Participatory Budgeting in North America – participatory from the start

Federal elections are a common topic this summer in the United States but, talking about isn’t the same as voting. Like in many countries, the U.S. population is politically disengaged, and this tendency is even more common among low-income communities and especially at the local level.

It seems that North Americans consider voting for a local representative doesn’t have a meaningful impact on the decisions that shape their cities.

By enabling direct community control over a portion of the public budget, participatory budgeting is a good way to re-engage those citizens that do not – or cannot – participate in the traditional representative democratic processes.

The definition of participatory budgeting (PB) is that citizens identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects. PB gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent.

The first PB process was implemented in 1989, in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil. PB rapidly spread throughout Latin America and Europe. There are now over 1 500 participatory budgets around the world. It was not until 2000 that the first PB processes appeared in North America – more specifically in Ontario in the city of Guelph, soon followed by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, as well as the Montreal borough of Plateau Mont-Royal.

The spread of PB in North America is mostly attributed to the non-profit organization Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), which grew out of an informal collaboration between PB activists and researchers starting in 2005 at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. PBP has supported as many as 55 processes in 2015 around the U.S. and Canada.

To learn more about the implementation of PB in America and its characteristics, I met David Beasley, PBP’s Communications Director and Melissa Appleton, PBP’s Project Manager at their main office in New York City. David is responsible for the strategic development and management of PBP’s communications and for the communications support for local PB processes. Melissa manages PBP’s projects on the East Coat.

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David Beasley, PBP’s Communications Director and Melissa Appleton, PBP’s Project Manager

This is the framework that PBP developed and uses for each PB process: local community-based organizations are recruited to form a steering committee; the steering committee designs the process and its timeline; residents come together in large events to brainstorm spending ideas; volunteer budget delegates develop proposals based on these ideas; residents vote on proposals and the government implements the top projects.

For example, one of the ideas generated through this process in Cambridge (MA) was that community members identified access to healthy food for everyone as a priority. Their budget delegates developed a proposal for a prepared food rescue freezer van. The residents then voted on this, one among other proposals. The freezer van proposal got sufficient votes and the city made it happened.

What struck me the most in my initial interviews was that the process in North America is different from most European PB cases. In Europe, the PB is managed inside the government but here, the design of the process is out of the hands of elected officials and city staff.

Instead, for each pot of money, a local steering committee made up of non-profit organizations, advocacy groups and representatives of the local community is commissioned to design and implement a PB process.

To learn more about this community involvement, I met Maria Hadden who manages all PBP’s projects in the Midwest and is the Project Manager for PB Chicago. Prior to this position, Maria was involved as a budget delegate during the very first PB cycle in the US in 2009, in Chicago. She now works with the alderman Joe Moore who launched the 49th Ward PB process seven years ago.

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Maria Hadden, Project Manager – Chicago

Alderman Moore was facing a pretty tough re-election in 2009. He saw PB as a good way to reengage with a constituency of people that were disenfranchised.

Each alderman in Chicago has $1 million a year from the city budget to allocate for various infrastructure improvements in his or her ward. While this « menu money » is usually spent at the total discretion of each alderman, Joe Moore « ceded his decision-making authority » to the residents of his ward.  A local steering committee was formed with no more than 30 community institutions from social services to religious institutions, schools and local business owners. Through a series of workshops, the steering committee determines its own rules and timeline, compiled into a PB Rulebook. The steering committee asks themselves these questions when developing their rulebook:  What sort of projects money can be spent on? Who can participate and at what level? How do ideas get introduced? Who gets to vote? When are they going to vote? etc.

« In some ways, community gets to design their own democracy and what do they think their democracy should look like. » Maria added.

PBP experts, like Melissa join the committee to provide technical assistance. As Melissa Appleton put it, PBP staff is just there to « provide the ingredients to bake the cake ». Sometimes, PBP invites research institutions to participate on committees to help determine evaluation criteria.

But community engagement doesn’t end there. Indeed, citizens are not only invited to brainstorm spending ideas and vote on proposals, but they are also strongly encouraged to become facilitators during the brainstorming sessions and even to become budget delegates for the overall process.

Budget delegates are volunteers whose role is to turn residents’ ideas into real projects. To achieve that budget delegates put in many hours to research local problems and needs, learn about the budget funds and the budget process, collect initial project ideas, identify overlaps and develop full project proposals for the ballet. In the City of Cambridge (MA), PB delegates participate in 6 to 8 committee meetings over a 3 months period.

Assistance from the city and experts from the community are available to assist with the process.

By being involved in PB process, citizens are exposed to and engage in the civic process.  Being on the steering committee or simply being present at the brainstorming sessions, citizens get a better perspective of how government works and why all the things can’t be fixed at once in their neighborhood.

« It’s not that the mayor wants me to have a crappy park or that the elected official is not listening to all the causes that I make, it’s that they actually don’t have the money to do it, or have to make some priorities. » Maria said.

PB creates a positive proactive space where government, employees and elected officials have the chance to solve problem with people. « As opposed to just listening to the complaints, it’s a ‘We are doing this together’. » as Maria put it.

This fundamental partnership of city staff and civil society working together to develop and implement projects provides a legitimacy of the process in the eyes of participants.
As mentioned, the community involvement in implementing PB can be explained as a politician’s will to increase community engagement within government. But it is also true that PB was launched by a handful of elected officials, with a limited amount of money and resources. In my observations, European governments have the resources readily available, but civic engagement is lacking.

Discussing some of the challenges they faced, Melissa expressed that one of the hardest parts of her job is educating people about the type of fundable projects. For example in New York City, money can only be spent on construction projects while, during the brainstorming session, many residents brought up that they should have an after school program. Because of the restrictions, they had to come up with another solution to answer this need.

« When they have a problem, people think of all kind of solutions, they know what they need. It is a matter of knowing what funds can be used for what. » Melissa added.

One of the other issues that came up is governments transparency about  the implementation of each project selected. « The public wants progress reports and updates for the project they voted for, but many cities just don’t have the system in place to achieve that. » explained Melissa.

« The city of Cambridge (MA) did a great job in building transparency into the implementation phase by sharing information for each stage of the process. » But for other agencies as complex as New York City’s, it has taken many PB cycles to refine clear designation, communication methods and follow up for projects that have been funded through PB.

As interest in PB spread across the nation, the staff of PBP disengage from direct service to governments as they become proficient in running their own PB process. PBP continues to serve in an advisory capacity and to follow up on projects. David and Melissa shared with me their excitement in finding new ways to make PB more accessible and effective in order to respond to the increasing demand of cities, districts and academic institutions willing to implement PB.

« It is great to work with each process to make a recipe, but our goal is to develop more effective cook books. » Melissa concluded.

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