Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Citizens Engaging Government: Participatory Budgeting in Greensboro, North Carolina

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Citizens Engaging Government: Participatory Budgeting in Greensboro, North Carolina

Article excerpt


Citizen engagement has received increasing attention over the past few decades as government officials, scholars, and citizen groups have begun to value additional citizen input and participation in government. In fact, the Government Finance Officers Association considers citizen involvement in the budget process a best practice. The literature identifies many reasons why local governments may want to engage citizens: for example, to meet legal requirements, to advance democratic ideals of citizen participation, to advance social justice, to educate and inform the public, to encourage innovation and the creation of new ideas, to improve processes, to create a sense of community, and to generate greater public support (Ebdon & Franklin, 2006; Nabatchi, 2010; Head, 2011; Bryson, et al. 2013; Ho, 2013).

The literature on citizen engagement and participation (CEP) is robust, and the work on case studies, meta-analyses, process studies, and the impact of CEP on outcomes is excellent. However, there is a void in the literature with regard to examining the citizen perspective. Understandably, a great deal of public administration literature looks at the challenge of integrating citizen input and preferences from the perspective of government, noting the difficulties involved in engaging and educating a diverse and representative citizen population. Not all efforts are initiated by the government, though, and when citizens and/or nonprofits are the champions of CEP, the challenges and obstacles are likely to be different. This article examines an example of a citizen-initiated participation effort: participatory budgeting (PB) in Greensboro, North Carolina. This case reveals that while there are obstacles that are unique to citizens' efforts, many of the challenges are the same as those encountered by government.

This article examines PB in Greensboro through a series of conversations and interviews with both practitioners and members of the citizen group that introduced participatory budgeting to Greensboro (Participatory Budgeting Greensboro, or PB GSO) and through analysis of newspaper articles and hearings. It took more than three years for the citizen champions of participatory budgeting to convince the Greensboro city council members to pass a resolution allowing for participatory budgeting. The current plan is for the council to earmark $500,000 for citizen-chosen projects in fiscal year 2017.

The article begins with a discussion of the many definitions of citizen engagement, with special attention to citizen engagement in the budget process. It then provides an overview of the ways in which citizen engagement occurs and a brief discussion of the limitations of each. A review of why academics and government officials believe that CEP is valuable follows. The article then discusses a new form of direct citizen participation: participatory budgeting. It concludes with an examination of unresolved questions and the challenges that participatory budgeting faces after adoption, finding that they are similar to the concerns of other engagement mechanisms.


While the literature on CEP is increasingly robust, there is not one universally agreed upon definition of either engagement or participation. Possible reasons for the different definitions are the substantial differences in goals, expectations, and perceived roles of the actors (both governmental and public). For the purposes of this study, citizen engagement is defined as the interaction between a government and its citizens on policy, program, and services. Citizen engagement encompasses a wide variety of interactions between government and the community, "ranging from information sharing to community consultation, and, in some instances, active participation in government decision making processes" (Queensland Department of Communities, 2005, p. 5). As this definition indicates, there is also a related concept, citizen participation. …

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