In Chicago’s 49th Ward, the sidewalks were cracked, broken and difficult to navigate. Residents wanted them fixed. So in an unusual experiment, Alderman Joe Moore gave them money -- $1.3 million to be exact -- to spend how they saw fit. Not surprisingly, they used it to repair the sidewalks, and then they used what was left over to install new streetlights, community gardens and some public murals.
Alderman Moore’s little experiment in citizen engagement is also known as participatory budgeting (PB). It started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, as a way to reintroduce democracy to a country that had been under military rule for many years. Since then, it has spread to more than 3,000 cities globally, and in 2009, Chicago became the first U.S. city to try it. For Moore, PB was so popular with his constituents that he credits it with reviving his political fortunes. After barely beating his opponent in a 2007 runoff, he handily won re-election last year.
Participatory budgeting encourages citizens to create ideas on how a portion of taxpayer money should be spent. The original purpose of PB was to establish a form of social justice that ensured city budgeting was fair and equitable, according to Josh Lerner, executive director of the Participatory Budget Project. “Participatory budgeting has had a huge impact in Latin America, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been channeled into new sewage systems, paved roads in poor neighborhoods and the construction of badly needed schools.”
In the U.S., New York City is the only other place to date that has tried do-it-yourself budgeting -- Gotham officials just completed their first experiment in PB in April. Meanwhile, Vallejo, Calif., has become the first local government to approve PB citywide. While the budgeting process works at state and regional levels of government, it’s most effective at the city level, where there are more opportunities for input and participation, says Lerner. In general, citizens are more engaged at the local level because they are affected by the decisions on a daily basis.
PB is a multistage process that begins with gathering ideas from citizens. Those ideas range from improving transportation, parks, schools and public safety to cleaning up the environment. Next, a group of delegates is selected to winnow down the ideas into a few projects that have a reasonable chance of being implemented. Finally, the best plans are placed on a ballot and citizens vote for their favorites.
The challenge, says Lerner, is finding the political will to do it. “Participatory budgeting means having to share power. It also calls for strong community support. You need well organized groups who are effective at getting citizens to draft workable solutions.” PB is still so new that it remains to be seen if it will catch on in the U.S., where support for government is low and cynicism is high. But few people thought there’d be any interest in PB in the first place, says Lerner. Its popularity with Chicago residents has proven those naysayers wrong and has sparked interest from San Francisco to Greensboro, N.C.