On face, the promotion of the public interest sounds like a pretty innocuous concept. In fact, it’s actually a fairly commonly held ideal within the planning community. Public interest lies at the heart of all planning endeavors, serving as the common denominator of all planning activities. Although there is much agreement on promoting public interest, consensuses halt when analysis of the subject is further extended. What exactly is public interest? Who is included? How is public interest best promoted? The debate extends fairly deeply amongst planners, citizens, community activists, politicians, and many other interest groups.
Even with the best of intentions, promotion of genuine public interest is lost in the elusive nature of public interest itself. A large divide exists between those who decide how to promote public interest and those who experience the implications of such decisions. In the majority of cases, those who serve the public interest, such as technical experts and politicians, are not truly 100% representative of the community they are serving. In the status quo many individuals are marginalized due to their race, class, gender, sexuality, disability status, etc. – these groups often lack adequate representation in the political realm. Without sufficient advocacy, these groups are often left out of the discussion of public interest entirely and are not considered in the planning process.
In efforts to expand citizen involvement, participatory budgeting, the participation of citizens in the decision making of budget allocation, has gained increasing popularity. The process works in that a portion of capital funds are set aside and specifically allocated for participatory budgeting. Community members then brainstorm to identify spending priorities and develop funding proposals based on local needs. Funding proposals are then voted on by the public community vote to determine where funding is allocated.
Although the initiative is relatively new, participatory budgeting has emerged rapidly throughout a large number of cities and municipalities across the globe. In the United States alone participatory budgeting projects have been seen in major cities such as Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and NYC. Participatory Budgeting emerged in NYC during 2011 when four council members launched a process to allow residents to allocate part of the city’s capital discretionary funds. Since then the initiative has expanded to gain support of 24 council members and approximately $25 million dollars.
“New York City is experiencing a new kind of democracy. Through participatory budgeting residents of twenty-four Council Districts across the City are directly deciding how to spend $25 million of taxpayer money. From September 2014 to April 2015, community members are exchanging ideas, working together to turn ideas into project proposals, and voting to decide what proposals get funded.”
Although participatory budgeting sounds fine in theory, the modernity of such methods leaves many challenges ahead in implementation. One of the difficulties exists in evaluating the success of participatory budgeting processes. Researchers have yet to develop concrete methods for the collection and measurement of data from participatory budget. Without tangible methods of analysis it is uncertain to what extent participatory budgeting actually enhances community involvement.
The success of participatory budgeting hinges on the active participation of the community. It is not enough to simply allocate funds alone. If participatory budgeting is to be successful, education and awareness must be invested into the communities participatory budgets intend to reach.
Organizations such as the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) aim to create the successful implementation of participatory budgeting by working with the public to raise awareness and educate communities. The Participatory Budgeting Project link communities and professionals together to address local needs. The public is educated so funding proposals can properly be developed not only for the community but by the community as well. Furthermore, the Participatory Budgeting Project develops methods to properly evaluate current and future participatory budgeting projects.
Although the participatory budgeting process can be considered an atypical method of community planning, with proper implementation and involvement, the process has the potential for major success. It will be exciting to witness future developments in the years to come and the possibility of citizens feeling a greater connection with the planning and political process.