Participatory budgeting expands to four Chicago wards

October 3, 2012

On Wednesday, Chicago inched forward with an experiment in direct democracy: In a process dubbed participatory budgeting, residents in four wards will now have power over how their corner of the city spends some government money.

Every year, aldermen are given $1.32 million in so-called “menu money” that can be used for infrastructure improvements – new street lights, better bike lanes, spruced up playgrounds, etc.

The money is normally spent at the alderman’s discretion, but four aldermen – Leslie Hairston (5th ), John Arena (45th), James Cappleman (46th) and Joe Moore (49th) – will now let their wards vote on how to spend $4 million of that money in the coming year. (Previously, alderman could roll these funds over into the following year, but in February, Mayor Rahm Emanuel implemented a new “use it or lose it” version of the system.)

Participatory budgeting – letting voters decide how to prioritize and spend budget money – came out of the leftist workers’ rights movement in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and has since spread to cities and municipalities all over the world. Ald. Moore was exposed to the idea when he attended the World Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007. “I think I was the only politician in the entire conference,” he joked after a press conference earlier today.

Under Moore, the 49th ward was the first in Chicago – and the first municipality in the country – to try participatory budgeting in 2009. In the three years since, 49th ward residents have voted through a dozen or so projects.

In 2012, they opted to plant 100 trees in one portion of the neighborhood, fix sidewalks and commission a series of underpass murals. They selected these particular projects from a slate of options that made it to the final round but were not funded, like creating a shared bike lane on a portion of Clark Street and building improved pedestrian crossings at four intersections of Ridge Boulevard.

Last year, Moore invited his fellow aldermen to a briefing to try to convince them to give participatory budgeting a shot in their wards. Of the 49 invited, only about 10, including the three aldermen who’ve actually committed to this process, expressed interest. “It’s counterintuitive for any elected official who works really hard to get into a position where they have power to surrender that power willingly,” Moore said. But, he added, letting go of some power has benefitted him. “Ultimately it made me more popular among my constituents,” he said.

The aldermen who are taking part, though, seemed excited to be doing so. “I committed to transparency and accountability when I came into office,” said Arena. “I’m really excited about the prospect of community building . . . how it’s going to bring people into the process, open them up and get them involved in their city government.” 

The participatory budgeting process will take about eight months this time around, starting with ward meetings that begin next week and culminating in a vote in May. UIC’s Great Cities Institute and the New York-based non-profit Participatory Budgeting Project are helping govern the expanded process in Chicago. PBP’s woman on the ground is Maria Hadden, a 49th ward resident who has participated in PB here since 2009 and who describes herself as “classic community member turned participatory budgeting proselytizer.”  

Hadden was doing community organizing around housing issues in Rogers Park when she first learned about PB in 2009. She had been frustrated by the lack of control residents seemed to have over even the most basic issues when she saw a flier advertising a PB meeting. “It was one of those light bulb moments for me,” she said. “It sounded like really basic democracy to me – how things should be done.” She said that even though the $4 million total is only a small fraction of the city’s overall budget, the process has been worthwhile for her and her community. “I got to know a lot of my neighbors, I learned about infrastructure budgets and how my ward office works,” she said. “These weren’t things I thought I cared about but it was really empowering.”

Hadden said the community meetings will be facilitated by a Chicago steering committee made up of the aldermen and his or her staff; one or two community members from each ward recommended by the alderman; members of the Participatory Budgeting Project and UIC’s Great Cities Institute; and non-profit groups like the Active Transportation Alliance and the Grassroots Collaborative.

Each ward will form a “leadership committee,” a group of residents and other stakeholders who will take the general guidelines established by PBP and make them work for each ward. They’ll set up “neighborhood assemblies,” regular bi-weekly meetings that any ward stakeholder can attend. Then they’ll use the meetings to generate and sort through ideas that could later end up on the ballot.

Roger Huff, a Hyde Park resident who has volunteered to serve on the 5th ward’s leadership committee, is excited about the possibilities PB may bring – and not just to what he calls “the obvious things” like pothole repair, street signage and the like. “What I found interesting, especially looking at the 49th ward ballot, is that people come up with all sorts of unusual things,” he said. In 2009, for example, a proposal made its way on to the ballot to test out the possibility of ward wide Wi-Fi, although it didn’t garner enough votes to win funding and the city expressed concern with how the plan might conflict with its own Wi-Fi plans.

Huff is also excited about how he hopes this process will bring together disparate parts of his ward: The 5th ward has portions of Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore and Grand Crossing, and Huff said each of those neighborhoods is represented on the leadership committee.

Residents won't have to live in the ward to take part in these initial meetings, or the process at large; PBP’s Hadden said that they’re looking, roughly, for anyone who “lives, works or goes to school” in the ward. The question of whether or not to have a residency requirement has been especially interesting given the ward redistricting earlier this year. With boundaries redrawn and Chicago’s jigsaw puzzle of a ward map still in place, “ward boundaries don’t always represent stakeholders,” Hadden said. Strikingly, any ward resident over the age of 16 – including non-citizens – can vote on the projects come May.

But even projects voted in can still face complications. While many of the projects approved in the 49th ward in the last three years have been completed, others are still pending — sometimes because the estimated cost of the project went up after it was already approved. This was the case, for example, for a pedestrian signal that was supposed to go up at Clark Street and Chase voted in by 49th ward residents in 2010. It’s just one of the complications that can arise when the idealism of direct democracy confronts the practical reality of governance (as this 2010 story by the Reader’s Deanna Isaacs makes clear).

Ward meetings start next week. Here is the list of meetings announced so far, if you want to take part in the expanded experiment. 

Update: This story has been corrected to indicate that participatory budgeting began in Brazil in 1989.