Civic Engagement Commission to Launch Citywide Participatory Budgeting After Pandemic Delay

Dr. Sarah Sayeed (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office of Photography)

The first citywide participatory budgeting program is set to launch later this year after a two-year delay largely due to the COVID-19 state of emergency, officials told a hearing of the city council last week.

The program was approved by voters in 2018 as one of three functions mandated by the City Charter of the new Civic Engagement Commission (CEC) created in the same referendum. The two-year participatory budgeting process, intended to give New Yorkers a more direct say in how taxpayers’ money is spent, will begin in ‘late summer,’ says president and director Executive of the CEC, Dr Sarah Sayeed.

“We are actively engaging multiple stakeholders through June 2022 to gather feedback on various aspects of the program…particularly on the use of civic technologies, evaluation, and outreach and engagement strategies to ensure a process inclusive,” Sayeed told members of the city council committee. on government operations on Friday. It was the first time the CEC had been the subject of an oversight hearing in the difficult three years since its creation by a charter review commission convened by former mayor Bill de Blasio and approved by voters. .

The Civic Engagement Commission has three specific responsibilities under the Charter: to implement city-wide participatory budgeting; provide planning expertise to community councils; and assist with language interpretation at polling places. In 2021, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order to place DemocracyNYC, another city office dedicated to boosting voter turnout and civic engagement, under the responsibility of the commission.

De Blasio is also largely responsible for creating the CEC in the first place, having initiated the process of revising the Charter that established it. The body is made up of 15 members: the president and seven others appointed by the mayor, two by the municipal council and one by each of the five borough presidents.

The CEC’s overall budget for the current fiscal year (2022) is $4.87 million, according to Sayeed. The commission currently has nine full-time positions, but is recruiting 10 more as part of the rollout of participatory budgeting.

The Charter required citywide participatory budgeting to begin in July 2020. But the onset of the pandemic has upended city life and government processes. De Blasio allocated no new funding to the program, leaving the CEC to use its operating budget for a series of local participatory budgeting pilot projects.

“While I applaud the efforts of the CEC to make do with the resources at its disposal, these smaller-scale programs fell far short of the city-wide program promised to New Yorkers when they voted to create of the CEC in 2018,” Council Member Sandra Ung, a Democrat from Queens and chair of the Government Operations Committee, said during Friday’s hearing.

In late April, Mayor Eric Adams released a proposed $99.7 billion executive budget for fiscal year 2023, which begins July 1. according to Sayeed.

The CEC is currently developing a plan to implement the citywide project in consultation with an advisory committee and other government offices. The program is modeled after the city council’s participatory budgeting system that allows communities to propose and vote on capital projects in their neighborhoods, such as improving parks and public spaces.

The Council program was voluntary for Council members to choose to operate in their districts. The citywide version will use spending budget dollars, which Sayeed says will fund shorter-term projects that will pay off faster than infrastructure projects. The Commission intends to vote on the details of the implementation plan by the end of July.

The program will last two years. The first year, until June 2023, will be devoted to the development of the projects on which the public will vote. The implementation of the winning projects will take place from July 2023 to June 2024 (the city’s fiscal year 2024). City council members will still be able to use their discretionary funding to run separate participatory budgeting programs in their districts.

Lawmakers at Friday’s hearing raised concerns about the platform used by the CEC to pilot participatory budgeting. The CEC currently uses an open source online platform called Decidim which allows users to present, discuss and vote on proposals and policies. Over the past two years, CEC has used the platform for a $100,000 participatory budgeting program for youth and a $1.3 million program in the 33 predominantly black, Latino and immigrant neighborhoods identified by a city ​​task force as the hardest hit by the pandemic. It was also used by the 13 city council members who chose to introduce participatory budgeting to their districts this year (a number well below pre-pandemic turnouts).

“I think this cycle probably had the lowest turnout, not because people weren’t excited about deciding how to spend city money on projects they care about, but because of the inaccessibility of the website,” council member Shahana Hanif said. a Democrat from Brooklyn.

“I would like to figure out how to make this work because if we keep Decidim we are going to fail PB in the city,” Hanif told Sayeed.

Sayeed defended Decidim’s choice but acknowledged the process was a work in progress. “We researched a variety of different platforms and found this seemed to be the best and also allows us to stay in touch with other municipalities doing this work,” she said. The commission conducts user experience testing and is open to “tweaking” the platform.

“As a new agency, we’re building the plane as we fly it and continuing to learn along the way,” Sayeed said.

Interpretation services at polling places
The CEC also provides translation services at polling places in languages ​​not covered by the City Board of Elections, which provides interpretation in six languages ​​mandated under the federal Voting Rights Act.

In recent elections, CEC translators covered 25 voting sites during the last early voting weekend and 75 sites on Election Day. Although the Charter requires the CEC to establish a methodology for the deployment of services, this formula depends on the amount of funding provided by the mayor and the municipal council.

“The total number of polling stations depends on the amount of money allocated for this program, the availability of qualified interpreters for the languages ​​of the program and the time needed to recruit interpreters,” Sayeed told the council.

The CEC has an allocation of $1.8 million for interpretation services in the current fiscal year. Languages ​​include Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Russian, Urdu, and Yiddish. The body served only 2,784 voters in three elections in 2020 and 2021 (one primary and two general elections).

Assistance to the community council
The Charter directs the CEC to support community councils in land use decisions by identifying and providing independent technical experts in urban planning. The amendment was introduced as a measure to give community councils more independence from borough presidents who appoint their members and can exert influence through the land use experts they serve. referent. It was also designed as a measure to help community councils retain their expertise when term limits come into effect.

The CEC is also responsible for providing language access services and other training; all 59 community councils now have telephone translators provided by the CEC, according to Sayeed.

Following a ‘request for expression of interest’, the CEC compiled a list of 13 urban planning consultants, including minority and women-run businesses (MWBEs), for use by community councils.

City Councilman Gale Brewer, a Democrat and former Manhattan borough president, said the CEC’s mandate to provide consultants “duplicates” the efforts of existing borough presidents and nonprofits. and worried about the City Hall’s potential for influence.

“We did the MWBE directory, it’s the only thing we’ve done so far,” Sayeed said, defending the role of the CEC. “Everything we do in the future will be coordinated and not redundant.”

“I didn’t want you involved in community councils, I’ll be honest, because I think it’s a conflict,” Brewer said, referring to the mayor’s ability to hire and fire city leaders. CEC. “I think they should be independent, not subject to whatever the mayor does.”

“You have a great staff, so I’m trying to think of what more you can do,” added Brewer, who chairs the Council’s Investigation and Oversight Committee.