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Cambridge Funds 6 Projects in City’s 1st PB Process

In case you missed it, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation recently shared a great interview with a Cambridge, MA city budget officer on their Challenges to Democracy blog highlighting the success of the city’s first-ever participatory budgeting (PB) process. It contains some great lessons learned and looks into the future of PB in Cambridge, and we encourage you to read the piece below or find the original here.

Cambridge Concludes its Inaugural Participatory Budgeting Effort

Ash logoCambridge residents welcomed spring with an enthusiastic show of democratic participation and civic activism. From March 22 to 28th, 2015, Cambridge residents age twelve and over were given the opportunity to determine a number of capital projects that the City of Cambridge would fund.

The voting was the culmination of a participatory budgeting process that had begun in December 2014, when Cambridge community members were invited to contribute ideas on how $500,000 would be spent on capital projects. Over 380 ideas were submitted using the City’s creative online platform.

Over forty “Budget Delegates,” volunteers chosen to research and evaluate the ideas, selected twenty promising project proposals to be voted on in March. Delegates were divided into four committees: Culture & Community Facilities; Environment, Public Health & Public Safety; Parks and Recreation; and Streets and Sidewalks.

Each committee was tasked with performing due diligence on project submissions – delegates made site visits, conducted community assessments, and consulted with City staff for input on the feasibility and cost of projects. The delegates then selected twenty of the most promising projects to put on the ballot with approval from the City Manager.

Over 2,700 Cambridge residents voted on the projects, either at one of twenty-five locations around the city or online. The following six projects received the most votes and will be funded in FY16:

  • 100 new trees and tree wells in low-canopy neighborhoods (1,441 votes, $120,000)
  • Twenty new laptops for the Community Learning Center (1,110 votes, $27,000)
  • Bilingual books for children (970 votes, $7,000)
  • Public toilets in Central Square (945 votes, $320,000)
  • Eight bike repair stations (917 votes, $12,000)
  • Free public Wi-Fi in six outdoor locations (875 votes, $42,000)

The allocations exceeded the $500,000 set aside for the pilot PB process, but the City chose to authorize the sixth project rather than scale it back. The total for all six capital projects is $528,000.

Building on the momentum of the first PB process, the City of Cambridge has authorized another round of PB to begin this summer. Meanwhile, City staff has initiated a process of feedback and reflection for residents and volunteers, with a formal session taking place on May 5th and the option of completing an online survey.

I recently spoke with Michelle Monsegur, an analyst at the City of Cambridge Budget Office. Monsegur, who helped oversee much of the PB process, shared her thoughts in response to my questions on this inaugural round of PB. Below is the text of our correspondence, edited for length and clarity.

Derek Pham: From the operations side of running this program, could you offer some comments on what you felt was one or two key lessons in implementing your first PB?  

Michelle Monsegur: One key lesson was that the pilot process’ timeline did not work well.  The proposal development phase of the process took place from January to March, which was tough for Budget Delegates (snow hindered site visits and transportation to meetings), City staff (busy with snow removal operations and budget season), and Budget Office staff (we put the City’s budget together from January- April). We are shifting the timeline so that the second PB process begins in May/June 2015 and wraps up before the holidays in December 2015.

In addition to a community feedback session, we’re disseminating a survey so that we can collect advice from a broad range of participants on how to improve the second time around.

DP: What percentage of Cambridge’s eligible voters took part in the voting of the projects? 

MM: The Steering Committee set a goal of 3,000 voters and defined voter eligibility as Cambridge residents who are at least 12 years old.  2,727 people voted in the pilot PB process, which was close to that goal and a good starting point.  Hopefully we’ll see many more people participate in the coming years.

We were the first city in the US to offer an online voting component for PB (ours was text message-authenticated), and we did that to make the process more accessible.  Although we held 25 voting events around Cambridge from March 22-28, 72% of the people who voted did so online.

DP: Building off the momentum of the first round of PB, what two or three things will you focus on as you move into the second round? 

MM: We would like to focus on additional outreach channels to spread the word about PB, including offering more information and materials in non-English languages. We may try to recruit a Steering Committee that is more connected to the local nonprofit community so that we can use those networks to reach more people. If the next Steering Committee decides that the minimum voting age should remain 12, we’d like to work with the schools to make sure all eligible students know they can participate in this process.

DP: Finally, what are two pieces of advice for cities interested in also starting up a PB initiative? 

MM: Public participation in the pilot process exceeded our expectations, so we recommend PB for municipalities who have a goal of getting residents more involved in the budget process in a meaningful way.  However, PB requires a tremendous amount of staff time and once you introduce PB, it would be very difficult to take it back, so cities need to be prepared to make a serious commitment to the process.

– — –

Many thanks to Michelle for speaking with me. As I wrote in an earlier post, in the beginning phases of Cambridge’s PB process the Steering Committee articulated four goals it wanted achieved through this endeavor. Though Cambridge will undergo its own evaluation of whether these goals were achieved, it is worth considering some of these goals.

First, make democracy inclusive. PB extended the vote to all residents twelve and over, allowed residents to easily participate in submission of ideas, and offered community meetings to gather a diverse mix of ideas and perspectives.

Second, have a meaningful social and community impact. Though perhaps harder to measure in the short term, residents voted on projects that would make the community a more attractive place to live. Residents now have more bike infrastructure, more trees, and outdoor Wi-Fi. The laptops and bilingual books are an investment in the future of the city’s human capital. All these projects suggest a positive, meaningful impact.

Third, create easy and seamless civic engagement. Rather than have City administrators decide on the projects, the City invited residents to volunteer as budget delegates. Moreover, the City leveraged technology to help bring in multiple voices and ideas in the process.

Fourth, promote sustainable public goods. The community will not only share in the benefits derived from the projects, but will also share in the benefits of the PB process, in general. There is greater social cohesion, greater civic advocacy, and greater attention to the role of the individual and his/her ability to affect positive change.

Cambridge’s successful first cycle of PB demonstrates the resiliency of democratic innovation and its ability to inspire and bring others together to advance solutions to shared concerns. A big thanks goes to the entire City of Cambridge’s PB planning team, Jeana Franconi and Michelle Monsegur from the Budget Office, and all Cambridge residents for taking on this valuable initiative.

As Cambridge heads into its second round of PB this month, visit the website for more information on how to submit ideas, get involved, and vote for projects. The City is currently setting up meetings between budget delegates and City staff to talk about implementation of the winning projects and working on a branding strategy that will make PB ubiquitous in Cambridge. The City has placed a call for new Steering Committee Members and is accepting applications until June 19.

You can find the original version of this Challenges to Democracy blog post at www.challengestodemocracy.us/home/cambridge-concludes-its-inaugural-participatory-budgeting-effort/#sthash.5o9H5E1G.ptVKXn6t.dpuf.

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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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