Participatory Budgeting

Participatory Budgeting in Cambridge


In this years budget cycle there is $500,000 set aside for capital projects to be determined by a participatory budgeting process. A capital project, is a one time infrastructure project that can include constructing bike racks, playgrounds, sidewalks etc. How this money is spent will be driven by ideas from members in the community, and voted on by the public.  This democratically driven budgeting process was started in Porto Alegre in 1989 and has now spread all over the world. Currently over 1,500 cities have participatory process as a portion of their budgets. The process breaks down into four steps:

  1. Brainstorm Ideas

  2. Volunteers and Department experts work together to create proposals, and promote them

  3. People vote on the projects

  4. Projects with the most votes get passed as part of city budget and implemented


The pilot program that Cambridge is running this year is being conducted in conjunction with the Participatory Budgeting Project, which has helped New York City, Chicago, and Boston in the past. They will act as a catalyst and help guide the city and all participants through the process. Benefits of the process include:

  • Transparency of budget process

  • Accountability

  • Creation of equitable spending

  • More informed and empowered citizens

  • Stronger Communities


At the moment we are at the very beginning of the process. We just had our first meeting last Tuesday where we discussed how the steering committee would work and why it is needed. The responsibilities of the steering committee include:

  • Reviewing rules and key questions

  • Providing oversight and leadership

  • Participating in targeted engagement

  • Logistical Support

  • Coordinating meetings

  • Facilitating the voting process

Members of the community are encouraged to join the steering committee if they are able to invest the time and effort into the process. An application can be found here. The city is hoping that it will be able to select a committee that accurately and proportionately represents the demographics of Cambridge. However, the process is quite rapid; the timeline for the setting up the committee is as follows:

  • Nov 5th -Committee applications due

  • Nov 10th- Committee members announced

  • Nov 17th- First meeting of steering committee

Once the steering committee has formed, it will be meeting on a monthly basis and the real process will get underway. There are various ideas on how to get the most people involved by utilizing an online portal that will be up shortly, as well as hosting meetings in a variety of locations around cambridge in order to better include those that are not normally involved in government. While the details on the process are yet to be determined the current schedule is as follows:

  • Nov 14’

    • review rules (voting age, residency restrictions, etc.)

    • Determine places suitable for meetings

  • Dec 14’

    • Collect ideas (Step 1)

      • host pop up meetings around the city, even on the street to gather ideas from all over Cambridge.

  • Jan- Feb 15’

    • Develop proposals (Step 2)

      • work with city depts.

      • determine costs

    • Promote and display proposals to the public

  • March 15’

    • Vote on Projects (Step 3)

    • Submit winning projects to city budget (Step 4)

This process is new and exciting to Cambridge, it has already worked in many cities around the world and now it has a chance to do the same here. The next several months will serve as a trial period and it all goes well we hope to include participatory budgeting annually.


For more information about the Participatory Budget Project that the city is working with visit their website here.


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