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Ask A Reporter: What Ever Happened To My Participatory Budgeting Project?

The Poppenhusen Institute, a landmarked building in College Point, Queens that housed the first free kindergarten in America, is a recipient of Participatory Budgeting funds.
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The Poppenhusen Institute, a landmarked building in College Point, Queens that housed the first free kindergarten in America, is a recipient of Participatory Budgeting funds. Public Domain

Ask a Reporter is an occasional series about civic engagement in and around the city. Do you have a question about how you can make a difference in your neighborhood, city or state? What about voting, the elections or navigating civic life in New York? Ask us! We want to help you get involved by answering your questions.

Q: "A new participatory budgeting round's begun. My 'hood won in 2015, but the project is still undone. How can we demand carry-through?"

A: I’ll wager that thousands of other city residents are wondering this very thing because, as it turns out, the vast majority of projects funded through participatory budgeting since the program began in 2012 are still in progress. And I mean almost all of them.

According to publicly available data, less than six percent have been completed. I made a few phone calls to city agencies and the City Council to try to check this, and there’s a chance the number could be higher than that — that the data may be a little behind what’s happening on the ground — but not by much.

So, why such a tiny amount?

It’s a good time to question the process. The New York City Council is in the early stages of the next round of participatory budgeting. Before we explore why so few projects have been completed, and get at the essential question of how to demand follow-through, some basic background on participatory budgeting is needed. Unless you are really into it — and there are people who are reeaaalllllly into it — you may have no idea what we’re even talking about here.

Quick Primer on Participatory Budgeting

Imagine a world where regular people get to decide — directly, with a vote! — how to spend taxpayer money. This is participatory budgeting.

Programs like it exist all over the world. In New York City, participatory budgeting is run by the City Council as a voluntary program. Council districts choose whether to participate, and each one is managed independently. The process begins with community members offering ideas for projects and culminates with a vote on how to allocate capital funds each spring. This period can take months to complete. Popular projects funded over the years include smart boards and technology upgrades for schools; security cameras on the streets; and renovations of public spaces.The City Council uses the adage: If you can kick it, you can fund it through participatory budgeting.

The program launched seven years ago with participation from just four council members. Now 32 council members are taking part, each putting at least $1,000,000 of their discretionary capital funds toward the process.

One of the best things about participatory budgeting, in my mind, is the inclusivity. Anyone age 11 or older can vote. 11-year-olds! You don’t have to be a registered voter. You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen. You just have to be a resident of the council district.

In fact, this “Ask a Reporter” question came from Ruth Mullen, a Riverdale resident who wanted to follow up on a school auditorium renovation that she voted for back in 2015.

When the City Council started up another call for project ideas this fall, the school auditorium project clicked in Mullen’s mind.

“Somewhere I saw a flyer that we were having these meetings now,” Mullen said. “And that got me to thinking again: What happened? What happened to our auditorium?”

Welcome to Capital Projects in New York City

Mullen’s daughter participated in a community theater program that used the auditorium at the Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy. It needed overhauling, said Mullen — namely new seats, air conditioning, fresh paint and a proper sound system.

In 2015, community voters agreed, and they allocated funds through the participatory budgeting program to renovate the space. Like all other projects that were approved, a budget line item was created within the city agency tasked with executing the project and, Voila!, the next phase of could begin.

However.

At this point, a lovely exercise in direct democracy met the bureaucracy of city agencies.

Capital projects, like building a park bathroom, renovating a school space or getting a new playground, take a long time to complete. A very, very long time. Set your sights on six years, City Council officials say, give or take.

Before even breaking ground, these types of projects have to clear many hurdles, among them: a design phase (which may include another community engagement process), a protocol for the bids, a legal review of the contracts, and more.

Even procuring equipment, which is a much faster process than construction, can also take longer than expected. Science carts for classrooms and countdown clocks for bus stops may take well over a year to be put in place once funding is approved.

(And other times, to be fair, these projects do get implemented expediently. I hear technology upgrades for classrooms happen pretty quickly.)

Councilmember Andrew Cohen, who represents Mullen’s district, said the capital process is long and tortured, and could definitely be streamlined.

“There is an enormous amount of bureaucracy,” said Cohen, who gave the example of contracts passing through multiple legal teams across city departments before moving forward.

Some checks on government spending, implemented to prevent corruption, that may have made sense in the past are, perhaps, outdated and overly duplicative now, he said.

“I do think that technology now allows us to watch these things in a more efficient manner,” Cohen said.

And now there are city residents, such as Ruth Mullen, raising concerns about a process that leads to what they view as stalled projects. And that’s not a bad thing, said Brad Lander, a Brooklyn City Councilmember and major participatory budgeting enthusiast.

“Having people engaged with the frustrations of city capital projects is actually a positive feature of P.B.,” he said. Those frustrations could lead to good changes.

What’s Up With My Project?

Contact your Council representative directly to inquire about projects in your district. Members generally seek regular updates from city agencies about their district’s participatory budgeting projects.

The city also posts information about participatory budgeting on its open data portal, and you can view a project tracker online. It’s useful, but it doesn’t provide a comprehensive analysis about popular projects or project completion.

The Parks Department and School Construction Authority each has its own tracker of capital projects, too. But these tools include all of their projects, and are not specific to participatory budgeting (nor do they indicate which projects were spurred by participatory budgeting).

The city’s open data portal may not be completely up to date, though. I cross-checked some school's projects on the portal with the School Construction Authority and found that some classroom technology upgrades approved in fiscal year 2016 were actually complete, even though the data portal listed them as still in progress.

For outside perspective, I turned to the Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit group based in Brooklyn that helped the City Council implement participatory budgeting for the first several years of the program.

“As an organization, the same question that you got, we get all the time: ‘What happened to this project I voted on last year?’” said Melissa Appleton, project manager at the organization.

People also ask, “Is it feasible?” or “Has this won in other places?” Appleton said.

“And we realized that New York City has a lot of open data, but they didn't have a clear tool for tracking — for showing information about a project that had been on the ballot,” she said.

So the organization built a tracking tool that launched in March.

Bitsy Bentley is the one who analyzed the data and built the tool, and she helped confirm for me the puny number of completed projects. Out of 970 projects allocated funding between 2012 and 2018, 54 have been completed, according to the publicly available data.

Bentley said the tool is meant to help people track projects and strategize about what to put on a participatory budgeting ballot in the future.

“Of the projects that are on the ballot, libraries and schools projects are more likely to receive funding,” Bentley said.

Both Appleton and Bentley said it’s important to manage people’s expectations. Sharing information about which projects get a green light and the status of their progress is important for a program that relies on community participation.

Enthusiasm for Participatory Budgeting Is On an Upswing Anyway

The tortured execution of capital projects doesn’t seem to be dampening the energy around participatory budgeting.

Cohen said it’s important to understand that the key purpose of the program is to set funding priorities from the ground up.

“I always tell people it’s about idea-generation,” Cohen said. “It’s about having people in the community come up with ideas. They know better than me a lot of times — their block, their street, this particular corner, there’s a problem. That feedback is very helpful.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio is expanding participatory budgeting to high schools by giving each school $2,000 to allocate through the process. And there’s increased cohesion around the program within the City Council this year.

Carlos Menchaca, a City Councilmember whose Brooklyn district includes Sunset Park and Red Hook, is playing a new role as the Council’s point person on participatory budgeting.

Last year, Menchaca’s participatory budgeting program had the highest number of voters — around 11,000 people — of any city council district. He is a strong devotee of the process.

“I tell my staff every day, ‘We can get everything else wrong, but this we get right,’” Menchaca said. “And this is why you get so much participation, because we think about it most every day.”

Faiza Ali manages a small staff in the community engagement division of the City Council Speaker’s office that’s dedicated to working on participatory budgeting year-round.

She said they plan to work with Menchaca to absorb lessons learned over the last seven years of the program, including how to make the progress of each project more transparent to city residents.

“He's made this a point of conversation for us to have with the agencies. How do we streamline the P.B. projects?” Ali said. “Is there a way in which we can prioritize certain P.B. projects over others?”

And as participatory budgeting expands in the City Council this year, and members work to improve the process, it’s important to note that the city — through the mayor’s office — could take participatory budgeting to another level.

A ballot measure that will be up for a vote on November 6 establishes a civic engagement commission, which would implement a citywide participatory budgeting program by 2020.

If it passes, New York City could potentially have the largest participatory budgeting process in the world, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project. But that is, of course, up to New York City voters.

For more, listen to WNYC's story right here:

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