Is Participatory Budgeting Real Democracy?

Anna Clark in NextCity: “Drawing from a practice pioneered 25 years ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil and imported to North America via progressive leaders in Toronto and Quebec, participatory budgeting cracks open the closed-door process of fiscal decision-making in cities, letting citizens vote on exactly how government money is spent in their community. It’s an auspicious departure from traditional ways of allocating tax dollars, let alone in Chicago, which has long been known for deeply entrenched machine politics. As Alderman Joe Moore puts it, in Chicago, “so many decisions are made from the top down.”
Participatory budgeting works pretty simply in the 49th Ward. Instead of Moore deciding how to spend $1.3 million in “menu money” that is allotted annually to each of Chicago’s 50 council members for capital improvements, the councilman opens up a public process to determine how to spend $1 million of the allotment. The remaining $300,000 is socked away in the bank for emergencies and cost overruns.
And the unusual vote on $1 million in menu money is open to a wider swath of the community than your standard Election Day: you don’t have to be a citizen to cast a ballot, and the voting age is sixteen.
Thanks to the process, Rogers Park can now boast of a new community garden, dozens of underpass murals, heating shelters at three transit stations, hundreds of tree plantings, an outdoor shower at Loyola Park, a $110,000 dog park, and eye-catching “You Are Here” neighborhood information boards at transit station entrances.

Another prominent supporter of participatory budgeting? The White House. In December—about eight months after Joe Moore met with President Barack Obama about bringing participatory budgeting to the federal level—PB became an option for determining how to spend community development block-grant money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Obama administration also declared that, in a yet-to-be-detailed partnership, it will help create tools that can be used for participatory budgeting on a local level.
All this activity has so far added up to $45 million in tax dollars allocated to 203 voter-approved projects across the country. Some 46,000 people and 500 organizations nationwide have been part of the decision-making, according to the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project.
But to fulfill this vision, the process needs resources behind it—enough funds for projects to demonstrate a visible community benefit, and ample capacity from the facilitators of the process (whether it’s district officials or city hall) to truly reach out to the community. Without intention and capacity, PB risks duplicating the process of elections for ordinary representative democracy, where white middle- and upper-class voters are far more likely to vote and therefore enjoy an outsized influence on their neighborhood.

Participatory budgeting works differently for every city. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the process was created a generation ago by The Worker’s Party to give disadvantaged people a stronger voice in government, as many as 50,000 people vote on how to spend public money each year. More than $700 million has been funneled through the process since its inception. Vallejo, Calif., embraced participatory budgeting in 2012 after emerging from bankruptcy as part of its citywide reinvention. In its first PB vote in May 2013, 3,917 residents voted over the course of a week at 13 polling locations. That translated into four percent of the city’s eligible voters—a tiny number, but a much higher percentage than previous PB processes in Chicago and New York.
But the 5th Ward in Hyde Park, a South Side neighborhood that’s home to the University of Chicago, dropped PB in December, citing low turnout in neighborhood assemblies and residents who felt the process was too much work to be worthwhile. “They said it was very time consuming, a lot of meetings, and that they thought the neighborhood groups that they had were active enough to do it without having all of the expenses that were associated with it,” Alderman Leslie Hairston told the Hyde Park Herald. In 2013, its first year with participatory budgeting, the 5th Ward held a PB vote that saw only 100 ballots cast.
Josh Lerner of the Participatory Budgeting Project says low turnout is a problem that can be solved through outreach and promotion. “It is challenging to do this without capacity,” he said. Internationally, according to Lerner, PB is part of a city administration, with a whole office coordinating the process. Without the backing from City Hall in Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting would have a hard time attracting the tens of thousands who now count themselves as part of the process. And even with the support from City Hall, the 50,000 participants represent less than one percent of the city’s population of 1.4 million.

So what’s next for participatory budgeting in Rogers Park and beyond?
Well, first off, Rahm Emanuel’s new Manager of Participatory Budgeting will be responsible for supporting council districts if and when they opt to go participatory. There won’t be a requirement to do so, but if a district wishes to follow the 49th, they will have high-level backup from City Hall.
But this new manager—as well as Chicago’s aldermen and engaged citizens—must understand that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for participatory budgeting. The process must be adapted to the unique needs and culture of each district if it is to resonate with locals. And timing is key for rolling out the process.
While still in the hazy early days, federal support through the new White House initiative may also prove crucial in streamlining the participatory budgeting process, easing the burden on local leaders and citizens, and ultimately generating better participation—and, therefore, better on-the-ground results in communities around the country.
One of the key lessons of participatory budgeting—as with democracy more broadly—is that efficiency is not the highest value in the public sphere. It would be much easier and more cost-effective for aldermen to return to the old days and simply check off the boxes for where he or she thinks menu money should be spent. “We could sign off on menu money in a couple hours, a couple days,” Vandercook said. By choosing the participatory path, aldermen effectively create more work for themselves. They risk low rates of participation and the possibility that winning projects may not be the most worthy. Scalability, too, is a problem — the larger the community served by the process, the more difficult it is to ensure that both the process and the resulting projects reflect the needs of the entire community.
Nonetheless, participatory budgeting serves a harder-to-measure purpose that may well be, in the final accounting, more important. It is a profound civic education for citizens, who dig into both the limits and possibilities of public money. They experience what their elected leaders must navigate every day. But it’s also a civic education for council members and city staff who may find that they are engaging with those they represent more than they ever had before, learning about what they value most. Owen Burgh, chief of staff for Alderman Joe Arena in Chicago’s 45th Ward, told the Participatory Budgeting Project, “I was really surprised by the amazing knowledge base we have among our volunteers. So many of our volunteers came to the process with a background where they understood some principles of traffic management, community development and urban planning. It was very refreshing. Usually, in an alderman’s office, people contact us to fix an isolated problem. Through this process, we discussed not just what needed to be fixed but what we wanted our community to be.”
The participatory budgeting process expands the scope and depth of civic spaces in the community, where elected leaders work with—not for—residents. Even for those who do not show up to vote, there is an empowerment that comes simply in knowing that they could; the sincere invitation to participate matters, whether or not it is accepted…”