Is Participatory Budgeting Real Democracy?

Politics, People’s Choice Style in Chicago

Story by Anna Clark

Illustrations by Dennis de Groot

Published on

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

On a Tuesday evening in April, one of the first pleasant evenings in spring, more than sixty people crowded into a shabby second-floor room of a church on Chicago’s North Side. They threaded through rows of pink chairs and past long tables circling the room, some with poster board triptychs sitting stately upon them. Neighbors had pasted onto these boards visions for how to make the area, Rogers Park, a better place to live. Optimism and a hearty civic spirit brought the community together for this meeting.

But nothing seemed to be going right.

Alderman Joe Moore was running late. The bulb on the projector burned out; staff from the 49th Ward office were scampering to find a replacement. They had no luck. “We’ll just make do and get going,” said Sheree Moratto, chair of the PB49 Leadership Committee. A cheery woman with a mind for efficiency, she was looking a little flustered this evening. When the presentations finally began (25 minutes late) residents standing before a yawning blank screen made their pitches for the projects they spent all winter developing . Attendees paged through black-and-white printouts of the slideshow that never was, while presenters made passionate pleas for their pet projects.

Chris Kopp and his energetic young son Henry spoke for a bikes-and-transit committee, pitching new bus stop benches and a 27-block bike route running through Rogers Park. A parks committee proposed a new beachfront path and numerous other improvements for aging recreational areas. Speaking for the committee, Rebecca Weinberg introduced herself as a “mom to a two year old, so I’m obsessive about places to play.”

After a tough winter that produced awful potholes, and with menu money as the only source of funds for resurfacing residential streets, 35-year-old Glenn Grossklags begged his neighbors to spend on street repair.

“We’d love to have 100 percent, but we know we’re not going to get it,” he said, sounding a little world-weary.

There was some urgency to this: this week, on May 3, residents will vote for their favorite projects. The top vote-getters will become reality.

Rogers Park is a neighborhood known for its freshwater beaches, leafy residential streets and the Art Deco campus of Loyola University. It’s also home to the 49th Ward, the first U.S. city to put participatory budgeting into practice making the district a focal point for a radical experiment in direct democracy.

Drawing from a practice pioneered 25 years ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil and imported to North America via progressive leaders in Toronto and Quebec, participatory budgeting cracks open the closed-door process of fiscal decision-making in cities, letting citizens vote on exactly how government money is spent in their community. It’s an auspicious departure from traditional ways of allocating tax dollars, let alone in Chicago, which has long been known for deeply entrenched machine politics. As Alderman Joe Moore puts it, in Chicago, “so many decisions are made from the top down.”

Participatory budgeting works pretty simply in the 49th Ward. Instead of Moore deciding how to spend $1.3 million in “menu money” that is allotted annually to each of Chicago’s 50 council members for capital improvements, the councilman opens up a public process to determine how to spend $1 million of the allotment. The remaining $300,000 is socked away in the bank for emergencies and cost overruns.

And the unusual vote on $1 million in menu money is open to a wider swath of the community than your standard Election Day: you don’t have to be a citizen to cast a ballot, and the voting age is sixteen.

Thanks to the process, Rogers Park can now boast of a new community garden, dozens of underpass murals, heating shelters at three transit stations, hundreds of tree plantings, an outdoor shower at Loyola Park, a $110,000 dog park, and eye-catching “You Are Here” neighborhood information boards at transit station entrances.

In the years since Moore brought participatory budgeting to Rogers Park, four other Chicago districts have followed suit. Two of the wards dropped it after one year, citing the immense amount of work it takes to get residents involved, while the other two have kept at it, slow and steady. In the fall, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel signaled his commitment to keep the nascent movement alive, with the creation of a new position in City Hall’s Office of Management and Budget downtown. The new manager—not yet hired—will provide technical support to participatory budgeting efforts in the wards.

Communities elsewhere are adopting the process as well—about 1,200 of them globally, including nine city council districts in New York, the city of Vallejo, Calif., and three council districts in San Francisco, host to the third annual International Conference on Participatory Budgeting in September. (Chicago, naturally, hosted the conference in 2013.) New York Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on expanding participatory budgeting in the city, and when the process begins again next fall, it will have more than twice as many city council districts taking part in it— almost half of the city. Boston recently launched the first youth-driven participatory budgeting program in the country; based out of the mayor’s office and facilitated during after-school meetings (with pizza), young people will decide how to spend $1 million in capital funds.

Another prominent supporter of participatory budgeting? The White House. In December—about eight months after Joe Moore met with President Barack Obama about bringing participatory budgeting to the federal level—PB became an option for determining how to spend community development block-grant money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Obama administration also declared that, in a yet-to-be-detailed partnership, it will help create tools that can be used for participatory budgeting on a local level.

All this activity has so far added up to $45 million in tax dollars allocated to 203 voter-approved projects across the country. Some 46,000 people and 500 organizations nationwide have been part of the decision-making, according to the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project.

No doubt, it’s still a rather small sliver of the hundreds of billions spent each year by governments, but there are strong indications the number could multiply within just a few short years. And to many observers troubled by sinking voter turnout rates and endemic distrust of government, this is a very good thing.

“In the usual forms of democratic engagement—public hearings, town meetings—people who go to those things don’t expect anything to happen because of their participation,” said Archon Fung, a Harvard University professor who researches participatory governance. “Participatory budgeting is fundamentally different because people expect something to happen with their participation.”

But to fulfill this vision, the process needs resources behind it—enough funds for projects to demonstrate a visible community benefit, and ample capacity from the facilitators of the process (whether it’s district officials or city hall) to truly reach out to the community. Without intention and capacity, PB risks duplicating the process of elections for ordinary representative democracy, where white middle- and upper-class voters are far more likely to vote and therefore enjoy an outsized influence on their neighborhood.

Participatory budgeting has long seemed to be too utopian to work in cities—if it could work anywhere in America. But is the first wave of PB communities mainstreaming this radical process? And if the process catches on, will it live up to its promise of creating a fairer, more equitable and more direct democracy—or will it alienate the very people it means to engage?

Revolution, one library carpet at a time

In the tiny women’s bathroom of a bar in Rogers Park, the graffiti gets political. “Free Leonard Peltier!” is scrawled in magenta marker. “Ald. Joe Moore Sat Here,” suggests another line. And, put more plainly in purple marker, “Fuck Joe Moore.”

The afternoon bartender is a young woman in jeans and a long ponytail named Sydney. She said that Joe Moore “has definitely proven to be one of the more controversial” of the city’s alderman—enough so that she didn’t want her last name or the name of the bar to appear in print, for fear of her clientele’s reaction. Many love the longtime community leader who earned a reputation for his spirited progressivism, often going up against Mayor Richard M. Daley. He was the champion behind the 2006 Chicago Big Box Ordinance that compelled companies like Wal-Mart to pay a living wage, raising the minimum pay to $10 an hour. But those in the community who oppose him, Sydney said, feel he’s gotten too cozy with Mayor Emanuel. Indeed, while Moore voted with Daley 51 percent of the time, he’s voted with Emanuel 97 percent of the time.

“It’s really split down the middle,” Sydney said in a knowing tone. In 2007, Moore was forced into a run-off election, in which he scraped through by less than 300 votes. Shortly after this, Moore launched participatory budgeting in the ward. He reached out to Josh Lerner, who he’d seen present about it at a conference, to develop a workable process for the 49th Ward. Back then, when Lerner championed PB, he’d often hear that it was “fine for Brazil, Asia, Africa, but it couldn’t work here, it couldn’t work in a place like Chicago.”

Moore held his first participatory budget hearing in 2009. By the time he ran for office again in 2011, he was elected with 72 percent of the vote—barroom graffiti notwithstanding.

Alderman Joe Moore held his first participatory budgeting hearing in 2009, soon after being elected (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

The alderman apologized when he rushed late into the harried April meeting at St. Paul’s Church-by-the-Lake in Rogers Park. He’d been with his son on a college visit downstate. “I left early from Urbana-Champaign because I wanted to be sure to be here for this,” he told the crowd. Before the project presentations continued, Moore stood before the blank projector screen and rallied the group by putting the nitty-gritty of one suggested budget line item—library carpeting—in the context of a larger democratic revolution. “When this is adopted in governments across the nation, we’ll know it started here in the 49th ward,” Moore said. “We’re a part of history.”

But history is painstaking. In a series of neighborhood assemblies in the fall, the community broke into small groups with volunteer facilitators and brainstormed ideas for how it might spend the money this year. Green alleys came up again and again. Somebody wanted to see community composting in the neighborhood. But after a winter where voluntary community representatives researched and honed the most promising project ideas, the final proposals to the community look quite different. There will be no green alleys or community compositing sites on the ballot. Nonetheless, after whittling the wish-list down to what is affordable and doable, residents (and Moore’s office) feel they are presenting projects that will excite the community: geometric designs on the street surface of key intersections, brighter street lighting, a new mosaic on the field house of a park, and more everyday street repairs.

The fact that the money is limited to “touch-and-feel” capital projects—infrastructure, and not programming or operations, especially those that overlap with City Hall services—consistently confuses residents. “We can’t do big things, like renovating the wing of a school, the kinds of things that really ring people’s bells,” said Betsy Vandercook, Moore’s chief of staff who has been with the 49th Ward’s PB process since it began. She pointed out that this is an “accident of planning” with menu money in Chicago; PB money that comes from HUD block grants would likely be available for a more expansive array of projects. And indeed, the White House’s plan emphasizes that the federal dollars are intended to support affordable housing and services to vulnerable citizens.

Even as the countdown begins for this week’s PB vote, the limitations on spending still need to be explained to residents eager to propose things like after-school programs and help for the homeless.. And for some residents, like Sydney, the focus on capital projects makes the process, which she had never heard of before I mentioned it, feel moot. She, along with several other residents I talked to, feels that gang activity is the community’s greatest challenge. “Just in the last month, there were, like, four shootings,” she said. Free programming for young people that would keep them away from the violence, she says, is what would most benefit the community she’s lived in all her life. “Yeah, the murals are nice and give the neighborhood a good feel,” Sydney said, but, “as someone who lives up here, it’s just not what we need right now.”

Despite extensive outreach efforts, involvement in participatory budgeting skews towards white, middle- and upper-income home owners. (Photo credit: Joe Moore/Facebook)

It’s a weakness that advocates don’t deny.

“If I had $1 million to put towards jobs or programming, I’d have 5,000 people showing up for the vote, not to mention the community meetings,” Vandercook said. The story doesn’t end on voting day. To see the projects actualized, community members and Moore’s office must steer them through a tricky process that requires follow-through from understaffed city departments and utilities—which often must develop new guidelines for this unusual procedure. Few participatory budgeting projects in the 49th Ward emerge without delays and some are still caught in the bureaucratic process. But none have been outright canceled. “We try very hard to avoid putting anything on ballot that cannot be implemented,” Moore said.

Another point of contention? It’s not possible to invest, save, or build interest on this year’s menu money so that it can be funneled into a costlier high-impact project later on – a suggestion made at virtually every PB community meeting. The menu money comes through the city as bond-issue money, and the city keeps the investment income for itself. While menu money could roll over in previous years, Emanuel ended the practice; unspent money each year goes back into City Hall’s coffers.

Authentic Representation

Participatory budgeting works differently for every city. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the process was created a generation ago by The Worker’s Party to give disadvantaged people a stronger voice in government, as many as 50,000 people vote on how to spend public money each year. More than $700 million has been funneled through the process since its inception. Vallejo, Calif., embraced participatory budgeting in 2012 after emerging from bankruptcy as part of its citywide reinvention. In its first PB vote in May 2013, 3,917 residents voted over the course of a week at 13 polling locations. That translated into four percent of the city’s eligible voters—a tiny number, but a much higher percentage than previous PB processes in Chicago and New York.

But the 5th Ward in Hyde Park, a South Side neighborhood that’s home to the University of Chicago, dropped PB in December, citing low turnout in neighborhood assemblies and residents who felt the process was too much work to be worthwhile. “They said it was very time consuming, a lot of meetings, and that they thought the neighborhood groups that they had were active enough to do it without having all of the expenses that were associated with it,” Alderman Leslie Hairston told the Hyde Park Herald. In 2013, its first year with participatory budgeting, the 5th Ward held a PB vote that saw only 100 ballots cast.

Josh Lerner of the Participatory Budgeting Project says low turnout is a problem that can be solved through outreach and promotion. “It is challenging to do this without capacity,” he said. Internationally, according to Lerner, PB is part of a city administration, with a whole office coordinating the process. Without the backing from City Hall in Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting would have a hard time attracting the tens of thousands who now count themselves as part of the process. And even with the support from City Hall, the 50,000 participants represent less than one percent of the city’s population of 1.4 million.

Moore’s office is putting great effort toward ensuring that the participatory budgeting process in Rogers Park is indeed participatory. It hosts neighborhood assemblies and project expos throughout the community, including for students at the local high schools. It has a Spanish-language arm which, among other contributions, designed a project on this year’s ballot that would turn an abandoned basketball court into a mini AstroTurf soccer field for children.

This engagement takes effort and resources by Moore’s office, but it appears effective — the same year that the 5th Ward had 100 people turn up to vote, the 49th Ward had about 1,500 voters. “Slightly better than in the past,” Vandercook told me, as a result of a “major outreach push.” Chicago’s 46th Ward had more than 500 voters.

But there’s a lot of work to be done. Each Chicago ward has about 53,000 residents, meaning that less than three percent of the population turned out for the the PB vote in the 49th Ward (though that percentage doesn’t account for residents who are not eligible to vote because they are not yet 16.) For those that do show up, participation follows old patterns. Outreach or no, PB in Chicago still skews toward white residents who are middle- and upper-class, even though, in the 49th Ward, residents are about 30 percent Latino, 30 percent African American, 30 percent white and 10 percent Asian American. More than 80 languages are spoken in Moore’s district. You could argue that the Spanish-language assembly was a drop in the bucket.

Archon Fung observed that the U.S. versions of PB are very small compared to international versions, in terms of the money spent, so “it’s difficult for citizens to see positive outcomes, to be able to point to something and say, ‘Yeah, I’m proud of that, yeah, I had a role in that.’” That lack of visibility diminishes participation. “Wins are really important to sustaining the process and making it bigger,” Fung added.

Citizens of Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic voting on budget priorities in a 2012 participatory process. (AP Photo/The World Bank, Victoria Apolinario)

There is no question that a large gap in participation remains and that the outreach that could alleviate the problem costs money that simply isn’t available. Notably, when New York City introduced a PB process that modeled Chicago’s, it added a new element that empowered council members to provide grants for outreach efforts to nonprofits in low-income communities.

There are also other models for participatory budgeting that stretch and expand the pool of voters. Vandercook told me about a model where children—anyone old enough to talk—are allowed to vote alongside everyone else. The project expo would post drawings of the projects with buckets in front of them, so children can choose their favorites by dropping gold coins in them (“without chocolate, so they don’t eat the ballots.”)

“PB keeps on expanding the edges of what’s possible for voting,” Vandercook said. She pointed out that secret ballots and ID cards are relatively new developments in American voting. “The process has changed throughout history,” she said. “We used to have town meetings, where you had to stand by what you believed in.” This mirrors the template of the final PB voting day, which is a “very open and retro” process where people speak publicly about their choices.

Vandercook, for her part, says that they are trying to bring more people and more diversity into the process. The team circulates “thousands and thousands” of fliers about the neighborhood assemblies, she said, because it understands that not every resident relies on email. All information is bilingual, and if someone who is hearing impaired needs an interpreter at a meeting, they have one available. But at the same time, Vandercook said, “I refuse to beat myself up” about the diversity of participants. “You do what you can, but at a certain point you have to accept that this interests people, or it doesn’t.”

A recent report by the National League of Cities and Knight Foundation suggests that Moore’s office make better use of online tools in order to improve diverse participation in the process, something San Francisco is experimenting with. Foremost among the suggestions is to allow people to vote online, and to comment on how to improve proposed projects. The 49th Ward is venturing forward with online voting this year, with the support of Stanford University. At the April project expo in Rogers Park, a table was set up in back with a laptop where attendees could test the program out; researchers asked for feedback, and were tweaking it for actual use in this week’s early voting. Tanja Aitamurto, who hosted the pilot online vote, is a visiting researcher in the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. “The point is for residents to access it online a few weeks before (the vote) so people can play around, seeing how it works, without actually voting,” she said.

The report by National League of Cities and Knight also suggests using GIS mapping tools to help residents identify and visualize projects, as well as budget simulators so they can play with the dollars for their favorite projects. But of course, all these tools cost money, and they can’t replace face-to-face engagement—especially for a process that is so foreign to most residents.

Meanwhile, the 49th Ward is catching the attention of academics that want to watch this experiment in democracy unfold—and, in some cases, actively support its success. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute joined the Participatory Budgeting Project to raise $175,000 in funds and services for PB in Chicago, including the printing of ballots and flyers. They also provide a central person, not in the ward, to “do the grunt work: the phone calls, the emails, setting up the meetings,” said Vandercook. (Academic interest is also leading to documentation of the process: José Meléndez of UI Chicago and a PB49 leadership committee member, filmed the April project expo for his dissertation.)

“I think it’s going to be tough,” Vandercook said about expanding and improving participatory budgeting in the city, adding that the timing seems off for the citywide position. With an alderman election in 2015, the time that city leaders and staff can dedicate to launching the effort in their own communities—let alone doing so with an effective outreach plan—will be swiftly eaten up. In the long term, she said, participatory budgeting will work. But the short term will be a struggle.

“How can we work smarter?” Vandercook said. “Can we combine (neighborhood information) meetings to reduce the level of staff needed? Can we get the community to take more responsibility? … It’s huge work people have to do.”
But once residents take the responsibility, how does government ensure that their votes reflect true public needs? Park projects are unfailingly popular in PB communities. Last year in New York, for instance, more than half of the projects that won funding from voters were park and open-space projects, from the renovation of East Harlem basketball courts to the construction of ADA-compliant access ramps to Rockaway Beach. When the choice is between street repairs and a fun but not totally necessary park, do the repairs ever win? How does the dull-but-essential work win the heart of the masses?

The 49th Ward asks residents to vote on what percentage of the ward’s menu money should be spent on resurfacing streets. (Photo credit:Joe Moore/Facebook)

The 49th Ward learned this the hard way: residents aren’t likely to vote for street resurfacing projects, unless they happened to live on the street in question. And as Glenn Grossklags emphasized, if resurfacing isn’t done through menu money, it isn’t done. So last year, the 49th Ward refashioned its ballot. Voters don’t just choose their favorite projects among the 20 proposals, they also vote for what percentage of the menu money should be allotted to street resurfacing and street lighting across the community. If most voters choose 50%, then $500,000 of the menu will be spent on maintenance. The remaining $500,000 will be given over to the top vote-getting projects. It’s a compromise that returns some discretionary power to the elected official but keeps public will at the forefront of the decision-making.

Open Invitation

So what’s next for participatory budgeting in Rogers Park and beyond?

Well, first off, Rahm Emanuel’s new Manager of Participatory Budgeting will be responsible for supporting council districts if and when they opt to go participatory. There won’t be a requirement to do so, but if a district wishes to follow the 49th, they will have high-level backup from City Hall.

But this new manager—as well as Chicago’s aldermen and engaged citizens—must understand that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for participatory budgeting. The process must be adapted to the unique needs and culture of each district if it is to resonate with locals. And timing is key for rolling out the process.

While still in the hazy early days, federal support through the new White House initiative may also prove crucial in streamlining the participatory budgeting process, easing the burden on local leaders and citizens, and ultimately generating better participation—and, therefore, better on-the-ground results in communities around the country.

One of the key lessons of participatory budgeting—as with democracy more broadly—is that efficiency is not the highest value in the public sphere. It would be much easier and more cost-effective for aldermen to return to the old days and simply check off the boxes for where he or she thinks menu money should be spent. “We could sign off on menu money in a couple hours, a couple days,” Vandercook said. By choosing the participatory path, aldermen effectively create more work for themselves. They risk low rates of participation and the possibility that winning projects may not be the most worthy. Scalability, too, is a problem — the larger the community served by the process, the more difficult it is to ensure that both the process and the resulting projects reflect the needs of the entire community.

Nonetheless, participatory budgeting serves a harder-to-measure purpose that may well be, in the final accounting, more important. It is a profound civic education for citizens, who dig into both the limits and possibilities of public money. They experience what their elected leaders must navigate every day. But it’s also a civic education for council members and city staff who may find that they are engaging with those they represent more than they ever had before, learning about what they value most. Owen Brugh, chief of staff for Alderman Joe Arena in Chicago’s 45th Ward, told the Participatory Budgeting Project, “I was really surprised by the amazing knowledge base we have among our volunteers. So many of our volunteers came to the process with a background where they understood some principles of traffic management, community development and urban planning. It was very refreshing. Usually, in an alderman’s office, people contact us to fix an isolated problem. Through this process, we discussed not just what needed to be fixed but what we wanted our community to be.”

The participatory budgeting process expands the scope and depth of civic spaces in the community, where elected leaders work with—not for—residents. Even for those who do not show up to vote, there is an empowerment that comes simply in knowing that they could; the sincere invitation to participate matters, whether or not it is accepted.

Voting has already begun in Rogers Park: early ballots began being cast on April 26. But it is Saturday when residents will head over to the Chicago Math and Science Academy on Clark Street between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.. to choose what matters most to them. At an evening party, they will announce and celebrate the results. Residents who put time and energy into developing projects over the winter will be watching the results come in with special nervousness. Robin McPherson, a 29-year-resident on the parks committee, has her heart set on a water spray feature at Pottawattomi Park. “I’ve seen our parks in the past, our parks now and our parks in the future,” she said, with real enthusiasm. “This is our future.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Elle Magazine, the New York Times, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of THE POISONED CITY: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books in 2018.

Follow Anna .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Dennis de Groot is an illustrator whose distinctive style is characterized by reducing subjects to simple forms and colors. Strongly influenced by contemporary pop culture, his work aims to explore the line between recognition and detail. In 2011 he published his first book “Bare Essentials”, a collection of pop culture illustrations, with Lebowski Publishers. Most recently, he collaborated with apparel brand Lacoste on two exclusive shirts for their Fall/Winter 2013-14 Kids collection. Dennis resides in Amsterdam with his wife Sherisa, son Seiji and their cat Pixel.

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1104 other sustainers such as:

  • Bianca in Philadelphia, PA at $120/Year
  • Naomi at $10/Month
  • Melanie in Seattle, WA at $10/Month

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉