Doran Hoge (Hamilton, Ontario) worked on participatory budgeting as a high-level volunteer while doing a master’s degree in global political economy at McMaster University.

Gary Hytrek (Long Beach, California), a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach, played a key role in getting the city’s participatory budgeting process approved and launched in 2013–14. He subsequently went on to help run it. 

Norman Kearney (Hamilton, Ontario), at the time a graduate student in political science at Carleton University, spearheaded the campaign to win participatory budgeting and helped lead the process during its first cycle. 

Karen Kixmiller (Greensboro, North Carolina) is an analyst in the city’s budget department, where the participatory budgeting process is housed. Kixmiller works closely with volunteers and other city staffers to administer funding.

Jeff Lail (Greensboro, North Carolina) chairs the city’s participatory budgeting commission, on which he has served for two years.

Vonda Martin (Greensboro, North Carolina) is a park planner with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Among her responsibilities is working with the participatory budgeting process. 

Erica Maybaum (San Francisco) served as a legislative aide to Supervisor Norman Yee. She was responsible for running participatory budgeting for five of the seven years that it existed under Yee.

Adriana Ochoa (Long Beach, California) worked in 2019–20 for Best Start, Central Long Beach, as a facilitator and organizer of the participatory budgeting process.

Norman Pase (Hamilton, Ontario) was vice president of a local university chapter of the Canadian Public Employees Union. He served as a high-level participatory budgeting volunteer, primarily working to build partnerships with local labor and other organizations.

Welsey Petite (Toronto) spent two years observing Toronto’s participatory budgeting process for a political science PhD thesis at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Angelica Ramdhari (New York City) has been volunteering in the District 39 process since 2018 as a budget delegate and later as a facilitator. In these roles, she has helped to develop residents’ proposals, worked with city agencies and nonprofits to get proposals approved and onto the ballot, and assisted with managing the broader process. 

Christina Ramos (San Jose, California) serves as chief of staff to Councilmember Raul Peralez and was responsible for running the participatory budgeting process.

Vincent Russell (Greensboro, North Carolina) was the president of the grassroots organization that worked to create participatory budgeting in Greensboro. He then served as an evaluator of the process for its first cycle.

Marla Tepper (New York City) has been volunteering in District 39’s process since 2019. Like Ramdhari, she has moved from being a budget delegate to a facilitator.

Rich Whate (Toronto) was brought into the city manager’s office to run the participatory budgeting pilot program for the 2016 and 2017 cycles.

Additional Process Insights

Give more control to residents.

Greensboro saw particularly intractable struggles for control between PB organizers and city staff, who often changed or delayed projects that residents had approved. Vincent Russell, a leader of the movement that helped create PB in the city, stated:

“There was a lot of city staff resistance . . . They were really kind of brought kicking and screaming to this PB process . . . They saw Participatory Budgeting as generating more work for them . . . That it’s time intensive, that it’s a waste of time. It’s a headache dealing with these residents that don’t know what they’re talking about. Some staff had that perception. And so they can make it very hard for residents to do the process.”

But Karen Kixmiller, a Greensboro budget analyst, said some projects were not fully vetted during PB. That is, after projects were approved by voters, planners sometimes discovered they were not feasible —at least without major changes — because of cost, safety, compliance, or other concerns.

“Projects get on the ballot, and then it gets to the implementation point and it’s like, ‘Whoa, we can’t do it like that.’ And then you risk disenfranchising the community. You seem disingenuous.”

Vonda Martin, a planner with Greensboro’s Parks and Recreation Department, made a similar point:

“I think [PB] is an incredible opportunity for improvements to a community by way of resident recommendations, as long as there is an opportunity for staff to be involved in their idea, so that we can guide them, so that the expectations are met . . . Because we don’t want to have to come back and be the bad guy and say, ‘I’m sorry, the money didn’t go as far, we couldn’t do anything to the playground because it was all taken up by the [Americans with Disabilities Act] access that we had to bring into the park.”

Still, to Wayne Abraham, another leader of Greensboro’s campaign for PB who then served on the steering committee for the process, the point of PB is for residents to communicate their actual wishes to city agencies, even — or especially — when the city has its own plans. So the city should try much harder, he believes, to prioritize projects approved through PB.

“It’s the entire reason why Participatory Budgeting is supposed to exist, so that city staff find out what the public really wants . . . The public is telling you it wants a sidewalk here now rather than . . . three years from now. Or the public wanted an upgrade to this recreation center now, and it was willing to spend its money now to upgrade this locker room. Maybe you had it scheduled to occur five years from now, but the public wanted to spend it now and do it now.”

Russell added that advocates had erred by disbanding a grassroots group that had fought to create PB. Keeping it running, he thinks, could have made it harder for the city to undermine the process.

“In hindsight, we should have kept that group together so that we could have continued to apply pressure on the city to make sure that PB remained robust.”

Antonina Ettare, a lead volunteer with San Jose’s PB process, pointed to similar barriers imposed by city agencies that she said stood in the way of accomplishing projects residents wanted. She suggested that the process was not well suited to overcoming those kinds of hurdles. Ettare recounted how residents voted for a speed radar trailer that could show how fast passing cars were going in order to encourage drivers to slow down. At least one potential vendor was rejected because they were not authorized by the city. Eventually, a suitable vendor was found, and the funding was approved. But that was not the end of the story.

“We found out later that the trailers are actually deployed by the police department, which is different. And in order to get the trailer deployed from the police department, we’d have to go to the police department. Well, they aren’t engaged in participatory budgeting . . . they would use it to their own purpose. It wouldn’t serve the community as we wish.”

Wesley Petite, who observed Toronto’s PB process closely for a PhD project, likewise said that in order to comply with city rules, agencies modified many proposals after the vote, often leaving residents unsatisfied.

“A lot of residents that I spoke to said, ‘Well, I wish I hadn’t voted for that because that’s not what we had planned.’ So it’s really kind of a stripped-down form of involvement that resembles picking from a kind of a menu of things rather than this more open dialogue around how capital funds can be used in a new way.”

In Hamilton, by contrast, the major conflict was with the elected official who had originally agreed to launch the PB process in his district. Norman Kearney, who led the push for PB in Hamilton and went on to run the process, remarked:

“PB requires a leap of faith from elected officials, lots of whom think they were put there to make the tough decisions, they were given a mandate to do that. Also, they tend to believe that they know best because they spend all day every day thinking about these issues, meeting with the experts, etc. And, of course, there’s some truth to all this. On the other hand, people have lived experience and knowledge that comes from living with these problems they face in their day-to-day lives. So that’s also a valid piece of information in decision-making.”

Doran Hoge, a high-level PB volunteer in Hamilton, put it more succinctly:

“One of the other challenges is: this kind of goes around politicians. And I think that that can be a bit threatening, right?”

In Hamilton’s second cycle, public officials no longer seemed willing to make the “leap of faith” needed, Kearney said. The local council member took much more control over the process, banning non-capital projects, sidelining the neighborhood residents’ councils, attempting to gain access to volunteer contact lists to use for electoral purposes, and even canceling projects already approved by voters. Kearney, who had been working 60-hour weeks to run the process, mostly unpaid, found himself edged out and was also forced by other commitments to pull back. He recounted:

“Once I moved on to a master’s degree, and once the councilor decided, ‘Hey, I’m taking full control,’ there was no one really to push back. The volunteers were demoralized. They turned to me and said, ‘What should we do?’”

Ultimately, turnout dropped for the second cycle, and the program was shuttered.

Provide enough project funding to motivate residents.

Rich Whate, who was hired by the Toronto city manager’s office to run PB, said the low level of funding for projects led to a feeling among some volunteers, administrators, and council members that the effort required simply was not worth the payoff.

“There were times people looked at us, even the councilors, and said, ‘Okay, so in the end, we just spent $250,000 in my ward — great! But it took a full-time staff person sitting in the city manager’s office, it took about a half-time person in my constituency office, and it took all these Parks staff to learn a new process and show up at meetings they wouldn’t normally show up to. . . . I could have spent this money and built this park with one or two public meetings and a survey that would have cost almost nothing. “‘We had to create ballots and moderate votes. We had to host like a dozen different meetings over three months, with multiple staff at each, to result in, like, a splash pad or something. Whereas the regular city process is a lot leaner and maybe just as fast, and people seemed satisfied.’

. . .

“Even people who voted three years in a row said, ‘That was fun, but next time I’m just going to a meeting because that doesn’t require me to spend three months engaged in a process.’ Some of the public told us, ‘It’s too much involvement for the results.’”

Abraham, Russell, and Greensboro PB commission chair Jeff Lail all saw a similar dynamic in that city.

“People looked at $100,000 as not much and not worthy of their time.”


“If we want PB not just to be a token process, if we actually want it to promote systemic funding change, then it needs the budget to do that.”


“I think Greensboro has kind of dipped a toe into this and hoped it would work. Whereas a bigger commitment might be a more successful commitment.”


Gary Hytrek, who played a key role in getting Long Beach’s PB process approved and then helped run it, said a lack of funding was one key reason why the program no longer exists. He believes residents needed to feel that there was enough money at stake to at least begin addressing deep-rooted issues.

“Once [residents] realize the work involved and the money involved, they’re reluctant to commit to a process unless there’s sufficient money that they can really have an impact on the issues of justice and equity in their neighborhoods.

. . .

“I think they saw the potential of deeper, more transformative processes or outcomes if there was more money available.”

Marla Tepper, who has served as a budget delegate and facilitator in New York City’s process, said many of the capital projects that are proposed do not make it onto the ballot because they are projected to exceed the $750,000 limit that applies to capital projects.

“There’s a disconnect between the amount of funds allocated and how much it actually costs to get a capital project done. The capital projects just cost so much more now than they did ten years ago. So it’s really hard to accelerate those types of projects, which are also really important for the community. Our parks are not getting as funded, or our schools or roads . . . The end result is that we have a smaller capital ballot than we used to. And it’s harder to find capital projects that work.”

Erica Maybaum, who ran San Francisco’s PB process as a legislative aide to Supervisor Norman Yee, highlighted another problem that arose from a lack of project funds. In San Francisco’s process, individual projects, other than traffic-safety projects, could cost no more than $25,000 (upped to $50,000 in 2022). This creates inefficiencies for city department staff, whose cooperation is needed to get projects on the ballot. Said Maybaum:

“Our departments don’t love this project. Because $25,000 for a project might seem like a decent amount for a community member, [but] for a department in San Francisco, that’s nothing. So whether it’s a tiny project or a $4 million project, it takes dedicated staff time on their part . . . And then they have the pressure from our office saying, ‘Five hundred people voted for this. Why is it taking so long?’”

Don’t forget funding for full-time staff.

Andrew Holland, who ran Durham’s PB process as the city’s budget engagement director, said it was crucial that Durham allocated funding for two full-time staff members — himself and a more junior staffer — to run the process, as well as a part-time Hispanic-outreach staffer.

“One of the things that I stress to various communities if they’re asking about doing PB is this: It’s important to have dedicated staff implement the process. Because if you’re expecting a budget analyst or someone who already has an existing workload to implement it, then the results may not reach the expectations of your community.”

Kixmiller (Greensboro) said that at times, budget department staffers like herself were essentially running the process on their own.

“It’s important to say that that responsibility has always been on top of existing responsibilities. Nothing is shifted off the plate of that person to do PB. It’s a tremendous amount of work. It’s a full-time job while it runs . . . PB is thrown at [staff] on top of their regular job. I’m definitely, during PB, [working] sixty hours or more a week. And then other staff — the engineer who’s working on a slate of projects that are already coming to him in a capital improvement plan that has been planned out twenty years down the road.”

Hytrek (Long Beach) agreed:

“If you are serious about PB being successful, you have to make funds available for staff time. Residents, they’re working forty, sixty hours a week. I mean, they can’t run these processes. Plus, they don’t have the skill set at that level. So, whoever is running it has to make sure that there’s adequate staff to make sure that all the pieces fit together nicely.”

San Francisco, also, did not include funding to hire dedicated staff. The lack of staff resulted in lower participation and voting rates than might otherwise have been the case, Maybaum said:

“If there was dedicated staff full time, [voting numbers] could have been improved. I mean, every year more people participated. But we have 84,000-plus constituents. Two thousand voting is not that great. But we tried our best.”

This especially lowered participation among non-English speakers, she added.

“Those who are monolingual [in languages other than English] or English-language learners did participate less. We wouldn’t get very many ballots back in the other languages . . . An area for improvement would be more outreach in those other languages. But it’s hard when there’s just me, and I’m actually a full-time staffer on [policy issues].”

Christina Ramos, who ran San Jose’s process as chief of staff to Councilmember Raul Peralez, said her office requested funding for staff but instead was given a website with tools to help with outreach. Eventually, even this was defunded. Without support, the workload — and especially the outreach piece — became unmanageable for council office staff. Said Ramos:

“We’re low [on] staff as it is, coming from a council office. There’s about six of us dealing with a variety of [issues from] over 100,000 constituents on a regular basis . . . You really do need a dedicated office staff to do the outreach. . . . It was a lot of work on the residents and on the staff, which kind of caused burnout of time and energy.”

Some staff at city agencies, too, struggled with the workload, Ramos said.

“A lot of the city staff were resentful of the program because they were like, ‘How do we fit this work into our regularly scheduled projects?’ So even though these are all one-off projects, and these were not long-term projects, they still found it difficult and were resistant.”

Limit restrictions on the types of projects allowed.

Whate (Toronto) said the process’s capital-projects-only requirement was largely responsible for low voting numbers. The rule existed, he explained, because non-capital projects would require a second review from the city council after voters had weighed in, something organizers understandably wanted to avoid. But he said the rule reduced enthusiasm for the process among residents. 

In fact, the rules for Toronto’s PB process appear to have included a particularly large number of restrictions on what types of proposals could be included. Petite’s PhD dissertation describes a 2016 meeting held at a community center in the Oakridge neighborhood of Toronto — an area with a high poverty rate and a racially diverse population — designed for residents to offer and discuss proposals for projects:

“Many of the proposals made in Oakridge focus on addressing the low economic standing and deficient infrastructure in this [neighborhood]. Increased funding for programs in the Oakridge Community Centre and for childcare centres are not eligible because they rely on operating funds. Similarly, proposals for farmers’ markets to address the lack of access to fresh food, as there is no grocery store in Oakridge, are also rejected on the grounds of not being a capital project. Proposals to increase access to free wireless internet in parks are rejected on the basis that they require operational expenses. Proposals for a swimming pool, splash pad, skating rink, and a skateboard park are also placed among the ineligible proposals due to estimated cost. A proposal to acquire land at Danforth and Warden Avenue is deemed ineligible due to costs and existing guidelines for land acquisition. Calls for security cameras in parks to increase public safety are responded to with the basic information that the city does not install surveillance cameras in public places.

“Small and rudimentary installments like benches, shade structures, and games tables are found among the proposals deemed feasible.”

Hytrek (Long Beach), too, said residents saw a pressing need for social programs that the process did not allow.

“A second frustrating aspect of PB for many residents is: ‘Yeah, we need potholes fixed. We need our parks cleaned up or rehabilitated, or whatever that might be. But we also need programming around particular kinds of things.’”

Adriana Ochoa worked as a paid facilitator and organizer of the nonprofit-run PB process in Long Beach. The rules and structure for this process — largely set by the nonprofit group that ran it, First Five L.A. — differed greatly from the District 9 process that Hytrek helped to run. For one thing, proposals had to be for services, not capital projects — a requirement that appears to have created as many problems as the opposite rule requiring capital projects.

Said Ochoa:

“That was one of the biggest frustrations with the process. I think we lost a good chunk of folks over that . . . I’m sorry to say this, but there’s only so many workshops that people need. And I think that people want to see tangible results in a lot of cases.”

Reflecting the mission of First Five L.A., proposals also had to address one of a few areas, including child development, childcare, fighting child abuse and neglect, and increasing housing or economic security for parents with young children. And, though most PB processes consciously aim to make voting rules as inclusive as possible, this process required that residents participate in the idea-collection phase if they wanted to vote. The rule made it much harder to get a large voter turnout, Ochoa said.

“It was only folks who had participated from the idea collections. Well, it was sometimes hard to get those folks back, because they hadn’t been participating the entire time. It was hard to get ahold of them again. And when people started learning about the process later, they wanted to participate, they wanted to vote for stuff, but then they couldn’t because they hadn’t participated from the beginning . . . It was a really frustrating constraint.”

All these restrictions, said Ochoa, detracted from the feeling that ordinary residents were truly being put in charge. 

“I just think it kind of took some of that away — that power for the people to make the decisions — because it put a lot of constraints on everything.”

By contrast, Lail (Greensboro) said ending a rule that had limited proposals to infrastructure projects so that residents could propose programmatic ideas as well was a key reason why turnout jumped in the city’s third PB cycle.

“I think that’s largely been a really positive thing . . . Sometimes it’s easier to wrap your mind around ‘I’m going to do a program at the library’ rather than ‘Let’s build a walking trail.’”

And Kearney (Hamilton) said that at his and his allies’ insistence, Hamilton’s process at first allowed proposals that addressed not only physical but also social infrastructure — such as one successful project that put healthy food in the backpacks of kids who needed it.

“Most of the concerns that residents were bringing were about the lack of social infrastructure: lack of nutritious food, lack of space for multicultural programming. So we initially had this broad definition of infrastructure, which was really exciting. And it essentially meant that residents could come forward with any idea, they didn’t just need to have a road re-pavement or a crosswalk.”

Maybaum (San Francisco) said that in at least one case, organizers found a way around the process’s rule barring proposals that require ongoing funding, which made service projects difficult. To fund exercise classes for seniors, provided by a local nonprofit, residents proposed a pilot program that would need only one-time funding. The classes ended up being so popular that the council member’s office allocated separate funding outside of the PB program, allowing them to expand into several neighborhoods. Said Maybaum:

“That’s just another example of this starting out at as, ‘Let’s seed this idea,’ and then it’s completely grown, and now it’s funded outside of this program.”

You can never do enough outreach.

Andrew Holland, who ran Durham’s PB process as its budget director, said it was vigorous outreach, focused especially on underserved communities, that allowed Durham to exceed its engagement goals. To generate proposals, organizers knocked on doors in low-income neighborhoods, worked with the public housing authority to reach out to its residents, and set up tables at places like the bus station and the public health department, where many low-income Durhamites receive services. One part-time PB staffer was focused exclusively on outreach to the city’s Hispanic community. To make it as easy as possible for all types of people to participate, the city provided need-based stipends for volunteers, free bus passes, childcare, and meeting spaces at City Hall. But, Holland added, forging productive relationships is an ongoing process.

“In some cases, there has been past harm that has been done — and some of that has been due to government policies and decisions. So, in some cases, there is some distrust with government. So you have to be intentional in how you go about engaging those individuals and building that trust. And that takes time, and that takes a lot of effort.”

Kearney (Hamilton) likewise emphasized the importance of building relationships with communities that may be skeptical of government. He recounted meeting several times with representatives of the ward’s large Somali community.

“I took a bit of a beating . . . there was no trust. I was perceived as a guy from the city who was there to, essentially, placate them. To calm them down so that they would stop causing the councilor trouble. And that this promise of real power and real money was either a lie, or it was going to be co-opted by white people. And that the richer members of the community, the wealthier neighborhoods, were going to get all the funding, and [the Somalis] were going to invest all this time and get burned by this process.”

Russell (Greensboro) said one strength of his city’s first PB cycle was its concerted outreach to a diverse range of communities and neighborhoods — something that was new for Greensboro city government. Organizers engaged residents at a local mosque and at an event for undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, among other examples.

“The PB organizers were going to meet residents where the residents actually are instead of expecting residents to come to City Hall or something like that.”

Be clear from the outset on what PB can and can’t do.

Ettare (San Jose) said she went into PB thinking that it could deliver any idea that residents got behind strongly enough, but she came to realize that’s not always the case. That is why she believes it is important to be clear with residents and volunteers about the limits of the process.

“For any city, you need to really understand and put the parameters around what is accomplishable and what is not.”

Holland (Durham) echoed that view:

“Participatory Budgeting isn’t going to solve all issues that a city organization is facing. There’s just not enough money. There’s not even enough money in our overall city budget . . . It’s important to manage those expectations.”

Kixmiller (Greensboro) said the way PB is often pitched, as a smooth journey from idea generation to project implementation, ignores the real-world hurdles involved, in which agencies need to carefully vet projects for cost, safety, legal compliance, and other feasibility factors before they can move forward.

“The four-step process [used by PB advocates to pitch PB to residents] sounds simple, right? Residents come up with ideas. They work with staff to come up with proposals. The proposals get on the ballot, and the projects get funded. Easy peasy! [But] it’s the interaction and the process between staff and the community that is such an intensive process for an extended duration.”

Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Several interviewees described innovative ways that organizers tweaked the process, sometimes departing from PB’s usual procedures, in response to specific challenges. To ensure that richer, whiter, better-organized neighborhoods could not dominate the process, organizers in Hamilton added a wrinkle: Once proposals had been approved for the ballot, a group of delegates from across the ward met multiple times to consider all of them — including doing a bus tour of the ward, during which delegates presented their neighborhood’s ideas. After a lot of negotiation and compromise, the group agreed on a list of projects to recommend to voters, prioritizing the ward’s most urgent needs and most underserved communities. Voters then were given a choice of voting for individual projects or for the recommended list — and most chose the list. Measures like these aim to promote a core aspect of PB since its inception in Porto Alegre: distributive justice. But the extent to which they are prioritized varies from place to place.

Kearney (Hamilton) described the challenging but rewarding process of forging a consensus among delegates to come up with a list of projects to recommend to voters:

“It was a real turning point on this bus tour — people see first-hand what different neighborhoods are dealing with. After that, the tone of the meetings changed, and we were able to come to an agreement . . . So I thought that was also a very successful feature.”

Kixmiller (Greensboro) has championed an idea that the city is trying out for the current PB cycle: to avoid some of the issues arising from delays and changes made to projects after voters approve them, residents can vote not only for ideas generated through the PB process, but also for existing, shovel-ready projects that have already been budgeted and approved through the conventional city planning process. Said Kixmiller:

“Most of these plans, if not all of these plans, have already been developed with community input and buy-in and have been adopted by our elected officials . . . It also can alleviate a lot of the work from staff because these ideas have already been vetted, and you know that that slide will work at that park.”

About the Author

Zachary Roth is a fellow and former editorial director of the Brennan Center for Justice. Prior to joining the Brennan Center, he was a national reporter at MSNBC. He is the author of The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy (Crown), which was the runner-up for the 2017 J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The New RepublicPoliticoSlate, and other outlets.


The Brennan Center gratefully acknowledges the Lumina Foundation and The JPB Foundation for their generous support of our work.

The author thanks the Participatory Budgeting Project for generously providing its contact list for PB processes in the United States and Canada, without which this project would not have been possible. Thanks also to Elizabeth Crews, Thea Crum, Matt Harder, Josh Lerner, David Schleifer, Celina Su, and Don Waisanen for sharing their expertise on PB. And thanks to all interviewees, including those not quoted here, for taking the time to share thoughts about their experiences with PB.

At the Brennan Center, Emelia Gold, Ashley Zhao, Larissa Jimenez, Josh Bell, and Gabriella Sanchez provided research, editorial, and administrative assistance for this paper. Finally, Ted Johnson provided valuable support and supervision of this project.