Youth Lead the Change: Participatory Budgeting Boston

Icons use case study city info



Icons use case study main actors

Main actors

City Government, Private Sector, NGO / Philanthropy, other

Icons use case study project area

Project area

Whole City/Administrative Region

Icons use case study duration


Ongoing since 2014/01

Through this participatory budgeting program, youth had the opportunity to collect ideas for capital projects, distill those ideas into concrete proposals, hold a city-wide vote to determine which projects get funded, and directly determine how $1 million is spent to improve Boston for everyone.

Boston’s mayor sought a way to empower youth (age 12 to 25) to become active participants in civic affairs of their city government. His solution: a process of participatory budgeting. This process empowered youth to get engaged and indicated that they can affect real change in their communities. This initiative promotes civic engagement, changes social behaviors, increases trust and communication between youth and local government and promotes education about budgetary and democratic processes.

The goal was to teach youth about city building and budgeting process, to gain leadership and professional skills.

Boston became the first American city in which youths have been empowered to decide on a portion of their city’s capital budget. Over 450 ideas were generated, over 1,500 young people cast a vote, 14 projects made it to the ballot and seven were selected by the youth as winners for implementation.

Sustainable Development Goals

Reduce inequality within and among countries
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

Guangzhou Award

This project was awarded the 'Guangzhou Award' in 2016.

Boston, United States

Size and population development
5,130,000 (metropolitan area)

Main functions
capital and largest city of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Main industries / business
Global city with strengths in financial services, biotechnology, transportation and tourism,

Political structure
mayor–council government system

Administrative structure
23 neighborhoods

The Mayor of Boston wants to empower youth to be civic leaders. To advance this, the City created Youth Lead the Change and included this program in the city’s capital budget. 

The goals of Boston’s Participatory Budgeting project are to:

  • Help ensure the capital plan reflects the priorities, interests and energy of Boston youth.
  • Teach youth about the City-building (and budgeting) process as well as provide education around the innovative use of crowdsourcing platforms.
  • Engage future leaders in developing and planning City of Boston infrastructure to allow for community building and increased community ownership.
  • Engage populations that are traditionally underserved such as homeless youth, disconnected youth, those from low income families or with socio-economic barriers.
  • Foster increased partnerships between the City of Boston and Youth Serving agencies.

The project began with the assembly of a steering committee composed of young people connected to youth serving organizations. It was important to make sure that young people on the steering committee were supported by adults to allow for youth development moments and intentional relationships between youth and adults. This cohort of young people and supporting adults created the rules that would govern the process with a focus on the voices of young people.

Once the rules were written, the steering committee members began community outreach and facilitated idea collection assemblies. Locations for idea collections assemblies had a focus on traditionally underserved neighborhoods. As ideas were collected in person and though an online platform, young people and residents had the opportunity to interact with local government in a positive and empowering way that promotes real change and ownership in communities.

Change agents applied to serve to transform ideas into capital projects based on community need, project feasibility and project impact in the community. Change Agents worked with city departments to vet ideas and approve proposals. Throughout this process, young change agents had an opportunity to collaborate and learn with adults in city leadership.

Once projects made it to ballot, only young people could decide how funds would be spent. 14 projects made it to the first ever Youth Lead the Change Ballot and 7 projects were selected by young people as winners. Those projects will be implemented. 

The City of Boston strives to cement itself as a leader in youth civic engagement with its third round of Youth Lead the Change. What started as a participatory budgeting process that engaged young people has evolved into a multifaceted strategic planning initiative that puts young people at the center of community engagement, participatory budgeting, participatory policy making, cross sector collaboration, and an evolution of collaborative citywide strategic planning.

Partners involved and resources used for implementation include:

  • City of Boston Mayor’s Office, Government - Sanctioned the initiative and supported Youth Lead the change
  • Department of Youth Engagement and Employment, Government - Provided day-to-day support, oversight, project management, and outreach agendas for the initiative
  • Office of Budget Management, Government - provided expertise around project eligibility and coordinated city department support
  • Office of New Urban Mechanics, Government - provided technical support
  • Participatory Budgeting Project, Non-profit - consultant organization that provided project management support, content and training materials, and outreach support
  • Mayor’s Youth Council, Government Youth Organization - co-chair of the steering committee
  • Youth on Board & The City School, Non-profit - co-chair of the steering committee
  • Harvard Kennedy School, Private University - guided data collection, measures for outcomes, and categories for evaluation
  • Northeastern University, Private University - sponsored community events and meetings
  •, Private - hosted online idea collection and commenting mechanism
  • Boston Centers for Youth and Families, Government - hosted community meetings and voting locations
  • Mobile Commons, Private - mobile & text messaging platform

The City of Boston has refined its outreach strategies, elevated the role of young people by aligning its youth civic engagement work with its $4.5M youth employment program, and has made strides in harnessing technology to find new audiences for traditional civic process.

Main results of the Youth Lead the Change initiative include:

  • Civic Engagement and Open Government: Over 1,500 young people cast a vote. For many it was their first time engaging in a voting process.
  • Community Process, Economic Development and Contribution to City Planning: Education regarding the city budget process and capital planning took place at all idea collection assemblies. Throughout the process, over 450 ideas have been submitted to improve Boston. Ideas not feasible for execution through this process were forwarded to various city departments to take under consideration for future projects and planning.
  • Youth Investment in Environment and City Infrastructure: Youth Lead the Change encouraged residents to review their communities and consider projects based on need, feasibility, and sustainability. Projects were designed to improve communities, public safety, outside environments and school environments.
  • Reduce Barriers for Participation: Material was translated into different languages as often as possible and idea collection assemblies were held in accessible venues. Target areas included populations that are traditionally underserved. Text messaging and online idea gathering was used to reach those that were unable to attend assemblies.
  • Participants cited a broader awareness of needs in other neighborhoods throughout the City and a better understanding of government processes and democracy in general. Many participants reported gaining specific skills including leadership, teamwork, networking, communication and professionalism. Many participants also expressed feelings of power or control or reported that their voices had truly been heard.

Researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School evaluated Youth Lead the Change by conducting in-depth qualitative interviews with 30 participants. Quantitative data is derived from Boston census data and from surveys of Youth Lead the Change participants. Interviews were open-ended but organized around key themes: motivations for participating, participation outcomes, impact on participants themselves, decision processes and suggestions for improvement. Researchers also observed many of the in-person gatherings.

One obstacle that was faced during this initiative was community trust in government. As the project began, some community members questioned whether they would truly have an opportunity to decide how funds would be spent. Composing a steering committee of youth serving organizations provided many community liaisons and created an avenue of trust between community members and local government. As the project progressed, members of the community became more invested as they participated in idea collection assemblies, project development and eventually voting.

Youth Lead the Change has created an innovative pathway for young people to get involved with City Government here in Boston. From the launch of the project to the end of year one, young people were the driving force behind not only the project’s success, but they were also the generators of the movement. Through surveys and focus groups with the Mayor’s Youth Council, city leadership was able to understand the desire for young people to contribute to the decisions that are being made around them and also understand the benefit and strength of having young people participate in real decision making.

In designing Youth Lead the Change, all materials had to be adapted for the population with special consideration around the use of social media, web interfaces, and mediums that young people use. The goal was to meet participants using platforms that they are comfortable with and frequent. Voting locations and outreach strategies encompassed local schools, public transit stations, community centers, and youth programs across the city, including events for homeless and disconnected youth.  

Through collaboration with Mobile Commons, interested parties at any phase of the project could connect with the initiative by sending text messages to a designated number and would be able to voice opinions, learn about upcoming events and receive updates on the process.  

The design of the project steering committee was focussed on diverse youth serving organizations. This ensured that decision makers who were writing the rules for this process were young people and allowed them to take ownership of various aspects of the design of the process.  

This initiative allowed for distinct and broad youth engagement in government and provided an opportunity for visible “open government” in order to increase trust and collaboration with community members and community organizations. While participatory budgeting has been done in several US cities in the past few years, Boston is the first city to focus exclusively on youth, and other cities and municipalities across the nation are considering youth participatory budgeting processes.

- Boston, U.S.A: Youth Lead the Change: Participatory Budgeting Boston, Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation, (accessed 29 February 2016).

- Youth Lead the Change: Participatory Budgeting Boston, Urban Innovation Database, (accessed 29 February 2016).

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Guangzhou Award
Guangzhou, China

Guangzhou Award

Institution | Urban Award

Francesco Tena
Boston, United States

Francesco Tena

Individual | Municipal Government, Civic Engagement

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