Government can’t solve budget battles? Let citizens do it
by Daniel Altschuler and Josh Lerner / April 5, 2011

In recent weeks, Americans have watched budget battles tear apart Congress and state governments. This may be just the beginning. As states and cities across the country confront staggering budget shortfalls, they face a double whammy: Voters are already disillusioned with government, and now elected officials have fewer resources to address citizens’ concerns. Recent polls show that Americans are as disgruntled as ever with Congress and both major parties. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has left federal, state, and city legislators short of funds for public goods like education and health care. Faced with such daunting budget dilemmas, what are politicians to do? Two words: Look south! “Participatory budgeting” (PB), a model popular throughout Latin America, may offer a way to do more with less, and to reconnect citizens with government.

PB gives taxpayers a voice and a vote in how government spends public money. Unlike consultations, PB enables ordinary people to directly decide budget spending. Citizens receive training, identify and prioritize local needs, develop spending proposals, and vote on the proposed projects. Then the government carries out the top proposals, participants monitor progress, and the cycle begins anew. First developed in Brazil, PB has spread to over 1,200 municipalities around the world. Throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia, it has brought people into the political process, taught them civic skills, and encouraged them to work together. Where the state provides sufficient support – through training, facilitation, and expert guidance – PB can reverse dissatisfaction with government and increase transparency, accountability, and efficiency.

Taking root: Chicago to New York
PB has recently taken root in Canadian and American soils. Chicago’s 49th Ward, for example, uses this process to distribute $1.3 million of annual discretionary funds. The ward’s residents have praised the opportunity to make meaningful decisions, take ownership over the budget process, and win concrete improvements for their neighborhood – from community gardens and sidewalk repairs to street lights and public murals. The initiative proved so popular that the ward’s alderman, Joe Moore, credits PB with helping to reverse his political fortunes. After struggling to win a tight run-off in his last election, Mr. Moore enjoyed a commanding electoral victory in 2011. Other elected officials are taking note. Following Moore’s successful pilot process, seven other aldermanic candidates who pledged to implement PB won office in Chicago’s February elections. And six more candidates who support the concept are on the ballot in today’s run-off elections.

The wave is not stopping in Chicago, either. Elected officials and community leaders elsewhere – from New York City to San Francisco and from Greensboro, N.C. to Springfield, Mass. – are considering launching similar initiatives. In the coming months, organizations in these and other cities are holding public forums on PB. They hope to inspire local officials to share meaningful decision-making power with their constituents, while encouraging community groups to demand a place at the budgeting table. Examples in Latin America have already shown that both factors – committed officials and motivated community groups – are essential to effective participatory budgeting.

PB can work at national, state levels
And PB is not just for municipal governments. In other countries, states, counties, housing authorities, and schools have also used it to allocate public budgets. American officials should follow suit. Governors, for instance, could create pilot programs to ensure citizen participation in state infrastructure spending decisions. At the federal level, the Obama administration could use PB to disburse funds in departments with a history of promoting citizen involvement, such as Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). HUD, for instance, could encourage housing authorities to conduct PB with residents. Toronto’s housing authority has been doing this since 2001.

PB has bipartisan appeal
At its heart, PB exemplifies two bipartisan ideals: transparent, effective service delivery and civic engagement. Both Democrats and Republicans are striving to get the most out of depleted resources and serve citizens’ needs as efficiently as possible. PB has a proven track record of rising to this challenge, by injecting public scrutiny, knowledge, and creativity into budgeting. PB’s other starting point – maximizing civic participation – also has bipartisan appeal. Republicans have long advocated voluntarism and service, while President Obama has emphasized civic engagement – that democracy is about “we” rather than “I”, and that government is “us” not “them.” At a time when our country seems as divided as ever, PB offers a concrete policy idea to spur citizen involvement and constructive public debate. If we heed the lessons from previous experiments, this model could bring citizens and officials together, to discuss real issues and make difficult decisions. Given the recent headlines from Washington and Wisconsin, this may seem like a utopian vision. But PB has worked in countries across the globe for over 20 years. It can work here, too.

“On behalf of NYC Council Members Lander [Brooklyn], Mark-Viverito [Manhattan], Williams [Brooklyn], and Ulrich [Queens], I would like to invite you to join the Steering Committee for an exciting new experiment in democracy. This fall, the four NYC Council Members will launch a participatory budgeting (PB) process for their discretionary funds, in which residents of their districts will directly decide how to spend around $6 million in cumulative capital money, which the council members will be allocating from their capital budgets. PB is a best practice of democratic governance practiced in over 1,000 cities around the world, but this will be only the second such officially organized process in the US, and the largest to date. After the initial year, the Council Members and other project partners hope to be joined by their colleagues in other districts, to build a more democratic and transparent approach to public spending in New York. You can find more information about the initiative in the attached project brief. We hope that you will join a City-Wide Steering Committee to help design and oversee the process. We anticipate that the Steering Committee will meet a total of 6-9 times between June 2011 and April 2012. In July it will design the basic participatory process through two workshops. During each subsequent phase of the process, it will be responsible for making key decisions about issues that arise.

The Steering Committee will include: Each Council Member’s office; Community Voices Heard (the lead community partner) and The Participatory Budgeting Project (the lead technical assistance partner); City-wide organizations working in five areas: good government, research, policy, community organizing, and community education; Community Boards from each district; Up to three local community-based organizations from each district.

If you are interested in participating in the Steering Committee, please let me know, or if you have any questions. We look forward to working with you on this groundbreaking initiative.”

Josh Lerner
email :

Ward 49 Ballot
All 49th Ward residents age 16 and over, regardless of voter registration or citizenship status, were invited to vote on the 36 budget proposals developed by the community {photo by Josh Lerner}

Chicago’s $1.3 Million Experiment in Democracy
by Josh Lerner, Megan Wade Antieau  /   Apr 20, 2010

On Chicago’s far north side, citizens are taking democracy into their own hands. Through the first “participatory budgeting”experiment in the United States, residents of Chicago’s 49th Ward have spent the past year deciding how to spend $1.3 million in taxpayer dollars. Over 1,600 community members stepped up to decide on improvements for their neighborhoods, showing how participatory budgeting can pave the way for a new kind of grassroots democracy, in Chicago and beyond.

From Porto Alegre to Chicago
Chicago may seem an unlikely site for participatory democracy, given the city’s famous patronage system and lack of transparency in public finances. Faced with this system, community groups end up competing for budgetary scraps—an exhausting struggle. But frustration with backroom dealing is in part what makes Chicago and the United States ready for new ways of managing public money. In 2007, Alderman Joe Moore discovered an alternative at a US Social Forum session on participatory budgeting. There, he learned about Porto Alegre, Brazil, where since 1990 tens of thousands of people have been directly deciding how to spend as much as 20 percent of their city’s annual budget. Moore also learned how participatory budgeting has gone global, spreading to over 1,200 cities around the world and winning the United Nations’ recognition as a best practice of democratic governance. No U.S. city had let citizens directly decide how to spend public money, but Moore saw Chicago’s 49th Ward as the perfect place to try.


Democracy in Action
The 49th Ward, home to over 60,000 people and the neighborhood of Rogers Park, is known for its diversity and vibrant community life. Over 80 languages are spoken within less than two square miles. Independent-minded citizens have often put intense pressure on local officials. Concerned that Moore wasn’t responding to ward needs, they nearly voted him out of office in the last election. So how does one of the nation’s most diverse neighborhoods bring opinionated residents together to make difficult budget decisions? Moore started by setting aside his $1.3 million “menu money,” the discretionary budget that each alderman receives for capital infrastructure projects. In April 2009, with guidance from The Participatory Budgeting Project, Moore invited leaders of all the ward’s community organizations and institutions to form a Steering Committee, which decided the timeline and structure of the process. “At the community meetings everyone was complaining about their block,” says 49th Ward resident Laurent Pernot. “But now every single committee has taken stewardship of the whole ward as their mission.”

At a series of neighborhood assemblies starting in November, residents brainstormed initial spending ideas and self-selected community representatives who would transform those ideas into concrete proposals. These representatives, along with Steering Committee mentors, split into six thematic committees. They then spent four months meeting with experts, conducting research, and developing budget proposals. The Public Safety Committee, for instance, received many requests for security cameras. To learn more, they visited the neighborhood’s 24-hour camera viewing center. As community representative Marilou Kessler explained, “everyone [on the committee] came—about 15-16 people on a workday. It was astonishing cooperation.” The trip shifted the committee’s priorities: They learned that the cameras are used only occasionally, mostly by specialty police teams, and are not continuously monitored. After police explained that lighting is more effective at deterring crime, the committee replaced several camera proposals with street light proposals.

At first, some skeptics worried about what residents would propose. Would they rush through inappropriate projects, or focus just on their personal needs? Not quite. To identify sidewalks most in need of repair, Transportation Committee members walked almost every block of the ward, in the middle of the Chicago winter. “I will never look at sidewalks the same way again!” reflected Dena Al-Khatib, one of the sidewalk inspectors. Community representatives also learned to move beyond their initial assumptions and priorities. As Laurent Pernot of the Transportation Committee said, “At the community meetings everyone was complaining about their block… But now every single committee has taken stewardship of the whole ward as their mission.”

After months of work and more neighborhood assemblies, the community representatives presented a ballot of 36 specific budget proposals, and then helped organize a publicity campaign. The Arts and Other Committee put together an artistic exhibition of proposals at Mess Hall, a local cultural center. Andy De La Rosa, an artist on the committee, found himself swayed by the proposals from other committees. “This is all extra,” he said of his committee’s proposals for murals, artistic bike racks, and historical markers. “I hope people vote for the streets.” On April 10th, all ward residents age 16 and over, regardless of voter registration or citizenship status, were invited to vote on the proposals at a local high school. In the week beforehand, 428 residents voted early at the Alderman’s office—more early voters per day than during the 2008 presidential election. On the final voting day, a stream of people filled the school cafeteria, reading over proposals, consulting with community representatives, and voting for up to eight projects on paper ballots. In the end, 1,652 residents turned out, not to elect someone to decide for them, but to make their own decisions about the ward. The turnout vastly exceeded expectations, considering the brand-new process, lack of media coverage, and absence of any other elections or ballot measures to inspire turnout. The $1.3 million was enough to fund the 14 most popular projects. The proposal to fix sidewalks received the most votes, and other funded projects included bike lanes, community gardens, murals, traffic signals, and street lighting. Every committee had at least one proposal funded.

Democratizing Democracy
But participatory budgeting in Chicago still has a long way to go. Like at most community meetings in the ward, turnout did not reflect the full diversity of residents. In most participatory budgeting processes, disadvantaged communities turn out in droves, but not yet in the 49th Ward. Despite additional Spanish-language assemblies, materials, and outreach, Latino turnout was particularly low. According to Latino leaders, this was due largely to general distrust of government and worries about immigration status. Some community organizers added that there was too little time for one-on-one meetings with such leaders early on, and that the infrastructure funding did not speak to the concerns of many low-income residents. Had turnout been more diverse, would funding have been allocated differently? Organizers will have a chance to find out, since Moore has already committed to continuing participatory budgeting. As he wrote in a letter to constituents, it “exceeded even my wildest dreams. It was more than an election. It was a community celebration and an affirmation that people will participate in the civic affairs of their community if given real power to make real decisions.” Community representatives are already debating how to deepen community engagement by building on the outreach from this year. Important as it is, the ward’s $1.3 million discretionary budget is just the beginning. Residents are now discussing how to bring participatory budgeting to other budgets, and some reformers in other wards are already considering running on a participatory budgeting platform in the next municipal elections. This energy shows the power of truly democratic experiences, and opens up new possibilities for democracy in Chicago and beyond.

How would you like to distribute 200 million dollars to your fellow citizens? That’s the amount of money the city of Porto Alegre spends in an average year for construction and services—money not committed to fixed expenses like debt service and pensions.

Porto Alegre’s Budget Of, By, And For the People
by David Lewit / Dec 31, 2002

Fifty thousand residents of Porto Alegre—poor and middle class, women and men, leftist and centrist—now take part in the participatory budgeting process for this city of a million and a half people, and the numbers involved have grown each year since its start in 1989. Then, only 75 percent of homes had running water. Today 99 percent have treated water and 85 percent have piped sewage. In seven years, housing assistance jumped from 1,700 families to 29,000. In 12 years, the number of public schools increased from 29 to 86, and literacy has reached 98 percent. Each year the bulk of new street-paving projects has gone to the poorer, outlying districts. In addition to these achievements, corruption, which before was the rule, has virtually disappeared.

Democracy is thriving as citizens gain competence in talking with the mayor, specialists in agencies, and fellow citizens of different means. The participatory budgeting cycle starts in January of each year with dozens of assemblies across the city designed to ensure the system operates with maximum participation and friendly interaction. One study shows that poor people, less well-educated people, and black people are not inhibited in attending and speaking up, even though racial discrimination is strong in Brazil. One experienced participant described the dynamic as follows: “The most important thing is that more and more people come. Those who come for the first time are welcome. We let them make demands during technical meetings—they can speak their mind and their anxieties. We have patience for it because we were like that once. And if a person has an issue, we set up a meeting for him, and create a commission to accompany him. You have the responsibility of not abandoning him. That is the most important thing.”

Power and learning
Each February there is instruction from city specialists in technical and system aspects of city budgeting. Regular folks learn fast because what they are learning empowers them to change conditions that limit or extend their lives. This is perhaps an extension of the teachings of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator who enabled peasants to quickly learn to read by making use of materials about power, landlords, and politics, and by a learning process of liberation as well as deliberation. In March there are plenary assemblies in each of the city’s 16 districts as well as assemblies dealing with such areas as transportation, health, education, sports, and economic development. These large meetings—with participation that can reach over 1,000—elect delegates to represent specific neighborhoods. The mayor and staff attend to respond to citizen concerns.

In subsequent months these delegates meet weekly or biweekly in each district to acquaint themselves with the technical criteria involved in requesting a project be brought to a district and to deliberate about the district’s needs. Representatives from the city’s departments participate according to their specialties. These intermediary meetings come to a close when, at a second regional plenary, regional delegates prioritize the district’s demands and elect councillors to serve on the Municipal Council of the Budget. The council is a 42-member forum of representatives of all the districts and thematic meetings. Its main function is to reconcile the demands of each district with available resources, and to propose and approve an overall municipal budget. The resulting budget is binding—the city council can suggest changes but not require them. The budget is submitted to the mayor who may veto it and remand it to the Municipal Council of the Budget, but this has never happened. If there are residual problems, the council works out changes, returning to their neighborhoods for feedback. The internet provides an ongoing vehicle for involvement in participatory budgeting, which the city now extends to city planning features like land use and long-term major investments. The city posts progress reports, budget updates, and a calendar of all meetings.

An important by-product of the participatory budgeting process is a burgeoning of civic activity. As participatory budgeting developed, the numbers of political, cultural, and neighborhood groups has doubled, especially in poorer districts where results of self-generated new city expenditures are remarkable. People in wealthier districts also like what’s going on. The value of their properties in poorer districts is rising. A new city “energy of accomplishment” spawned a campaign to get property owners to pay their taxes, and it worked.

A livable city
Porto Alegre is one of the most livable cities in Brazil. The experiment has spread to more than 100 cities in Brazil and also to Montevideo, Uruguay and Cürdoba, Argentina. Here are the words of participant Luis Carlos Pereira about the changes he’s seen in his neighborhood: Before participatory budgeting, “there was no sewer, school, health clinic, or transportation. Now, a reservoir has been built with 6 million liters of water, the streets have been paved, and a school opened.” Eloah dos Santos Alves, a white-haired woman from the Leste region of the city, says “I have participated in the participatory budgeting process since 1989. In general, 85 percent of the needs have been met. We have a recycling warehouse, schools, day cares, and medical clinics. And I would like to let everyone know that I have never been treated differently for not being part of the PT”—the Workers’ Party, whose candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected president of Brazil on October 27, 2002.

Leave a Reply