Lessons from Chicago’s 5th Ward “Participatory Budgeting” Might Work in One Neighborhood But Fail In Another
“It was kind of sad that more people weren’t involved,” said Kenneth Newman, a Jackson Park Advisory Council member, in a January 2014 Hyde Park Herald (Chicago’s 5th Ward) news article. “It was a potentially very good thing for the community. I don’t really blame Alderman Hairston for what she decided to do, because when it came time to vote, the community didn’t show up.”
Let’s face it: public budgets are complex animals, even at the community level. Some communities, however, are working hard to get citizens involved in the budgeting process, in some cases through a process known as “participatory budgeting,” or PB.
First, let’s step back and look at the history of participatory budgeting. Developed in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, participatory budgeting attracted up to 50,000 participants each year to decide as much as 20% of the city budget. Since that time, PB has become a much-acclaimed process and has spread to other cities around the globe.
PB isn’t a cookie-cutter success, however. Recently, participatory budgeting was used in Chicago with mixed reviews. In his recent blog post, “Learning From Chicago’s PB’s Challenges,” Roshan Bliss of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation demonstrates how an acclaimed process can be effective in one sector of city, yet fail in another part of the same city.
Participatory budgeting had been successful in two other Chicago wards. One had 1,400 people and another had 500 individuals involved. In Chicago’s 5th Ward, however, only 100 folks showed up. The population of each ward is about 53,000 residents, and each ward was given a “discretionary” allocation from the city budget. Ward 5 received $1 million in discretionary funds, so PB was used to get the community involved in deciding how to allocate the public dollars.
The meetings, however, weren’t well attended, were described as “cumbersome” by those who participated, and cost about $60,000 to coordinate. The sponsoring alderwoman, Leslie Hairston, questioned participatory budgeting’s effectiveness and decided to discontinue the 5th ward’s PB process.
Bliss writes that there were several other factors that may have contributed to PB’s demise in the 5th ward. Due to budget regulations, residents were only allowed to “spend” or suggest that money be spent on fixed assets, not services. The source of the money was bond money, and it couldn’t be used for anything other than infrastructure. According to the blog’s author, this restriction limited the creativity and restrained the participants.
Having worked for years with communities trying to participate in the government process, we here at Engaged Public can understand the frustration of the Chicago ward 5 participants, and that the constraints narrowed the possibilities for them. Even so, it is important that the exercise of public budgeting gives citizens a taste of governing, a greater awareness of the many mundane issues studied by elected officials, and insight into the hard and complex decisions that must ultimately follow.
No matter the method, Engaged Public is committed to informing Colorado residents about the complexities of their public budgets. In 2007, we developed our online budget simulation tool Backseat Budgeter to do just that – and not only in Colorado, but in any state, community or school. The Backseat Budgeter is just one of the many ways communities can get involved with their government budgeting process. Participatory budgeting, despite the mixed reviews, gives us yet another option to consider for achieving that goal.
03 Feb 2014