This past Wednesday, Alderman Joe Moore from the 49th Ward of Chicago visited Harvard to speak of America’s very first experiment with a powerful practice in participatory democracy: Participatory Budgeting (PB). Alderman Moore, who had first heard of PB at the US Social Forum in Atlanta four years ago, oversaw its first session from November 2009 – April 2010. Chicago’s experience is a significant one that shows clear signs of promise, growth, and rapid extension.

Participatory budgeting is a process whereby residents of an area are given the power to move beyond informing their representatives of their priorities to actually make binding decisions on where money goes. In Chicago, each alderman receives $1.3 million per year to spend on infrastructure improvements in their wards, also called the “menu fund”, and it is these resources that are now up for deliberation. The ward is divided into eight areas, with a neighbourhood assembly held in each one (and an additional Spanish language assembly). At the assembly, attendees are informed of how the process works, help brainstorm possible uses for the resources, and are asked to volunteer to become “community representatives.” For the next four months, these representatives meet to develop project proposals, which are then presented to the entire community. Finally, the entire ward is invited to vote upon a specific number of projects, which are then implemented by the government. Drawing on the experience in Brazil, where PB first started, here are some thoughts.

The Ward is divided into 8 sub-districtics, in which neighbourhood assemblies are held.

1. It’s working, and there’s a reason why.

PB first began in 1989 in Porto Alegre, under Mayor Olivio Dutra of the Workers’ Party (PT). After it became both immensely popular and impressively effective at actually getting resources distributed (especially for the poor, who had previously been mostly ignored), it soon became part of the PT’s national program and was implemented in cities across the country. However, as with many experiments in large-scale implementation, things didn’t turn out quite so well as with the original. Often, projects that had been decided upon failed to be implemented. The amount of money available for deliberation was shrunk. Citizens were sidelined by public officials who took control of meetings. It soon became clear that without strong political support, PB would not work its magic.

The 49th Ward has two strengths: a sincerely committed alderman with a history of working to support social organizations, and $1.3 million over which the alderman has complete discretion, with no need to bargain with the mayor or legislators. Alderman Moore gives strong support to the PB process in various ways. From the very outset, he reached out to social organizations to hear their opinions on whether PB could work in Chicago. Throughout the process he provided crucial expertise from various public entities (e.g. the Transit Authority) to better inform citizens both on the budgetary process and on the technical details regarding the decisions being making.  Still, the $1.3 million is admittedly a very tiny fraction of the entire capital infrastructure budget of the city, and this amount probably won’t increase significantly for some time, at least not until Moore is able to garner more political support from other public officials.

2. It matters.

The reason why Porto Alegre was soon awash with an eclectic group of fans ranging from political scientists to the World Bank to grassroots activists is that PB can do various good things: include previously marginalized groups into decision-making processes, increase transparency and accountability in the workings of government, increase the density of associative life (as more groups form and as groups talk to each other), and improve the connection between residents and local government. All of this is happening in Chicago, albeit in limited ways. Moore touched on his desire to include those of lower socio-economic backgrounds in the process, and to move beyond the middle and upper class citizens who would generally show up at neighbourhood meetings. He did this by connecting with social groups who in turn informed and mobilized their members and clients.

The entire process (including implementation) is documented on a blog. Moore recognizes that transparency is key, stating that if the process were not transparent, decisions would lose legitimacy. What’s really fascinating is what was seen occurring both in and as a result of PB. People talked to each other. Social organizations that had never before worked together collaborated. Within deliberations, there was a consensus on the need for negotiation and equity. After PB in Chicago, two new social organizations were formed. Residents who had never really shown much interest in government suddenly became engaged in its workings and discovered that cooperation with public officials was possible.

3. It’s here to stay (and spread).

What I was surprised about was how frankly Moore admitted to the political benefits that he himself derives from PB. He noted very openly that his voting margin went up by 42% since implementing PB, and that PB was “the single most popular initiative in [his] twenty years in the city council.” It was this clear enthusiasm for PB that led many who ran for city council this year to pledge that they would implement PB in their own wards. This is what happened in Brazil, as non-PT parties found it necessary to implement PB in their own municipalities or to continue PB after victory in previously PT cities in order to gain or maintain popular support. It is this possibility of political dividend that will soon push the establishment of PB in many more areas in the US. We will probably as a result see PB processes that don’t work so well, especially in places where public officials are less keen about maintaining the fine balance required in the role of supporting the space for residents themselves to take agency. However, what we can still hope to see even in these areas is for people to start talking, to build connections that criss-cross socio-economic or ethnic groups, and to in turn use that strengthened sense of community to take whatever space is given to them to expand and improve it.

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