Canada: 4 Examples of Participatory Budgeting

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The City of Guelph: Neighbourhood Support Coalition

Since 1999, Guelph residents have used participatory budgeting to allocate a small portion of the City's budget. Through the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition, neighbourhood groups share and redistribute resources for local community projects, such as recreation programs, youth services, and physical improvements to community facilities.

Guelph is a city of over 100,000 people in southern Ontario, 100 kilometres west of Toronto. A Mayor and 12 city councillors govern the city, although the Mayor is the only full-time elected official. Compared with other Canadians, Guelph residents are slightly more affluent, educated, and ethnically homogenous. The city's median household income ($56,000) is slightly higher than the provincial average. Sixty percent of residents aged 25-64 have pursued post-secondary education, compared with 55% in Ontario and less than 54% in Canada. Over 85% of residents report that English is their main language spoken at home.

How the Coalition Developed

The Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition and its participatory budgeting process developed through a combination of grassroots neighbourhood activism, funding from external donors, and municipal facilitation. In the early 1990s, several neighbourhood groups started to form in lower income Guelph communities to organize for social change. In 1990, a group in the Onward Willow neighbourhood successfully applied for funding from the provincial Better Beginnings Better Futures program. The group used the funding to organize recreation programs, family support, and other community-building activities.

Based on the success of the Onward Willow activities, Family and Children's Services of Guelph began to fund other neighbourhood groups, using money from the United Way. After a few years of collaboration between these organizations, some neighbourhood groups wanted to work more closely with the City and new groups wanted to get involved. In 1996, a neighbourhood group that was receiving municipal funding invited city staff at the Community Services Department to observe their work. After observing, the department decided it would be more effective to work with the groups through a formal umbrella organization.

The City and neighbourhood groups officially founded the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition in 1997. Its aim was to enable neighbourhood groups, city staff, and supportive partner organizations to collectively allocate community funding and improve community life. At first, funding was divided equally between the neighbourhoods. City staff noticed, however, that some neighbourhoods were over-resourced and others were under-resourced. In 1999, Janette Loveys Smith, the City's Manager of Community Development, suggested that funding would be more equitable if the neighbourhood groups deliberated their needs and priorities together. The Coalition decided to gradually implement a participatory budgeting process, although it was not until the following year that Loveys Smith found out about participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre. Only in 2003 did the participating groups formalize this process in a written agreement.

The Coalition initially depended on around $50,000 awarded by the City's community grants program. In 1999, neighbourhood groups persuaded City Council to transform the community grant funds into an official line in the City's Community Services budget. The Coalition also pursued external funding from other organizations, agencies, and regional government bodies. By 2000 it had consolidated its municipal funding and external funding in the Community Services budget line. By 2005, the Coalition budget had reached a million dollars. It also began to include capital budget funds for infrastructure projects, in addition to the existing operating budget funds.

After starting with less than 10 neighbourhood groups, the Coalition has now grown to 15 groups. Some established ratepayer groups have begun to get involved in the Coalition, adding a social focus to their activities in order to share funding. In 2004, Guelph political leaders started to observe neighbourhood group and Coalition meetings.

The Participatory Budgeting Process

The Coalition takes approximately four months to collectively decide how its budget funds are allocated, and another year to implement project funding. The budget deliberations start in December and allocations are decided by April. The budget process consists of five main phases:

1) The Coalition meets to discuss citywide priorities for the upcoming year and review the budgeting process. Meanwhile, Coalition members raise funds from partner organizations and sponsors, to establish the pot of money for the year's budget.

2) Residents meet in their local neighbourhood groups to discuss the citywide priorities and deliberate about their local spending priorities. Based on these discussions, each group prepares project proposals, along with a "needs" budget and a "wants" budget for its proposed activities. The residents elect two delegates to represent their group in the Coalition's Finance Committee.

3) The neighbourhood delegates meet in the Finance Committee to present their budget needs and wants to each other. Coalition partners and sponsors outline the budget funds that are available. After the meeting, neighbourhood delegates return to their groups to re-evaluate their needs and wants, based on the information from other groups and sponsors.

4) The neighbourhood delegates meet in the Finance Committee to decide on budget allocations. The delegates negotiate and make compromises on the proposed activities, until they can agree by consensus on a budget.

5) Neighbourhood groups implement and monitor their projects through a yearlong funding cycle. Groups are expected to use decreasing amounts of Coalition money for the first three fiscal quarters of their projects, and then raise other funds to finance the fourth quarter. The groups proposed this approach because they thought that established groups would be able to find additional funding sources, which would free up some money for new groups and projects. Some of this money is set aside in a $25,000 "new group" fund, available only to new groups joining the Coalition. This money is a rare source of accessible funding for informal community groups.

City residents, neighbourhood groups, partner organizations, and city staff collaborate throughout Guelph's participatory budgeting process. Residents decide on local community service priorities. Most participating residents are from low-income or ethnic minority neighbourhoods. Participants have a wide range of skills and backgrounds, and many have little previous experience with community or political organizing. The Coalition attempts to reduce the obstacles to participation for low-income and marginalized residents. It provides groups with oral and written translation services for nine different languages, and sets aside $5,000 annually to pay childcare, eldercare, and transportation costs for participants in need. It also provides food at Coalition meetings.

Neighbourhood groups represent local community interests in the budgeting process. They also design and oversee the Coalition decision-making process itself. Neighbourhood groups represent over 1100 residents on average, and they are managed by a combination of volunteers and paid staff. Most hire a part-time Community Development Coordinator to facilitate group projects. City staff administer the payroll for these workers, but their salaries come out of the Coalition budget. Although not all groups are legally incorporated, the Coalition has agreed on organizational rules for participating groups. For example, each must elect a Board of Directors and make decisions by a collectively designed consensus process.

Partner organizations provide technical support and funding, and they participate in the Coalition decision-making process through appointed representatives. Several community organizations and local government agencies belong to the Coalition, including the Community Health Centre, the United Way, the county's Social Services agency, and local school boards.

City staff are responsible for Coalition administration. Five staff members at the Community Services Department organize and support the Coalition, as part of their general work responsibilities. They prepare minutes of Coalition meetings and often attend individual group meetings to offer support. The annual administrative costs for the City are roughly $60,000, which includes staff time, food and other consumables, publicity, meeting space, and financial support through the Finance Department. The City has also begun promoting the Coalition and its budgeting process to other cities through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.


Each year, the budgeting process funds hundreds of prioritized community services and involves thousands of people in new neighbourhood activities and groups. In 2005, the Coalition funded 460 community-building events and programs, such as peer support groups, community carnivals, summer camps, and language classes. Roughly 10,000 people participated in the neighbourhood group activities, and the volunteer hours put into the Coalition resulted in $270,000 in cost savings for the City.

The Coalition has helped develop several new neighbourhood groups, and new partnerships between community organizations and public agencies. Coalition partners have provided free office space for neighbourhood groups in schools and other government buildings. Inspired by the Coalition's budget process, city staff have collaborated with progressives in other Canadian cities to plan a Canada-wide action research project in support of participatory budgeting.

City staff and Coalition members have also learned new skills and ways of thinking. By working together extensively as equals, staff have gained new understanding of the needs and perspectives of low-income residents, and residents are learning how to work with the city government and community groups. Residents are also learning about the needs of other communities, and often changing their own priorities as a result. In 2005, one neighbourhood group even decided to not accept any Coalition money, to leave the funds for groups with greater needs. The Coalition has also organized annual staff and community training workshops, on topics such as team building, fundraising, and community organizing. The budget process has been a challenge. As a representative from the Waverly neighbourhood group said, "This is the hardest thing to do. There are a lot of emotions here at the table."

Toronto Community Housing: Tenant Participation System

Since 2001, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) has used a participatory budgeting process to involve tenants in budget decision-making, as part of their Tenant Participation System. Originally called Community Based Business Planning, the budgeting process has allowed tenants to decide how to spend $9 million per year, or 13% of the TCHC's capital budget.

The TCHC is the largest social housing provider in Canada and second largest in North America, with 164,000 tenants housed in over 350 high and low-rise apartment buildings and 800 houses and duplexes. With an average income of $15,400, TCHC residents are generally low-income individuals and families. Many residents are new immigrants, elderly, disabled, or single parent families - some of the most marginalized populations in Toronto.

The TCHC is a share-capital corporation that employs 1,500 people. It operates at arm's length from the City of Toronto, which is the company's sole shareholder. The 13-member Board of Directors, composed of four city councillors and nine citizens, oversees the company's management and is accountable to the City. When the participatory budgeting process was introduced, the TCHC consisted of two separate companies - Metro Toronto Housing Company (MTHC) and Toronto Housing Company (THC). The assets and management of these companies merged in January 2002, and the new TCHC became responsible for a $568 million operating budget and $70 million capital budget. Half of the revenues are from government subsidies and half from RGI (rent geared to income) rent payments and some market-rate rent payments.

How the Tenant Participation System Developed

In 2000, staff at the THC and MTHC developed a participatory budgeting process in response to tenant demands and budget pressures. Tenants were asking for greater participation in budget decisions and more control over how funds were spent. The companies were also faced with new funding cuts, due to the provincial government's downloading of responsibility for social housing and the municipality's reductions in social programs funding. The companies' capital budgets were shrinking quickly, and staff and management choose to involve tenants in the process of making difficult decisions about capital investments.

Based on the Porto Alegre model, a small team of staff developed a new participatory budget process. Although the THC and MTHC were separate entities, staff from the two organizations anticipated their merger and therefore collaborated. After developing the basic process, staff and tenants revised the model through experimentation in two pilot projects. Tenants at the THC and MTHC decided on slightly different budgeting processes. After the companies merged, they integrated the two processes. Tenants began the first participatory budgeting cycle in 2001 and finished in December 2003. In 2004, the TCHC undertook an extensive evaluation of the first cycle, and based on tenant and staff input they began to revise the budgeting process.

The Participatory Budgeting Process

The Tenant Participation System uses a three-year budgeting process, divided into six phases:

1) Tenants and staff gather at open meetings at the building level (within an individual apartment building or group of houses), to discuss local budget issues, identify their building's top five priorities, and elect budget delegates. They decide on budget priorities through "dotmocracy": First, they identify and discuss necessary projects, compiling a project list on flipchart paper. Second, they rank the projects by marking dots next to those they support. Finally, the projects with the most dots are chosen as priorities. Staff use visual aids based on colours, pictures, and symbols to help people communicate across language barriers. Tenants also elect delegates to represent their buildings at the regional level - the Community Housing Units (CHUs).

2) The building delegates meet at CHU Forums to deliberate spending priorities with other buildings and communities in their region of the city. At each Forum, building delegates review the list of building priorities, identify the priority issues that could be addressed with existing CHU resources, and identify the issues that would require additional external funding. The delegates then rank the issues that require additional funding in order of priority, and they elect 40-65 CHU delegates for the citywide Tenant Budget Council.

3) Staff develop a draft budget and tenant delegates prepare for budget council meetings. Elected CHU delegates go through an orientation to the corporation's budget, decide on guidelines for their budget deliberations, and present their CHU priorities.

4) Staff present their draft budget to the Tenant Budget Council, and the CHU delegates deliberate how to allocate funding amongst the CHUs' proposed projects. After negotiating trade-offs between the CHU priorities and the staff budget, the Tenant Budget Council recommends which capital projects should be funded.

5) The Tenant Budget Council submits its final recommendations to the corporation's CEO. The CEO finalizes the list of specific projects to receive funding. This final budget goes to the TCHC Board of Directors for approval.

6) Staff and tenants implement and monitor the approved projects and budget. Tenant delegates disseminate information about the projects and budget in their buildings. They oversee the implementation and financial status of approved projects through a Monitoring Committee, adjusting project funding when necessary. In 2005, the TCHC added an evaluation process in which tenants give feedback on their experience and work with staff to improve the next round.

Tenants, TCHC staff, and the TCHC Board of Directors collaborate throughout the budget process. Tenants decide on local (building), regional (CHU), and citywide spending priorities. They participate directly at the local level and through elected representative at the regional and citywide level. The TCHC uses translators and offered childcare at budget meetings to reduce barriers to tenant participation.

TCHC staff facilitate budget deliberations and provide technical support and guidance. Staff members at the community, CHU, and corporation level serve as facilitators and technical advisors at budget meetings. They work with tenants to identify budget issues, constraints, and priorities. The TCHC Board of Directors approves the final budget.


The first participatory budgeting cycle provided funding for 237 local capital projects that were prioritized by tenants, such as new stoves, playgrounds, and roof renovations. In addition to these material benefits, the process helped tenants learn about each other and about different communities. Most tenants initially focused on their own needs, but after a few meetings many began to appreciate the interests of other participants. Some people voluntarily gave up funds to support more needy TCHC communities, after realizing that other tenants had graver needs. One tenant explained that this was a natural result of such an intense process of deliberation, that "once everybody gave a little bit, we all came together as a community."

Tenants and management developed greater mutual understanding, trust, and reciprocity. Tenants learned about the problems faced by staff. As one participant said, "When you are sitting in your own community, you don't understand why they don't fix things or why you can't have the things you want, such as a new playground. With this budget process, people began to see how limited the funding was and the need for it out there." Tenants also noted that staff began to respect them more and better understand their needs and capacities. According to Beatriz Tabak, the initial manager of the budget process, "There is this stigma that people who live in social housing don't know anything…staff learned that tenants know what they are doing and the tenants were empowered."

Staff and tenants have also connected with other participatory processes. The TCHC helped tenants attend the City's Listening to Toronto budget consultations by organizing childcare and transportation for tenant participants. Staff and tenants have shared their experience at several conferences and collaborated on the Canada-wide participatory budgeting research project with Guelph. The TCHC has even flown tenants and staff to Porto Alegre for the World Social Forum, and brought officials from Porto Alegre to tenant budget deliberations.

After the initial cycle ended in 2003, the TCHC redesigned its budget process. The new system is more decentralized, part of a larger restructuring process within the TCHC. Individual buildings and CHUs have more decision-making autonomy and greater control over their own operating and capital budgets. This new system focuses more on local engagement than corporation-wide redistribution. The TCHC is also increasing its capacity building training for staff and tenants.

Vancouver: Ridgeview School Participatory Budget

Although tiny in comparison with the other initiatives, Canada's third experience with participatory budgeting is notable for its participants. In West Vancouver, elementary school students have used a participatory budgeting process to decide a small amount of their school's funding. In 2005, Ridgeview School's participatory budget enabled students to learn about their needs and democracy, and to fund a new school store in the process.( The Ridgeview process builds on previous experiences of youth participatory budgeting in Latin America.

West Vancouver is a small municipality in greater Vancouver. Its residents are relatively affluent, well educated, and homogenous. Roughly 25% of its students come from non-English speaking homes. Ridgeview is a public school with around 380 students in kindergarten through seventh grade. It has a progressive orientation, as demonstrated by its mission statement: "To inspire and develop independent lifelong learners who have a respect, acceptance, and understanding of self, others, and the global society, so that all can reach their full potential by providing a challenging, safe, supportive, and happy learning environment." Even before 2005, Ridgeview parents had been looking for ways to include their children's voices in more school decisions.

In 2004, Heather Willard, a graduate student and part-time teacher at Ridgeview, approached school staff and parents to propose a participatory budgeting process for students. Willard had already experienced participatory budgeting in Brazil and studied it in Canada. Ridgeview's principal responded that students could not be allowed to decide any funds from the official school budget. The Parent Advisory Council, however, agreed to set aside $2000, 10% of their budget, for students to decide. In British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada, parent councils fundraise up to $30,000 dollars for their individual schools each year, to supplement government funding. At Ridgeview, parents were enthusiastic about participatory budgeting because of their concern that students had been excluded from decisions about the fundraised money.

The Participatory Budgeting Process

Participatory budgeting at Ridgeview takes place over one month, in three main steps:

1) For the first two weeks, students in individual classes discuss their needs and identify their top proposals for school projects. In six classes, of 26-30 students each, teachers help students do a needs assessment to identify the school's needs. Students then dialogue about these needs and potential projects, in their own class and with buddy classes. Finally, each class decides on its top three proposals to address the identified needs.

2) In the third week, the school administration reviews the students' proposals for feasibility, and each class chooses its top proposal.

3) In the fourth week, students convene in a school-wide assembly, where they present their class proposals and vote on their preferred idea. Representatives from each class present their idea to the assembly, using prepared posters for illustration. All students, even those in kindergarten, participate in the voting. They are asked to vote, using paper ballots, for the proposal that they believe would most benefit the school. The top vote getter is then implemented during the following year.

Students are therefore responsible for identifying and deliberating school projects, and deciding which project is implemented. The school's teachers help design the participatory budgeting process, motivate students, and facilitate student discussions in class. Parents contribute funding, administrators offer feedback on student proposals, and an external advisor provides technical assistance and guides the process.


The participatory budgeting process enabled students to improve their school experience and environment. In 2005, the students voted to allocate their $2000 to create a school store. They chose the store partly because it could help them generate additional money for other projects. Other ideas included cooking classes, a small indoor climbing wall, a water fountain, new sports equipment, and a school pet that students would take care of. Parents and administrators said that they would find funding for the other proposed ideas as well, since they could be tied to the school's 2005-2006 goal of promoting a healthy school.

The experience also generated new discussion and learning amongst students and in classrooms. As Willard explained, "students and teachers alike were engaged in thinking about and discussing which idea would best help Ridgeview students learn, be healthy and contribute more to the Ridgeview community." Through open dialogue on rarely discussed topics, students and teachers learned about school needs from students' perspectives. Students celebrated what they liked about Ridgeview, providing positive feedback for the parent council and staff, and building community. Students and teachers also learned about democracy, by doing it.

The Ridgeview participatory budget is even starting to have effects at a wider level. After the success of the first year, the school superintendent asked students to present their experience at a District Parent Council Meeting.

The City of Toronto: Listening to Toronto

In 2004, newly elected Toronto Mayor David Miller initiated Listening to Toronto, a public participation process for the municipal budget. The new budget consultations brought together residents to discuss city priorities and offer input for the 2004 and 2005 municipal budgets. Listening to Toronto has not enabled participants to make budget decisions, so it should not be considered participatory budgeting. It is included here, however, because it has been repeatedly compared to participatory budgeting, has greatly increased public engagement in the budget process, and has had noteworthy educational and political effects.

Toronto is the largest city in Canada and the fifth largest in North America, with close to 2.5 million people. A disproportionate amount of the country's financial activities are based in Toronto. As Canada's most popular destination for immigrants, it is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. The City of Toronto's amalgamation with five surrounding municipalities in 1998, coupled with federal and provincial downloading and cutbacks, has greatly increased the City's responsibilities while limiting its economic resources and autonomy.

The City's 2005 budget was made up of a 7 billion dollar operating budget and 1 billion dollar capital budget. Toronto has recently experienced tremendous fiscal pressure, with a 72 million dollar budget shortfall in 2005. The budget process in Toronto has traditionally been highly closed, involving mainly senior level bureaucrats, the Mayor, and city councillors. Citizen input has mainly consisted of public deputations and lobbying of individual councillors, after much of the budget has already been decided.

How Listening to Toronto Developed

In November 2003, David Miller, a progressive city councillor aligned with Canada's left-of-center New Democratic Party, was elected Mayor. Throughout his campaign, Miller had stressed the need for more public engagement and greater accountability, particularly for the city budget process. When he entered office, the City was faced with a $344 million gap between revenues and expenditures. City councillors and staff were desperately looking for ways to overcome the budget shortfall. As one of his first acts in office, Miller initiated the Listening to Toronto consultations for the 2004 budget, to ask residents what the City should do. The Listening to Toronto sessions were designed and planned in only six weeks, after the annual budget deliberations were already in progress. The City's budget proceedings were delayed until the end of the consultations.

Listening to Toronto built on previous engagement efforts by city staff and was inspired by experiences elsewhere. Since 2002, staff had been publishing the City Budget Community Workbook, a guide to help community groups and citizens understand and explore the budget. The workbook was posted on the City's website and distributed to community groups, and its budget explanations were later incorporated into Listening to Toronto materials. City staff also drew on the experiences of Porto Alegre's participatory budget, and representatives from Porto Alegre even attended a 2004 budget consultation.

The high level of budget activism in Toronto also fuelled the consultations. The Metro Network for Social Justice, Toronto Budget Watch Committee, and Community Social Planning Council had all engaged in budget monitoring and analysis, while advocating for a more democratic budget process. Starting in 2002, the Toronto Participatory Budget Network mobilized community support for the 10x10 campaign, calling for 10% of the city's budget to be decided through participatory budgeting by the year 2010.

The Public Participation Process

Listening to Toronto has inserted large budget consultations into the city's ongoing budgeting process. City staff and councillors remain responsible for developing the budget, but the consultations add a new layer of public participation.

For the 2004 budget, Listening to Toronto consisted of seven three-hour sessions across the city during January 2004, bringing together over 1,100 city residents. After introductory staff presentations, participants met in small groups to talk about Toronto's strengths, challenges, and budget issues. They were asked to discuss three questions: 1) What things make Toronto great, and why is it important that we not lose them? 2) What challenges do we face, and why is it urgent that we address them? 3) What advice do you have for City Council as it discusses the 2004 budget? Community engagement staff from different municipal departments facilitated the discussions, using cartoon maps, colourful diagrams, and plain-speak budget guides to help participants understand complex budget issues. Budget staff offered technical assistance and information about the budget. The City also collected input by email and postal mail.

For the 2005 budget, there was one large November 2004 session in the city center, with over 700 residents. The City claimed that only one session was offered in order to focus on "the bigger picture" and on "one city". Participants were randomly grouped at tables with facilitators, where they listened to a few short presentations by city staff and councillors. Based on City Council's presented budget priorities, they then discussed three questions: 1) How can we make Toronto clean and beautiful? 2) How can the city increase public involvement in city affairs? 3) How can the city strengthen neighbourhoods?

Including Listening to Toronto, the City's annual budget process lasts roughly eight months. From September to November, individual departments and agencies prepare their budget requests. City staff integrate these separate budgets into a citywide budget. Residents offer input through Listening to Toronto sessions, before the City publicly launches the proposed budget in January. From February to April, city councillors and budget staff discuss and revise the proposed budget, and residents submit input through deputations at City Council's committee meetings. Near the end of April, Council debates and approves the final budget.

City residents, municipal staff, and city councillors collaborate during Listening to Toronto. City residents exchange ideas and offer input at the consultations. City staff prepare explanatory and educational materials for the participants, and they design and facilitate the sessions. They listen to public input and help incorporate it into the budget. City Councillors also listen to public input at the consultations, and they revise the budget with staff. The City's annual administrative costs for Listening to Toronto were roughly $110,000.


Listening to Toronto may not have resulted in specific budget decisions, but it appears to have bolstered the Mayor's progressive agenda, increased citizen engagement, and educated city staff, politicians, and residents. The Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, a non-profit community organization, claimed that the City's new budget was a welcome improvement on previous years: "The 2005 budget is almost unrecognizable to anyone accustomed to the six years of slash-and-burn budget decision-making we have experienced in the City of Toronto." It is unclear whether this change was due more to citizen input or to the shift to the left in the Mayor's office. According to city councillors, however, the consultations mobilized residents to demand action from the federal and provincial governments, providing the City with more leverage in intergovernmental negotiations.

Listening to Toronto seems to have had significant educational effects. As one participant explained: "I learned about the restrictions that are placed on council for raising taxes... and lowering costs. [Council] are basically in an impossible position, so I have more respect for the job they have to do." A number of city councillors who were initially critical of the consultations changed their mind after participating, calling them a "great thing" and "the people's budget." The city's conservative budget chief announced that, "It makes me believe in democracy." As one journalist explained, "The Mayor's importing of a consultation process from Brazil is winning praise even from his right-wing critics." This shift indicates that city staff and officials may be learning as much as participants.

The Community Social Planning Council found Listening to Toronto to be one of residents' main sources of hope and excitement about political engagement. According to participant feedback in 2004, 89% of participants felt that attending the session was worthwhile and "a good way to communicate with the Mayor and Council." Eighty-eight percent said that they would attend again in the future. It is unclear if they will have the opportunity to do so, however. After being reduced from seven sessions for 2004 to one session for 2005, Listening to Toronto was replaced in 2006 with a new consultation process for the City's operating budget.