“Defund the police.” The demand is righteous, and at the same time, destabilizing. It requires not just reform, but systemic change in policing, incarceration, and budgeting. It calls us to both divest and to reinvest our money differently.
Defunding the police is a proposition to invest in our communities in a different way, to treat the budget as a “moral document,” and to place those most affected at the very center of the decision-making process. One arm of this strategy to defend Black lives is a call for community control and self-determination.
Over the last 10 years, the Participatory Budgeting Project has worked to spread the use of “participatory budgeting,” or PB. Alongside nonprofits, community members, elected officials, and coalitions, including organizations that are members of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), we’ve sought to transform budget processes into opportunities for developing democratic capacities and promoting equity. While PB has been used across the US, it has not been used to defund the police. But that may be about to change.
Around the country, people are wondering and discussing what “defund the police” might actually mean. To answer this question requires addressing a related question: What does a democratically transformed budget process look like? What does it look like to repurpose municipal policing budgets in a way that dismantles structural racism and white supremacy, while building safe, healthy, and empowered communities?
First, though…what is “participatory budgeting”?
Participatory budgeting started in Brazil. It spread throughout Latin America in the 1990s, and by the 2000s had spread to Europe and North America. As of 2020, there are more than 7,000 cities that employ PB on every continent except Antarctica.
PB is a multi-month, multi-phase process that connects community residents and government to allocate resources to more directly serve communities, especially those that need them most. But PB is about more than reallocation. It is about building democratic collective capacity. With PB, community members learn democracy by doing democracy. And the learning occurs not just with residents, but with elected officials and government agency staff.
PB came to the US not long after the Great Recession, first landing in Chicago (2009), hopping to New York City (2011), and then spreading to dozens of cities across the US.
To date, in the US, 750,000 people have participated in PB processes, which have been used to allocate $386 million in public dollars that have funded more than 1,600 projects. Winning proposals are mostly capital projects and include everything from park improvements and greenhouses to street safety enhancements and technology and infrastructure upgrades for underfunded schools.
In PB, to vote you need not be a registered voter or even a citizen; proof of residence in the district is the standard requirement. Turnout in PB elections has been similar to local elections. This is both a plus and a minus. It’s good that turnout is as high as local elections, and it is bad that turnout is as low as local elections.
Often, PB efforts in the US have lacked sufficient outreach. And if you think the pots of money are small—and they are—the staff support for the process is even more bare-bones.
But what’s distinctive about PB is not so much the voting as the community participation in proposal development. And this is certainly part of its appeal for MB4L and those seeking to more democratically “reinvest.”
Here’s how the process works:
- First, a committee of diverse community leaders is set up to make sure the process is inclusive and guided by community values.
- Next, public outreach begins. Assemblies are held and online platforms utilized to gather info about needs and ideas to address them.
- These often rough ideas are then sorted by hundreds of community members called “budget delegates.”
- These grassroots delegates (who are trained) meet regularly over weeks to develop the best ideas into full-fledged proposals, consistent with process requirements (e.g., budget, city staff capacity, etc.).
So, for example, a proposal for a school garden must meet the needs of the school and/or local community, be technically feasible, be within the price range, and be deemed eligible by the relevant agency. The budget delegates construct the ballot, the community is invited to review the final proposals—and then voting takes place.
Typically, it’s not winner-take-all. Eligible residents have multiple votes and multiple projects win. The winning projects are then submitted to the relevant agency to be implemented like any other project.
In the US, participatory budgeting is most frequently used to allocate portions of city capital budgets, but it also can be used to make decisions about school spending (as in Phoenix, Chicago, and New York City); at the county level (in New Jersey), and with community development block grants (CDBG funds from the federal government in Oakland, California and Niagara, New York). In Fresno, California, as NPQ covered, the community demanded—and won—the right to use a participatory budgeting process to determine how to spend a $70 million state grant award.
But Fresno is exceptional. In most cases, the percentage of city budgets where the public can weigh in has been tiny. Only two jurisdictions (Vallejo, California and Freehold, New Jersey) have consistently allowed the public to use PB to weigh in on as much as one percent of spending. By contrast, US cities spend 25–50 percent of their budgets on policing.
Yes, PB has resulted in meaningful projects, and many who have participated learned a form of democracy that goes much deeper than voting in an election. But even PB advocates are frustrated. They want more—not just more money for capital projects, but money for services to hire staff and fund programs.
After 10 years of doing PB, and amid our present multifaceted national and global crisis, many are ready to make the leap. What is different now is that a movement with muscle—and not just the moral high ground—is demanding it. The upcoming elections will be crucial, but this is a movement for democracy beyond elections, and the time for transformation is now.
One agenda item with immense transformative potential advocated by M4BL is youth PB. The first youth PB process was Boston Youth Lead the Change in 2014. PB could play a pivotal role to help dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s one thing to fund and create youth basketball leagues to get kids off the street—and I say this as someone who played in such leagues!—but it’s quite another to have youth collectively work with each other, with people in their communities, and with governmental officials to create their own projects to address their needs.
The examples of youth PB across the country bring to mind further questions. Could this work across entire school systems? Could participatory democracy become policy? Could we allow schools to be spaces for learning democracy by doing?
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
Phoenix, Arizona’s school system has used PB since 2014. There, it is framed as “revolutionary civics in action”—an opportunity for students to experience civic engagement as power. And with its diverse Brown and immigrant population in a state with quite xenophobic and racist politics, that is no small feat.
Schools in other states—in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York—have followed. In New York City, after two years of pilots, all city high schools are supposed to employ PB in 2021. More than 300,000 students will participate, albeit with very small pots of money ($2,000 per school). But even so, the default conception of democracy can be remade. Students learn that democracy is not limited to elections, but can be a creative, collaborative problem-solving process.
While dismantling white supremacy in schools and creating a more participatory democratic culture is essential, so is increasing public control of budgets and policy.
Could this happen in the US right now? New York City is on the cusp, but stymied. In 2018, city voters overwhelmingly voted to amend the city charter to create a new Civic Engagement Commission (CEC) to design and run a citywide participatory budgeting process. The ask is for $500 million, thereby institutionalizing a massive shift in scale.
The new process was slated to begin this summer, with the Civic Engagement Commission providing technical assistance to 59 community boards so that interfaces between community groups and the city staff are supported, especially on such critical issues as development and land use.
But getting adequate budget and staffing support for citywide PB was challenging before COVID-19. Support for staffing and community partners to do outreach and participate is particularly important from a racial justice perspective, because without it, the usual suspects are more likely to dominate, and that does not lead to equity—much less to the dismantling of white supremacy.
So, what would a participatory budgeting process to divest from structures of policing and invest in community look like? What we know is that system change is going to require inclusive, democratic processes that themselves are sustainable and repeatable and can spread rapidly. Fortunately, the last decade provides us with a few lessons that can frame responses.
One lesson is that you need to create spaces for communities to learn and grow together, but also space for government staff and decision-makers.
While retraining police one more time is not the answer, retraining (other) government staff to support outreach, facilitation, and deep listening for inclusive deliberation is hugely important. If we are ever to achieve a participatory democracy with racial justice in a government that defunds police and invests in community needs, governance must be transformed—including budgeting, administration functions, and staff training.
At the federal level, Americans know that massive amounts of money can go into agencies and programs that do not serve community needs. This is true of economic development programs, healthcare, education, Homeland Security, and the largest budget of all, the US military.
Returning to the municipal level, there are other parallel efforts that can be combined with PB to give more popular control over budgets and focus more on equity.
In the US, the recent people’s budget model has been used to review overall allocation of city’s general funds, with over 25,000 people recently participating in one such effort in Los Angeles. This approach seeks input from especially underserved communities and gathers ideas and proposals about needs and solutions. In Los Angeles, what emerged was a budget proposal that prioritized crisis response, investment in housing, and a reimagined public safety budget focused on non-policing interventions.
On the solutions side, existing people’s budgets are often a mix of policy proposals, regulatory changes, and specific programs. Some specifically name participatory budgeting to get into the nitty gritty of what a project should look like because, as noted above, just putting in more money for “health,” “safety,” or the “environment” does not mean that community needs are served.
That’s why an inclusive democratic process is needed, not just for policy and proposals but for implementation and administration. A participatory democratic process which redesigned entire city blocks in Madrid stands out as an example of the capacity of intersectional PB to spur creative processes which address social justice, sustainability, and community engagement at the same time.
Civic technology platforms can also be used to involve more people and get more ideas on a range of issues and then connect to myriad parts of government as well as civil society and neighborhood-based organizations. These include:
- Software that enhances group communications and decisions (e.g., Loomio)
- Platforms that assess community preference and need distribution (e.g., pol.is),
- Platforms for proposal making and deliberation (e.g., consul)
- Platforms that enhance idea collection, commenting, and voting (e.g., Decidim)
These platforms help people participate and connect to datasets, technical and popular education resources, social media, and maps. They can create more inclusive spaces for regularized engagement and deliberation. And, with physical distancing, they are life-saving essential services and infrastructure of resilient networks. But we also need democratic public serving tools to combat authoritarian government and surveillance capitalist versions that have only risen in scope and power since COVID.
Lastly, PB must join forces with those working on taxation and financing and economic democracy and solidarity economy practitioners and advocates. There have been a few small-scale US examples: In Vallejo, PB funding came from a new tax proposal, and in some places state and federal revenue streams have been disbursed using PB processes.
But as we have seen—in the Great Recession and now—the real money is at central banks, such as the US Federal Reserve. Some say we should regionalize those banks. Why not democratize them as well, and use PB to make vital public investment decisions?
The call to defund the police is a breakthrough. Participatory budgeting and people’s budgets can help us transform the mechanics of governance.
System change is not about institutionalizing PB. It’s about using PB to transform institutions, including budgeting, youth programs, education, housing, and—as this moment and this movement demands—policing.