Day #096: Participatory budgeting

A dose of direct democracy can improve the budgeting process.

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Participatory budgeting and “CityFund.”
  • Difficulty: 3 — It’s tough to forfeit power and money.

The United States is a federal republic. At different levels of government, voters elect representatives who make a majority of the decisions. Direct democracy is occasionally used for referendums, initiatives, and recalls (although almost never in Virginia). At times, direct democracy can be a powerful tool for deciding difficult issues and getting citizens involved.

Around the world, some cities are allowing citizens to allocate a small portion of the budget to projects based on direct voting. Participatory budgeting in Richmond could give citizens a direct voice while encouraging them to get involved in the important happenings of local government. 

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Participatory budgeting evolved out of the leftist workers’ movement in Porto Alegre, Brazil in the late 1980s. In some Brazilian municipalities, it now accounts for 100% of new capital spending projects and 15% of total budgets. 

In places like the 49th Ward in Chicago, participatory budgeting only allocates around $1.3 million, but the idea has been incredibly popular. It’s now spreading to other wards. Since its adoption in 2009, citizens have voted through a dozen or so ideas including planting 100 trees in one neighborhood and a mural project for underpasses. 

In practice, a small board of citizens run a steering committee where ideas are introduced and prepared for an annual ballot. Citizens can vote for a fixed number of ideas on the list and top receivers get funding. It sounds unnatural for elected officials to voluntarily forfeit power and dollars, but boosts in public approval are excellent motivators.

The process has many advantages including promoting government accountability and transparency, strengthening social networks, boosting participation and informing voters, and it puts infrastructure spending more in line with public opinion. 

But it hasn’t always gone perfectly. Vallejo, California introduced the idea as it emerged from Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Some fear that their system is smoke and mirrors aimed at freeing up funding. For example, if participatory budgeting allocated money to fixing potholes, then other money allocated to potholes is now free to be spent on cleaning up toxic waste. Either way, the project’s funding is now close to nothing and public opinion has tanked, but Vallejo made a few mistakes. They levied a new sales tax to finance the project, and their budget of $3 million represented a large chunk of the budget for a town of only 54,000 people.

In Richmond, similar funding could be appropriated for four times the population. Participatory budgeting could happen on the city-wide level or at the district level. There’s certainly no shortage of ideas that could go on the ballot: the Floyd Avenue bike boulevard, bike lanes, new trees, or public art. 

Furthermore, when people get involved, they are more likely to share ideas. The best idea for Richmond is probably out there in the imagination of someone who has never been asked to contribute. Participatory budget could help unleash this untapped force. 


Government has unique skills, tools, and resources. There are plenty of worthwhile projects that are beyond the responsibilities of government but can only be built or executed by government. What’s needed is a platform to match money and motivation with capability–a Kickstarter for cities, let’s call it CityFund.

In London, Spacehive raises money for public projects and offers assistance with getting planning permission. A system run through the city would be even more attractive. There are so many ideas lying dormant in dust covered studies on shelves in City Hall; I’d be more than willing to pitch in $10 to make some of the ideas in the Richmond Riverfront Plan become reality. 

Care would have to be taken to hold the government accountable for funding important services with taxes, but the system could help Richmond realize its potential without putting the burden of luxury infrastructure on all citizens.

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One of the biggest responsibilities of government is the allocation of funds. It’s a difficult process that requires knowledgeable full-time workers, but the public needs to carve out a larger role while taking on more responsibility for being informed. Participatory budgeting would be a step in the right direction of tapping into the potential of the people while encouraging involvement. CityFund would simply mean more cool stuff. 

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation. 

Photo by: Cooperweb

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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