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City of Cambridge Adopts PB, Partners with PBP

We could hardly be more excited to share that yet another city has adopted participatory budgeting and will be partnering with our friends at the Participatory Budgeting Project, an NCDD organizational member. We learned about this great new development from the Challenges to Democracy blog, which is run by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance & Innovation, another NCDD organizational member, and we encourage you to read more about the news below or to find the original article here.


Ash logoIn June, Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh announced the successful allocation of $1 million dollars from Boston’s budget to fund seven capital projects, formulated and proposed by the city’s youth. Boston is one of several cities across the United States to have not only enthusiastically embraced participatory budgeting (PB), but have adapted the concept – for example by extending the opportunity to youth.

Boston has begun to facilitate greater civic engagement and empowerment among its young residents. Its experiment in civic activism is also generating momentum behind PB in another city in the Greater Boston area. The City of Cambridge recently announced that it would initiate its own PB process, in partnership with the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP).

Cambridge City Council member Leland Cheung first introduced PB to Cambridge over two years ago when he learned about its implementation in other cities, but its implementation has been fully embraced by Cambridge Mayor David Maher, City Council, and the City Manager. With the process formally underway, the City Budget Office will continue to handle all matters related to PB.

The city has made available half a million dollars in the FY16 capital budget for city projects.

Whereas Boston’s PB initiative targets residents age 12-25, Cambridge will open its PB process to all residents of Cambridge who are 12 years and older. Jeana Franconi, director of the city’s Budget Office, and her team has scoured the city’s library’s, senior centers, non-profits, schools and youth centers to solicit ideas for proposals. This ideas collection phase – which closed officially on December 31 – will help narrow down city priorities as reflected by resident concerns.

After residents submit ideas, “Budget Delegates” – volunteers at least 14 years old and whom are either a resident or affiliated with Cambridge in some way – will be tasked with transforming the project ideas into concrete proposals to be voted on in March.

Like the Boston PB process, the City of Cambridge envisions PB to be a tool for fostering civic engagement and community spirit. To that end, it has four goals it hopes to achieve through experimenting with PB.

Make Democracy Inclusive. As the Boston case demonstrated, PB brought together stakeholders (e.g., youth) who are not normally invited to participate in the decision making process and emphasized their role in strengthening civil society and enhancing civic engagement. Through expanding and diversifying participation in the decision-making process, the City’s budget is able to better reflect the priorities of stakeholders and preserve their engagement with the city over the long-term.

Have Meaningful Social and Community Impact. Residents are encouraged to submit ideas to the ideas map and other residents are able to “support this project” by clicking on the appropriate link. The city and budget delegates (see above) are able to then collect some data on which projects would generate “meaningful social and community impact.”

Promote Sustainable Public Good. Cambridge has outlined that all project considerations benefit the public, are implemented on public property, and can be completed with funds from one year’s PB process.

Create Easy and Seamless Civic Engagement. The city dedicated several meetings to establishing a steering committee that will lead the PB process (there are 22 current members), articulated themes of inclusion, and sustainable, meaningful impact, and launched its first PB Assembly to encourage community members to brainstorm ideas.

Like Boston’s Youth Lead the Change initiative, Cambridge’s PB project will complement other city programs that seek to encourage civic participation and engagement on the part of all city residents and those who are affiliated with the city. Franconi noted,

PB really ties in to many of the civic engagement efforts the city is involved in. [For example], the Community Development Department recently hosted Community Conversations in several neighborhoods to receive recommendations for the upcoming Citywide Plan.

With regards to young people in particular, Franconi spoke of the city’s Kids’ Council, through which participants travel to the annual National League of Cities conference to represent Cambridge and support youth participation on a national level. Youth involvement in the PB initiative, however, will provide opportunities for direct impact on the city’s most relevant needs.

Cambridge will begin its evaluation phase in April, but has already reflected on a few lessons as outlined by Richa Mishra’s piece on the promises and pitfalls of PB. In particular, Mishra’s emphasis on “process backed by results” should resonate with any local government attempting PB. The temptation to seek quick results over preserving the fidelity to process has, as she asserts, a deleterious effect on participation and ownership. Likewise, if process is emphasized at the expense of meaningful moves towards achieving results, participants could become disillusioned that their voices will not make a difference.

Franconi recognizes this inherent tension in the decision making process, and believes the city has still a lot to learn about the nature of PB. For one, Cambridge will initiate the next year’s PB process in the summer rather than the fall to fully capture citizen participation in every stage—from ideas collection to voting on the proposals—and to give residents more time to digest their responsibilities and sense of civic duty.

As the city designs its evaluation strategy, Hollie Russon Gilman, PhD, an expert on U.S.-based PB initiatives, further recommends that “civic experiments and civic innovations like PB need room to grow, evolve, and engage people. At times privileging initial indicators, over social impact, has the potential to stifle early process creativity.”

In the meantime, the city has achieved some incremental wins. It has opened up multiple avenues for participation (i.e., steering committees, online map tool, volunteering as a budget delegate or facilitator). Additionally, “a strong online and social media presence has helped tremendously,” Franconi asserts. “It has allowed us to do more outreach and canvassing to our underserved populations.”

As of this writing, Cambridge is on target with its proposed timeline. Over 380 ideas have been submitted to the online ideas map. To move forward with the formulation of concrete proposals, Cambridge hosted a Budget Delegate training on January 6 and will host a Volunteer Facilitator Training on January 10. For more information on how to get involved, please click here.

You can find the original version of the is piece on the Challenges to Democracy blog at www.challengestodemocracy.us/home/cambridge-is-next-u-s-city-looking-to-foster-engagement-with-participatory-budgeting/#more-1413.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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