Data from the People's Budget Chicago Credit: Anna Jo Beck

The last year has seen a call to defund the Chicago police and reallocate funds to mental health and community services. And while that call has not been answered, it has placed the city’s budget under a magnifying glass. Residents want to have a say in where the money goes and participatory budgeting is a process that gives them that power.

So, what really is participatory budgeting?

According to Participatory Budgeting Chicago (PB Chicago), a coalition of aldermen, city agencies, community organizations, and residents based out of the University of Illinois Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, “Participatory budgeting is democracy in action.” While “budgeting” may be in the name, the actual process isn’t so much about the budget as it is about engaging with and listening to residents, and creating a government that reflects their wants and needs.

An abridged history

Participatory budgeting began in Brazil in 1989, when residents of the city of Porto Alegre voted on how to spend the mayor’s budget to address community needs. Today over 3,000 PB projects exist globally, mostly at the municipal, county, and city levels. The United Nations has even promoted participatory budgeting “as a best practice of democratic governance.”

In 2009, former 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore became the first elected official to conduct participatory budgeting in the United States. He worked with researchers from The New School and Brown University, as well as Josh Lerner and Gianpaolo Baiocchi, who founded the Participatory Budgeting Project that same year.

Since then, multiple participatory budgeting projects have been implemented in Chicago. In 2012, UIC’s Great Cities Institute created their own participatory budgeting research-based project which works with aldermen to implement the process in their wards. In 2020, Chicago United for Equity created the People’s Budget Chicago and went to neighborhoods to educate residents on the budget.

Who gets to decide where your dollars go?

The mayor presents her budget every year and the City Council has to vote on it by December 31. The mayor only needs a majority (26 votes) to pass the budget.

Last year at the end of August, after months of police clashing with protesters, the city’s Office of Budget and Management released a survey, which asked residents where they wanted to allocate funds in the 2021 budget. Out of the 38,000 respondents, 90 percent said they were in favor of reallocating funds from one part of the budget to another, and 87 percent of those respondents said they wanted them to come from CPD’s budget.

In a historic move, 21 of Chicago’s 50 aldermen voted against the mayor’s budget. It was the first time a budget had been so heavily opposed in 30 years. While residents didn’t see their desires reflected in the budget, the survey didn’t leave any doubts about where Chicago’s residents wanted their money to go.

The five steps of participatory budgeting

Participatory budgeting follows the same five-step process, which is meant to promote and engage community input.

Step 1: Idea collection

Idea collection can take place online, at community events, or through posted flyers—whatever encourages community members to put forth their ideas.

Step 2: Project development

The ideas then have to be vetted and researched for cost and feasibility. Projects are then placed on a ballot.

Step 3: Community presentation

Every project on the ballot must then be presented to community members at expos where the people behind the idea explain how the projects were formed and answer any questions.

Step 4: Vote

In Chicago, ward residents ages 14 and older are eligible to vote in person or online for the projects they want developed.

Step 5: Project construction

The winning project is constructed and implemented. Residents get to see their desires actually realized in their community.

What does participatory budgeting in Chicago look like right now?

Last year, Chicago United for Equity launched People’s Budget Chicago, which partnered with community organizations to educate residents on how the budget works and then asked them where they thought the money should go. In the fall, the group traveled to at least nine south and west side communities on a bus tour. Using the Childhood Opportunity Index to define areas that face the most disinvestment, they selected the neighborhoods that they believed would not be represented in the city’s survey (45 percent of the survey respondents were from the north side, 15 percent from the northwest side, and 10 percent from the Loop).

At each stop, community members created their own budget by allocating $100 among six different categories: health, education, housing, infrastructure, community resources, and the carceral system (police). After residents finished making their own budgets (by placing colorful tokens on a large board with each of the six categories), they compared it to the city’s 2020 budget. The budgets illustrated a stark contrast between what Chicagoans said they needed and what the city was currently allocating funds toward. In a simplified version of the budget, the city spends $4 on health, $10 on education, $4 on housing, $23 on infrastructure, $24 on community resources, and $36 on carceral systems.

While People’s Budget seeks to engage and educate about the city budget, UIC’s Great Cities Institute focuses on a smaller budget: aldermanic menu money. Since 2012, as a part of the Capital Improvement Program (CIP), every year each of Chicago’s 50 wards is allotted $1.32 million in menu money to be spent on infrastructure projects.

That same year, UIC’s Great Cities Institute founded PB Chicago which works with aldermen to implement participatory budgeting for this menu money. PB Chicago currently partners with nine aldermen, including current 49th Ward alderwoman Maria Hadden. She first learned of PB as a constituent of the ward in 2009. She saw a sign advertising a volunteer opportunity to come help the alderman decide how to spend $1 million.

“So I went to the first meeting and they described what PB was and how we were going to use it to spend aldermanic menu funds,” said Hadden. “All of it was new to me, but it sounded like the way I thought democracy was supposed to work.”

She was drawn to participatory budgeting and in 2010, she cofounded the Participatory Budget Project. Since then she has worked to implement PB across the nation. Now with a decade’s worth of PB experience under her belt, Hadden is taking the extra step to implement this democratic process in her own ward.

Due to a strong positive response last year, Hadden implemented an additional component in the process: a committee for policies and programs. The projects from this committee are not eligible for menu money, but instead provide Hadden with a curated agenda for both the ward and the city. “We’ve used PB this year to expand and to tap into all that interest, all that community creativity and energy, and to look at how we can help develop that into participatory policymaking and participatory planning.”

Where else is participatory budgeting happening?

While Chicago may have been the first city in America to implement PB, other cities across the country have also implemented the process.

In 2011, four New York City council members asked constituents to decide how to spend $1 million in capital discretionary funds. In 2019, 33 out of 51 council members conducted PB processes in their districts, giving residents the power to decide how to allocate at least $35 million in capital funding. These funds go to physical infrastructure projects that benefit the public, cost at least $50,000, and have a lifespan of at least five years. Projects include local improvements to schools, parks, libraries, public housing, streets, and other public spaces.

Los Angeles operates similarly to Chicago in that it has a People’s Budget, which is a coalition led by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. Something that sets it apart, however, is its network of neighborhood councils. There are over 90 councils that each represent tens of thousands of LA residents. The councils are a part of the city government and its volunteer members are elected. Members of councils act as point people for educating and collecting feedback about the city’s budget and how constituents want the city’s dollars to be spent.

While Minneapolis does encourage participation in the city budget, possibly its most compelling example of PB in action is Parks and Power. Parks and Power is a grassroots organization that fights for equity and justice in Minneapolis’s park system and seeks to gain public control over the parks budget. In 2019, in preparation for the 2020 budget cycle, the group created a Minneapolis Park Board Budget and Funding Explainer. The explainer breaks down the funding and revenue for Minneapolis parks and provides a useful glossary of terms.

How does participatory budgeting serve the public and help governments make decisions?

Participatory budgeting gives people a say in how public funds will be spent. It creates a space for people to think and learn about how government works.

“It does change the way that money is spent. [Researchers] have found that citizens select policy priorities that are different from how governments traditionally allocate resources,” said Thea Crum, the associate director of the neighborhoods initiative at UIC’s Great Cities Institute. “Allocations do really reflect the interests of participating citizens, usually poor and more low-income citizens, and so having a sense of what the needs are on the ground, and being able to align them to create more effective policy and program spending, is I think something that most governments are really interested in.”

Dissatisfaction and distrust in government often comes when a community’s needs are not met. PB offers an opportunity to rebuild trust, at least at the local level. According to Crum, public administration research has also found that participatory programs actually increase the effectiveness of policy and efficiency of government and create new and beneficial relationships between elected officials and city agencies and residents.

“It’s not going to happen in the first year, but over time, with the increase in transparency and accountability that happens through participatory budgeting, you see that people not only learn, but begin to actually trace where the money is going and see where the ideas are coming from.”

Those increases in transparency can lead to greater trust in how government spends resources. “Normally, the alderman decides on their own in the way that they think is best. And now we’re going to actually have a process that’s democratic, that provides space for meaningful community engagement and then ultimately, make sure that community has decision-making power,” said Hadden. “We need to maybe take a departure from making the same type of decisions that have led us not to the best reforms in different areas. Processes like participatory budgeting have a lot to offer.”   v

This story was published with support from theSolutions Journalism Network.