The organization of my topic is the Youth Lead the Change process in the city of Boston during the budget proposal exercise. To obtain the necessary data, I used qualitative and quantitative data from a variety of sources, including interviews, questionnaires, and observations. Additionally, data from other sources such as change agents was used to provide a clear perspective of the process. Moreover, I relied on information from the project’s official site with the aim of fully understanding the process, its intent, and outcomes. I finally described the participatory budgeting process by presenting the study’s questions, explaining the methods used, and reporting the findings.
The Boston-based Youth Lead the Change is an initiative in which youths between the ages of 12-25 engage in decision-making processes with regards to spending the city’s budget. For the last three years, the youths have routinely participated in decision-making exercises in programs that highlight issue affecting them and their communities (Participatory Budgeting Project 2016). Similar to the program’s previous sessions, the youths participated in brainstorming activities for capital projects, which culminated in the expenditure of the 2017 $1 million allocation (Augsberger et al 2017). Initially, the youths participated in a review conference in which they discussed the conversion of ideas into development proposals under the tutelage of the Boston governing council including Mayor Martin Walsh. Significantly, the proposed project was geared towards the expenditure of $1 million over the course of five years. Consequently, it was imperative for all Boston youths to participate in the voting so that their ideas are not left out (Participatory Budgeting Project 2016). Throughout the voting period, I interviewed several participants of the Boston Youth Project with the aim of determining the effectiveness of the process in terms of integrity and openness. Additionally, I obtained supplemental data from various resource sites. Ultimately, I aimed at assessing the extent of youth participation during the implementation of the Boston Bike Project, and whether the project was a product of universal decision by the majority stakeholders.
Throughout the period,I interviewed majority of the participants of the Boston projects with the aim of determining the effectiveness of the process in terms of integrity and openness. Additionally, there was an extensive use of data from various resource sites. Specifically, I aimed at assessing the extent of youth participation during the implementation of the Boston Bike Project. Moreover, I interviewed other key stakeholders including the change agents, the facilitators, and officials from the Mayor’s governing council.
The participatory budgeting process is an opportunity for youths of Boston to participate in the decision making process in governmental projects. The idea of participatory budgeting began in the 1980s when residents of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre participated in a public forum to determine allocation of resources for community development (Crossman, Anthony, and Dov Fischer 2016). Within a few years, other neighboring cities began adopting the concept in their own projects (Augsberger et al 2017). In the decade that followed, the metropolitan administrations in countries such as Canada, Latin America and Europe started to embrace the concept of participatory budgeting in their projects (Lerner 2011). The United States eventually experimented with participatory budgeting in 2010 in Chicago’s 49th Ward (Cabannes 2004). Since then,I have identified youth engagement in participatory budgeting as one of the many development strategies that local governments can use to foster inclusivity (Augsberger et al 2017).
According to Crossman et al, (2016), the City of Boston was the first to pioneer the youth-led participatory budgeting exercise in the United States. The initiative, which commenced in 2013 after approval by the city mayor’s office, comprises mostly the Boston youths between 12 and 25 years. The aim is to determine the most viable projects to finance with the annual budgetary allocation. In addition, the participatory forum provides a platform for the youths to identify projects that represent long term value to the community. To streamline the identification exercise, the city’s governing council constituted the Mayor’s Youth Council whose responsibilities include providing oversight during the decision-making stages (Participatory Budgeting Project 2016).
During the launch of Youth Lead the Change initiative, the city of Boston acquired guidance from the participatory budgeting project to ensure efficient accomplishment of goals and objectives. As a non-profit organization, the Participatory Budget Project assisted the Youth Lead the Change team by providing materials, training programs, and other educational materials (Participatory Budget Project 2016). During the 2017 exercise, the Boston mayor invited the youths to submit ideas and proposals that would serve as the basis for project implementation. The ideas were important because they helped the city administrators to improve the city of Boston and its neighborhoods. During the voting process, all youths were eligible to propose ideas with regards to the project, regardless of their background or residence (Participatory Budgeting Project 2016). Moreover, the project facilitators made efforts to engage as broad an audience as possible. To gain information with regards to the voting process, Is took note of various stages in the voting process.
During the idea-collection stage, the city administrators organized a series of public voting events with the aim of collecting a wide range of ideas. Participants then submitted the ideas online, through social media, or through text messages (Participatory Budgeting Project 2016). Similarly, the project for 2017 was an opportunity for the youths to have an influence on the decision-making process with regards to spending public resources. Moreover, process provided competition among the youths, with the most active participants receiving incentives (Participatory Budgeting Project 2016). To promote widespread participation, the facilitators provided language translation and interpretation services for participants from non-English speaking backgrounds. Moreover, the project team leaders engaged in additional outreach efforts on youths who faced challenges in participation.
Is used a number of measures to determine the success of the data collection exercise. The first determinant was the total number of young people involved. The Youth Lead the Change initiative is an essential platform for inspiring the young generation in Boston to take part in actions that have a positive impact to the society. It was an opportunity to engage youths with regards to the public expenditures. Hence, it was important to engage as many youths as possible.
The second determinant was the total number of submitted ideas. Instead of focusing only on capital eligible projects, the city of Boston considered a multiplicity of projects in which to invest the money. These projects ranged from capital eligible projects to programmatic ideas. The rationale for selecting a wide array of project is threefold. First, the project team was be able to engage more youth participants by reducing the range of voting parameters. Second, the project team perceived the voting process as an opportunity to inform the youth of the strategic goals of the mayor. Third, there was a chance that the youth could convert at least some ideas into capital eligible ideas.
I also took into consideration the circumstances of the voting process. From data obtained from the city’s database, I identified several capital project proposals that received the highest number of votes from the participants. For example, the job finder app, which was to be under the management of Division of Youth Engagement and employment, received a considerable number of votes from participants. The application would enable the youths to quickly locate jobs available within their localities.
However, the regional public bike share system proposal received the highest number of votes from participants. The bike initiative entailed provision of transportation and recreation services in the municipalities of Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville received. The system offers more than 1600 bikes at 180 stations spread across the city. The initiative has over 14,000 members who, one way or the other had an equal opportunity to benefit from the bike initiative.
I also interviewed and observed the mayor’s youth council during the deliberation stage. First, I reviewed the 2016 data, which from Boston University had collected from the Mayor’s Youth Council activities during previous projects. The data was useful in the evaluation process as well as establishing trends in decision making with regards to the city’s projects. In addition, I observed the conduct of participants as they engaged in meetings and brainstorming sessions. From the observations, I noted that there was an active participation of change agents in the sessions.
I conducted personal interviews with couple Youth Council Members. The interview sessions were conducted during the scheduled office hours from January to September 2017. The interview process took place in one of Boston City’s private room and each session of the interview lasted about 25 minutes. Some of the aspects discussed in the interview included the youth’s decision to join Mayor Walsh’s council and their experience with the council. Moreover, I wanted to determine how the youths perceived the city’s governance structure and the impact of their participation in the entire process. The interviewers recorded the interviews using an audio apparatus.
Besides, I interviewed four adults who had close ties with the Youth Council of Boston from e-mail, including Mayor Martin Walsh, his council manager, and the executive director of the Mayor’s Youth Council Manager. The mayor was an significant respondent in the study because his government was the sponsor of the youth programs.
During the research period, there was attended a total of seven Boston Youth Council meetings. The venue of the meeting was the Boston City Hall. Each meeting lasted for approximately two hours in the evening. I completed a general observation guide by recording data such as numbers of participants, subject matter of the meetings, level of members’ engagement, and barriers to youths’ participation.
To provide feedback, I obtained data from focus group such as Change Agents. The data was with regards to stages of Youth Lead the Change, including the idea collection procedure, proposal development, and the voting process. The focus groups were conducted during normal working hours. All the youths attending the sessions participated in the focus groups. The sample of the focus group consisted of 30 participants. This number included Change Agents aligned to the Youth Lead the Change initiative as well as the committee facilitators. To provide guidance, two researchers from Boston University led each focus group. Participants in the focus groups completed a one-page handout, outlining their role and their committee role during idea collection, proposal, and voting. Each focus group interaction lasted for between 40 and 45 minutes. The participants provided information on three areas: Whether there was enough time to fully participate in each stage; whether support staff provided enough guidance to participants; and whether participants received enough information from facilitators.
Analysis and Findings
This section begins with a general overview of change agents and individuals who took part in the idea-collection stage. In addition, there is an overview on participants who voted on the final balloting project. I used data from the Change Agent and idea collection survey to illustrate the composition of participants in the initial stages of the Youth Lead the Change initiative. There was a low level of response to the voter survey to allow any meaningful data analysis. However, the Boston Public Schools were on hand to provide demographic data on about 75% of voters who attend their institution. While the data from Boston Public Schools reveals compelling directional evidence on demographic composition of participants, they are not fully representative. Data from the school is limited to information such as age, race, and language of participants.
The median age of Change Agents under observation was 17 years, with a range of between 13 and 22 years. The idea collection agents had a median age of 17, and their ages ranged between 12 and 25 years. Finally, the voters’ median age was 16 years and the age bracket was between 12 and 25 years. All the participants across the focus groups were American born, spoke English, and there were 85% whites and 15% blacks.
Specific to change agents, pre-survey data indicated that 80% of the participants heard about the Youth Lead the Change initiative through the Mayor’s Youth Council. Out of all the participants, 42% joined the initiative to make a difference in their community, 34% wanted to prove to people that young people are capable of making change, while 18% of participants wanted to learn new skills.
Research data from other sources such as interviews and observations revealed fairly consistent trends. Youths demonstrated optimism about participating in the budget process after participation in the interviews. Moreover, staff members demonstrated willingness to support youths to fulfill their roles as change agents. However, there was a notable challenge in the process as a result of the on-going member engagement. Participants reported a number of reasons for joining the council. Participants hoped to improve their résumés to increase their chances of finding jobs. However, the majority of participants used the process as a chance to interact with the city’s government and learn about the inner working of Boston’s administration. Participants hoped that they would make a difference in their communities from their experience in the voting process
Observation of the council meetings revealed that adult participants made an effort to guide youths to become effective change agents. Staff from the Mayor’s office provided the youth with resources to enable them make informed decisions during the voting process. At the same time, youths had opportunities to interact with the city’s governing council, including Mayor Walsh, who was in attendance of at least one council meeting. The meetings were important because they prepared youths to engage in outreach activities to drum up support of their preferred project. Youths, who were in attendance, demonstrated high levels of engagement during small group discussions and activities. However, the venue in which the meetings took place presented significant challenges during the participation process. The City Hall room with high ceilings was the venue for the meetings. The expansive nature of the room provided echoing effects, making presentations and participation less than optimal.
In general, the council meetings served as platforms for youths to develop their decision-making skills, network with peers, and meet influential city personnel. The approximate numbers of youth who attended the initial meetings averaged 80. However, subsequent meetings recorded poor attendance, with as few as 20 youths attending the latter meetings. Thus, not all Change Agents had an opportunity to receive important information.
Out of the 800 projects proposed, only 100 of them were relevant in the context of Boston City area. 150 projects were school based while 50 of the proposed projects had a public appeal. At least 30 projects were aimed at providing youths with a platform to quickly find job placements in a convenient manner. There was no single area that dominated the list of proposed beneficiaries. Two projects were tied to a specific service offering in various neighborhoods of Boston. Surprisingly, a significant proportion of the area-specific ideas specified only one neighborhood: Brookline. Some of the Brookline area projects related to public utilities such as parks and public recreation spaces. However, majority of the voters called for a feasibility study for recreation utilities in other Boston’s neighborhoods such as Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville.
I compared balloted 2016 projects to the numbers of ideas submitted. This comparison exercise was important because it provided insight into the effectiveness of the project proposal stage. Information from the City staff further revealed that there were a number of factors that influenced project proposals. The factors were the requirements of society, skills and knowhow of departmental staff, and physical visit to suggested locations. From available data, it was clear that the members ultimately narrowed down the choice of proposed projects to two main projects, namely the biking initiative and the job finder app for graduates.
Out of the two proposed projects, participants overwhelmingly voted for the regional bike project. Out of the 400 votes cast, 300 youths were in support of the bike initiative. Under this proposal, the Boston Council was to offer more than 1600 bikes at 180 stations. The project has 14,000 members who constantly benefit from the public bike initiative. This project is a flagship project of the Youth Lead the Change. It is indicative of the extent to which the youths in Boston want to change the outlook of the city and provide effective transport and recreational services to the residents.
One of the most enlightening finding from the research is the perceptions of the youth with regards to problems in their neighborhoods. From data available, only 20% of the proposed projects were eligible for capital expenditure. Thus, the bike initiative is evidence that youth feel that safe public recreation activity is important. The importance of recreation and extracurricular activities seemed to be the center of attention during the participatory proceedings. Thus, the research indicates that there are always youth-specific issues within communities. From the research, 70% of the participants revealed that youth-specific initiatives were lacking in their neighborhoods. This perception lends credence to the notion that the youths opted for the bike project as a way to make a statement of their decision-making capabilities. These findings deepen the readers’ understanding that there is a precarious balance between the Youth Lead the Change and the participatory budgeting projects. Thus, there need to be a balance between the preferences of the youths and the needs of the wider public. In addition, the city administration needs to realize that issues of recreation are more suited for programmatic remedies and not capital improvements.
I found several pieces of useful information. The data reveals several ways in which the Boston governing council has leveraged participatory budgeting process with the needs of the residents. Furthermore, the participatory budget process reveals some of the priorities of Boston youth while at the same time demonstrating the challenges that are inherent in the process of such scale and complexity. Additionally, the research reveals the attitude of the youth towards the city administration.
In view of the research findings, I would give three recommendations, the first recommendation is clarify the role of the change agents. There was a clear confusion during the meetings. Youths were unable to reconcile their double roles as Change Agents and members of the Mayor’s Council. Hence, facilitators of the participatory budget process should provide youths with clear information with regards to their roles. The second recommendation I would give is to provide training and guidance throughout the process. Youths reported a breakdown of information in the latter stages of the participatory budget meetings. The breakdown of communication resulted in information gaps that adversely affected the outcome of the meetings. Thirdly, I would recommendation to use data throughout the process. I found that the volume of suggested ideas was not reflected in the final ballot. It is therefore imperative that participants in future projects use data consistently to eliminate incidents of bias in their final proposals.
The Youth Lead the Change initiative demonstrated the power of the young people in making long-lasting social change. Throughout the process, members actively participated in decision making, at least in the initial stages. However, the research study reveals some underlying problems when dealing with such projects. First, the youths may not be overly objective when voting for community projects. For example, one can argue that the biking project does not reflect the preferences of the Boston’s residents. Thus, readers can argue that the project does not represent value for money. Nevertheless, the project is indicative of the fact that, when given an opportunity, youths are as capable of making decisions as adults.