Toronto is working on its next city budget with the help of its citizens. City officials opened up part of the budget to public debate and input through a series of outreach initiatives designed to get people more involved in municipal activities. The city held public roundtables, posted an online survey and asked citizens to present proposals at City Hall.
Toronto Open Data also helped with the effort by posting data related to budget items through the open data portal. Final spending decisions will still reside with the city council, but officials hope that this will be the start of a more effective budget process. The city council aren’t the only officials using participatory budgeting, the Public Housing authority also uses the process to determine some of its capital spending.
Other cities worldwide use participatory budgeting to a greater extent, but the practice is somewhat new to western cities. The process can have positive effects for both citizens and municipal governments alike by showing public officials what the priorities of their citizens really are. As CivSource reported last year, public health non-profits are also asking citizens for their input on how city public health initiatives should be prioritized.
Participatory budgeting can also cut back on waste, fraud and abuse by being more inclusive and helping the public become more knowledgeable about the inner workings of their local government offices.
Few cities in the US use participatory budgeting, only New York and Chicago open up part of their budgets to citizens. However, California is considering ways to bring the process there. A North American non-profit called The Participatory Budgeting Project is also working to raise awareness on the issue by holding events in several cities throughout the US and Canada.
A number of county governments solicit comments from the public. Here is Fairfax County, VA’s Department of Management and Budget page, for example. The first link is a .pdf of comments. (I didn’t want to link directly to the file.)
In general I like the idea of public comments on the budget process. Anything that gives people ownership over their government and increases engagement is positive. (Hopefully people will remember that just because they express their opinion it does not mean that their suggestion will be enacted.)