How to get a say in your community’s budget

Just the basics

  • City councilmembers can allocate money in their districts for public projects that are decided by residents
  • You can submit ideas for transportation, education, parks, and more
  • You can also volunteer to participate in the process of selecting ideas and putting forth proposals for a community vote

Difficulty: Easy to Medium

Information Sources: Official information, local press, and staff experience

What is participatory budgeting?

Participatory budgeting in New York City (PBNYC) is a process through which residents in participating districts can submit ideas for public projects, participate in the proposal of those ideas, and vote on them.

What kinds of ideas can I submit for participatory budgeting?

Technically you can submit any idea, but ideas will only be considered if they fit certain criteria:

Ideas that have gone through the process include improvements to schools, parks, libraries, public housing, streets, and more.

How do I submit an idea?

You can submit an idea online through the PBNYC ideas map, and it really just has to be an idea. You can look up your district by address, or if you know which district you’re in, you can select it from the “Districts” menu on the map. You can also see ideas other people have proposed, anywhere in the city.

The map doesn’t appear to give the current status of participation, however. In District 29 in Queens, for example, Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz said in October that she will not do participatory budgeting in her last term, according to the Queens Daily Eagle. But you can still submit an idea in her district, and the map doesn’t let users know that their ideas will not be proposed.

What if my idea wouldn’t cost $50,000?

You would be very surprised how much extra things cost when they are done by the government. Ideas to do things like adding a couple of benches to a park, or putting a fresh coat of paint on a wall, could either be enough to satisfy this minimum amount, or your budget committee might find a way to combine it with a similar idea nearby as one proposal.

Basically: don’t be afraid to submit any idea. If it isn’t going to work, they’ll just throw it out anyway—you have nothing to lose.

What happens to ideas after they’re submitted?

If your district is participating, your councilmember’s office will organize meetings of committees of volunteers to review idea submissions and narrow the list down to ideas that fit the criteria. You can reach out directly to your councilmember to inquire about being a volunteer.

In the Queens district, where we’ve tried this, The committees were divided by topic, and volunteers simply had to email and say which committee they wanted to be on. Interestingly, some committees are way more popular/active than others, and the results reflected that: education attracts a lot of volunteers, and a lot of money ends up going to education projects.

Someone on staff facilitated the meetings and provided guidance on the ideas that can be turned into proposals. The office will get feedback from city agencies on the feasibility of the proposals, then they were put forth for a community vote.

What are participatory budget meetings like?

The first thing you may notice: compared to the number of people who live in your district, very few will actually show up to a voluntary budget committee meeting. People are busy!

But because so few people show up, it does mean that ideas are at the mercy of the most active members of the community. That is usually not representative of everyone.

In the parks committee meeting in our district, for example, there were multiple idea submissions for WiFi in the park, and all but one person wanted to dismiss the idea because they didn’t personally believe that people should want to be on the Internet while in nature. But the vibes in our district were super friendly and we thought it was fun to be a part of the decision making process for community investments.

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