PB in NYC: How online & offline can work together in New York

This post is the first of many…

As part of our work developing the use of digital participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland, Demsoc is shining a light on some of the innovative ways other people across the world use digital PB. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts on different examples that illustrate different aspects of how digital and PB work together. We’ll be cross publishing these posts – on the PB Scotland website and on our own blog. This week we start by looking at PB in New York City (NYC).

Why would you read this post?

This is about how NYC has included digital channels within its existing, and growing, participatory budget. If you’re thinking about how to use digital tools to expand and strengthen PB, then this large-scale case shows what can be done. It talks about:

  • How digital participation can make it easier for people to have a say
  • How online and offline channels can be combined to improve inclusion
  • How NYC combines its online idea gathering with an innovative process of community-led review and investigation
  • How open data has helped make the process more transparent

Participatory budgeting in NYC: how did it start?

In 2011, a small number of council members decided to use participatory budgeting to decide how their ‘discretionary’ funds could be used. Since then, PB has grown quickly in New York City. While it’s the second oldest use of PB in the USA it’s by far the largest, with it affecting the lives of four million residents. After the success of a public ballot in 2018, it is now set to be taken citywide.

How participatory budgeting works in NYC

PB in New York is about people sharing ideas for what should be funded, deliberating about them, and voting for their favourites. Each district that’s involved pledges at least $1 million dollars to be decided through the process, which has to be spent on physical infrastructure. The video below from the PB Project explains the basics:

Why is New York City using digital PB?

New York City has used online channels to reach a wide audience and make it easy to take part in PB. Each PB process in New York City is called a ‘cycle’. Cycle 6 saw a 45 per cent increase in voters – up from 67,691 in Cycle 5. The city reports that “while paper ballot numbers stayed consistent, our new off-site digital voting accounted for this growth in participation.”

But at the same time they’ve combined this with offline engagement targeted at the hardest to reach – and with a process of offline discussion and research designed to make sure both the process and its results have a positive impact on the community as a whole.

How does NYC combine online and offline activities to make PB a success?

The process in New York meshes online and offline components. The former is used to make involvement easy for large numbers of people, while the latter helps target harder to reach groups and builds citizen-led research about local needs into the heart of the process.

An online idea map

Anyone can submit proposals. A simple online form is used, which asks people to write a few lines under the headings: ‘My project idea is…’ and ‘So that people could…’. Proposers categorise their idea from a short list of headings and plot it on a map of the city. The result is a visually attractive map that uses different logos to show what themes ideas relate to it.

A screenshot showing NYC's online idea map. A map of New York with coloured pins showing different categories of idea.
Screenshot from New York’s online idea map at:

Proposers have to give their name to submit an idea, or can sign in through facebook or twitter. Other than this there is nothing further they have to input, some basic demographic information is asked for, but is not required.

Targeted outreach offline

Alongside this simple online form, targeted activities are carried out offline to involve groups of people that NYC identified as underrepresented and gather other ideas. As well as holding public meetings open to all, districts are required to hold meetings targeted at underrepresented community members and to carry out idea collection at public events and spaces where there is a high concentration of underrepresented community members.

Researching impact offline

In the next stage, Local ‘Budget Delegate’ volunteers – chosen at idea-collection events – develop the proposals, investigate them, and shortlist them for the final vote. They work closely with council staff, and are encouraged to carry out research, including site visits and mapping community needs to help them. The delegates use a matrix to assess feasibility, need and equity of each proposal.

As well as managing down the number of proposals, this stage establishes a greater understanding of local needs and builds the skills and confidence of the volunteers themselves. Significantly, council staff and communities are able to work together productively. And, because the matrix is shared by PBNYC (as a PDF, is on this public Dropbox) along with guides to using the city’s open data and accessing other information sources) it can help to encourage proposers to think more critically about their suggestions from the start.

Opening up voting online and offline

Online voting is made possible through an online platform. In the last complete cycle (cycle 7) a modified version of the D21 platform was used, allowing five positive votes. New York City has a network of ‘Link’ kiosks that provide public wifi, phone charging and calls. These have been used as another way people can vote, as well as providing digital billboards to advertise the process.

Offline, voting is made available in places with high concentrations of underrepresented groups, including the use of ‘pop-up’ voting at subway stations and other busy places. Districts have also used Project Expos with stalls about each proposal where residents can find out more and cast their vote (such as this example from District 39). In cycle 7, 30% of people voted online and 70% offline.

Automated vote counting has been introduced, allowing a dramatic increase in the speed of counting paper ballots, and a quicker announcement of the result.

Council members, community groups and New York Council all use social media to promote ways of voting online and offline during the week of the vote under the hashtag #pbnyc.

A screenshot of a tweet from a council member. The tweet embeds a brightly coloured poster with an image of the council member and the dates of the vote week.
Screenshot of a council member’s tweet about the PB vote:

Building Transparency Online

Finally online tools have a key role to play in making the process more transparent. The results of votes since cycle 4 are available on the council’s PB webpage. So too is the rulebook for the process, which includes a clear statement of the aims and values of the PB process.

Monitoring implementation is a key part of PB. For the New York process there is a tailor-made site that allows you to explore what has happened to projects since they were chosen. This is not a council site but is run by The PB Project, the non-profit organisation which was a key architect of the NY PB process. The site allows users to view successful proposals on a map, easily see their stage of completion, and filter them by which council department is responsible for their implementation. This is made possible using open data about the process shared on the council’s open data portal. At time of writing, the last set of PB results uploaded here was for 2017. Updates on project implementation are also delivered offline during idea collection events each year.

Screenshot of a webpage showing a map of NY with projects plotted on it using different symbols to show their stage in the process. On the left is are categories that can be used to filter the projects displayed.
Screenshot from The PB Project’s myPB site at:

What makes digital PB in New York special?

Online platforms can make it easier for more people to take part in processes. The experience of New York shows that this needn’t mean sacrificing targeted offline activities. Instead offline and online can complement each other, with online platforms bringing people into forms of involvement that can make a real difference to the people who take part and the communities they live in.