Budgets are the tangible manifestation of policy. The phrase, “Put your money where your mouth is”, could not be any truer of the way in which budgetary decisions drive policies that directly impact the lives of residents/constituents/communities. Municipal leadership must take note – in an age of democratization of technology and information, democratization of decision-making should be the inevitable next step . One of the hallmarks of serving as an elected official is the notion that that individual is operating for the sole purpose of serving the needs of his or her constituents. And yet, it seems that so much of the cynicism that has developed around political leadership centers on the notion of back-room deals, political and personal connections, and complete lack of transparency in the decisions that directly impact the lives of residents.
Participatory budgeting has become a hot topic as of late – focusing attention on how individuals can ensure their voice is part of the decision-making process particularly around how public funds are spent. The process was first developed for the municipal budget in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989. As many as 50,000 people have participated each year, to decide as much as 20% of the city budget. Since 1989 there are now over 1,500 participatory budgets around the world. The process is fairly simple (though it varies depending on where it’s implemented):
* Residents brainstorm spending ideas
* Volunteer budget delegates develop proposals based on these ideas
* Residents vote on proposals
* Government implements the top projects
Participatory budgeting is one way municipal leaders can demonstrate good faith in truly catering to the needs of the “ordinary people” that live in the communities they serve. Moreover, it certainly should not be construed as a tool only for large cities. It can be equally effective in small towns, townships, and counties who are looking for ways to more effectively engage residents in civic life. Indeed, I argue this tool should exist particularly in smaller and rural municipalities where it may be more difficult to connect with residents.
In Chicago, 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore spearheaded the process in 2009. It’s now been implemented in 4 wards. Last week, Chicago also hosted the 2nd international Participatory Budgeting Conference where they discussed this emerging tool and its potential expansion.
A note for small or cash-strapped municipalities:
Participatory budgeting can still be an effective tool even if your municipality does not have a significant budget. It doesn’t require a new pot of money, just a change to how existing budget funds are decided. Most projects to date have dealt with as little as 1% to as much as %15 of a municipality’s overall budget. It’s also possible to mix in various other types of funding from other entities such as foundations and corporations. Ultimately, how much money needed depends on what the money will be used for.
Check out this article for a helpful guide on how to start participatory budgeting in your municipality.
After all I’ve just described, the participatory budgeting process may seem like a magic bullet – however, it’s not without its flaws, or its critics. In some areas, critics have pointed out the lack of adequate community engagement or the fact that the process favors only those individuals from certain racial or socioeconomic groups.
In later posts, I will explore the ins and outs of the participatory budget process and how it unfolds. I’ll explore some of the challenges and weaknesses that I’ve observed in the way it’s been implemented so far and I’ll also engage several municipalities on the possibilities for implementation. For now, I can say that I’m excited about the proliferation of this tool! Democratization of decision-making is the way forward!