Up until recently, it had never been attempted in the United States. Now, people in Greensboro are starting to organize what would be the largest — and second —project of its kind in the nation.
Participatory budgeting isn’t a new idea.
The city of Porto Alegre in Brazil first implemented the citizen-driven budgeting process in 1989, and since then more than 1,200 cities around the world have followed suit. Now up to 50,000 residents in Porto Alegre vote on proposals directly, which determines how 20 percent of the city budget is allocated.
In 2009, Chicago alderman for the 49th Ward Joe Moore helped launch the first participatory budgeting project in the United States, opening up $1.3 million in discretionary funds to his constituents. People in nine different neighborhood assemblies helped create proposals for specific capital improvement funding uses related to transportation, public safety, parks, art and more.
After learning about the process in Chicago and elsewhere, a small group of people connected to the Fund for Democratic Communities began working to see if a similar project was feasible here.
“I think it could change some of the dynamics in the city that are really negative and are causing problems,” said Dave Reed, the fund’s participatory budgeting project coordinator. “In order for this to be really successful it has to be a base organizing effort throughout the entire city. If we’re able to do this, we’ll be the only city that’s been able to do it on a large scale in the United States.”
Reed said local conservatives and liberals have both expressed dissatisfaction with the city’s budgeting process, and involving people in the decision-making process could alleviate part of the problem.
“It allows people to interact with their government in a much more direct way,” Reed said. “You’re going to be paying these taxes whether the process is participatory or not. Residents should have more control about how the money is spent.”
In the past two months, the fund has helped set up three different events aimed at educating people about participatory budgeting and gauging interest in the idea. Most recently, they held an informational and brainstorming session on June 14 at the downtown public library. Among the roughly 20 attendees was at-large Guilford County Commissioner Paul Gibson.
“I see one of the biggest benefits out of this is a [connection] between council members or elected officials and constituents,” Gibson said afterwards. “I think sometimes we just sort of take them for granted during budgeting issues. We certainly listen to them... but to actually have a formal process like this would be very interesting. The bottom line is it’s their money.”
Gibson, like others at the June 14 meeting, pointed out that Chicago alderman Moore had discretionary funds available to turn over to constituents while it is unclear exactly where funds would come from for a project locally.
The goal initially would likely be to designate a very small percent of the city budget to a participatory process, ideally working up over time toward a percentage closer to Porto Alegre but maybe only reaching 5 or 10 percent, said fund cofounder Marnie Thompson.
The challenges aren’t limited to identifying exactly where the money can come from.
The other major task, said Reed and others, is doing the necessary broad-based outreach and education so people understand and participate in any process that is established. And Greensboro also differs from Chicago’s 49 th Ward in size: all of the city’s five council districts have more people than the 49 th Ward.
Despite the obstacles, a small but growing group of residents plans to push the process forward because they feel the challenges are surmountable and the benefits are many. As Reed explained at the recent meeting, participatory budgeting is considered to have numerous benefits, including making government more accountable and efficient, connecting politicians and their constituents, a more democratic process, and strengthening the community.
Alderman Moore can measure the benefits in another way, too. Participatory budgeting is wildly popular with his constituents, who narrowly reelected him before the process began but gave him a landslide 72 percent victory in the following election.
The benefits don’t end there. Thompson said residents, including her, often advocate for specific things to receive funding during budgeting but don’t have to consider the tradeoffs. She said participatory budgeting would teach people to look at the bigger picture and take responsibility, potentially avoiding some of the problems of voting around bonds where voters don’t consider proposals in context. Reed echoed similar sentiments.
“People are going to have to learn about what it costs to run a city,” Reed said. “I think it can be a tool to get people involved in the government and understand how it works but also build stronger ties between people.”
According to a possible timeline distributed during the informational and brainstorming session, neighborhood assemblies would form in the fall to identify needs and spending priorities before choosing delegates to represent them.
In the beginning of 2012, those delegates would collaborate with experts to create specific proposals to address those needs and determine how much each would cost. In order to line up with the preexisting electoral process, public voting would ideally happen in May 2012 and then go to City Council for approval.
Reed emphasized that the project is still in the beginning phases and encouraged anyone who is interested to contact them or sign up for their email list through the fund website.
Organizers acknowledge the plan is ambitious, but state it appeals across the political spectrum and to most people they’ve spoken with. The idea has at least stayed in Gibson’s mind.
“I’m much intrigued by [this] process,” he said. “I tried to think about how [participatory budgeting] would work with the board of county commissioners. I really do want to stay connected.”