The year 2020 was challenging for most of us and, when people are suffering, they tend to blame their governments – local, state, and federal.  If we’re being honest, however, trust in our governmental, academic, scientific, and civic institutions has been eroding for some time.  The polarization of our society has made it increasingly difficult to work together to solve our shared problems, and the barriers erected by those in power have discouraged easy engagement by community members in civic life, especially voting, which only serves to reinforce a sense of hopelessness shared by many people.

Encouraging people to set aside their differences and rise above that pervasive sense of hopelessness requires that we find creative ways to engage them in successful shared civic experiences with tangible results in their local community, and this may be easiest to accomplish with young people and others who are new to civic participation. Participatory budgeting initiatives are one way of increasing civic engagement on a local level and help to overcome the adverse effects of voter disenfranchisement.

Participatory budgeting  is simply a way of letting community members decide how a small portion of the public money budgeted by their government should be spent.  We elicit suggestions from residents for ways in which that portion of the budget should be spent and present those project ideas to residents of the community for a public vote. This enables residents to work with their government to make the budget decisions that affect their lives.

The process was first developed in Brazil in 1989 and there are now over 1,500 participatory budgeting  initiatives around the world.  Most of these are at the city level, as part of the municipal budget, but participatory budgeting has also been used in counties, states, housing authorities, school systems, universities, coalitions, and other public agencies.

Though each initiative is somewhat different, most follow a similar process: residents brainstorm spending ideas at public meetings, volunteers develop proposals based on these ideas, residents vote on the proposals, and the government implements the top projects. For example, if community members identify recreation spaces as a priority, that might lead to a proposal for basketball court renovations. The residents would then vote on this and other proposals, and, if one of the winning proposals is basketball court repairs, the city pays for those renovations.

In 2016, Hartford Decide$, Inc. was launched as the first such initiative in Connecticut.  During the last four years, with the support of the City Council and the Mayor’s office, our participatory budgeting initiatives have been allocated more than $1.3 million from the City of Hartford’s capital budget.  We have facilitated dozens of community meetings to solicit project ideas from city residents, assisted residents in creating and presenting their project proposals, managed the public voting process to select the winning project proposals, and continue to be involved in overseeing the completion of those projects. It is important to note that this process does not in any way contribute to an increase in the money budgeted or spent, and all of the money allocated is paid directly to the vendors that implement these projects in the same way that all other such projects are paid for by the City of Hartford.

There are many ways in which the residents of Hartford can participate in this process.  Our volunteer board is looking for additional board members.  Residents can participate in community brainstorming meetings and volunteer to develop specific proposals for a public vote that reflects the desires of their fellow community members.  Every city resident older than 12 is encouraged to vote for their favorite proposals. To learn more and become involved, please visit our website or our Facebook page.

Hartford Decide$, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and, as such, we are always seeking grants and donations to help defray our cost of operations since we receive none of the money allocated by the City of Hartford to implement the winning projects.  And, if you are not a Hartford resident, you can start a participatory budgeting initiative for your town.

We know this process works to increase civic engagement and voter involvement because thousands of residents have participated in community meetings and turned out to vote… even during the pandemic in 2020, with virtual proposal presentations and online voting.  The demographics of our project proposals and voting reflect our efforts to reach out to young people.  Half of the voters in our elections are under the age of 35, with 23% in the 13-21 age bracket.  And in 2020, two of the three winning projects were proposed by high school students.  If we can inspire the hearts and minds of our young people and others to value civic engagement and voting, we have a real hope of rebuilding the trust of all of our people in our governments and our civic institutions.

Christine C. Caruso, PhD, MPH, on behalf of herself and other members of the Board of Hartford Decide$/Hartford.

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