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Learning from Chicago’s PB Challenges

Participatory budgeting (“PB” for short) is an innovative form of empowered public engagement that has started proliferating in parts of Chicago, New York and California due to the leadership and hard work of one of our organizational members, the Participatory Budgeting Project.

PB is a process through which ordinary residents decide how to allocate government funds. Residents identify possible projects that could be funded, research them and develop them further, and then decide through a popular vote how to allocate the funds.

Initially developed in Brazil in the late ’80s, PB is finally picking up steam in the U.S. As part of its Second Open Government National Action Plan, the White House singled out PB as a promising practice in public participation, and has committed to work with key partners to increase awareness about PB and to support communities that are interested in launching PB processes.

PB has enjoyed a lot of success and recognition over the past few years, but the process has also faced some interesting challenges that those in our field should be aware of.  A recent article in the Hyde Park Herald tells the story of how one Chicago ward’s PB process ran into such challenges, and unfortunately was discontinued.

As a group committed to the growth of public engagement in meaningful decisions about our communities, we want to see PB and other public engagement processes continue to expand and thrive. But while it was disappointing news to hear, we believe Chicago’s 5th Ward provides a case study from which we can draw a few key lessons. One of the first challenges to the 5th Ward’s process is presented at the beginning of the article:

Hyde Parkers met Ald. Leslie Hairston’s decision not to continue the 5th Ward’s participatory budgeting (PB) program this year with a mixed reaction.

The 5th Ward’s experiment with PB — a political process born in Brazil in the late ’80s, in which constituents decide how their district’s money is spent — was the first on the South Side. A series of meetings took place beginning in 2012 and culminated with a public vote last May on how to spend $1 million of the 5th Ward’s discretionary funds.

Although Hairston said the program will be assessed next year, she said earlier this month that it was discontinued on the heels of a monthly ward meeting last October, where some participants described the process as cumbersome.

“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,” Hairston said.

We added the emphasis to the last sentence because this is an important idea for us to retain: like many engagement processes, PB is a lot of work for the sponsors, organizers, and citizens involved, and they can be more successful if they tap into already-existing community organizations to help get that work done.

Maybe it’s obvious to some of us, but PB needs buy-in from many parts of a given community, and a commitment to share the work load or the costs is one of the most genuine kinds of buy-in we can get.

The decisions about which existing community organizations to involve need to be made on a case-by-case basis, but in general, we should be looking to engage such groups as early as possible about actively contributing to a PB process, and even creating plans for outreach to these kinds of groups before we get started. Substantial participation from established groups will strengthen the process and signal its credibility to local residents.

The second insight we are taking away is similarly straightforward: low turnout can kill the PB process.

A news brief dated May 8, entitled “5th Ward Participatory Budgeting Process Wins High Marks,” framed voter turnout as historic despite the fact that just over 100 people voted… But last year’s process won’t be repeated this year, because of a low voter turnout and financial cost that led Hairston to question its effectiveness…

Hyde Parkers’ reactions to the program’s end ranged from understanding to disappointment — to both. “The turnout of approximately 100 was extremely disappointing,” said Roger Huff, a co-chair on the 5th Ward’s participatory budgeting leadership committee… “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.”

Clearly, numbers matter in PB. In many public participation projects, turning out large numbers of people is important, and finding effective practices for doing that is a perennial issue in our field. But a key part of what we think is important here is that sustaining those numbers matters more.

Long-term community participation and buy-in is what makes PB work, and without a plan to cultivate and continue to engage a broad base of participants, the process can start to unravel. In addition to focusing on turnout from our communities, the 5th Ward’s case also highlights the fact that we may also need to pay attention to turnout in neighboring communities.

Chicago’s 5th Ward is not the only area of town where PB has caught on:

…the [5th] ward’s approximately 100 voters were dwarfed by more than 500 in the 46th Ward and around 1,400 in the 49th Ward, where PB was also available.

In some respects, this dynamic of the 5th Ward’s story suggests that it may be possible to become victims of our own success – if PB participants from one area of town see that the participation from their neighbors in other communities is dwarfing their own, it may impact the morale of the group and, ultimately, participation levels.

We aren’t pretending to know the solution to this issue, and maybe this wasn’t actually a factor in the 5th Ward’s situation. But it strikes us as a consideration that could end up bearing fruit if it is creatively accounted for. (If you have a creative suggestion on this front, please let us know in the comments section!) Another piece of the article brings us to one of our last takeaways from the 5th Ward’s experience: flexibility with the way money can be spent is key.

Although he applauds Hairston for her decision to open up the budgeting process to others, [Hyde Parker Alon Friedman] says certain changes could have been made — such as starting the process earlier — or using part of the $1.3 million in discretionary funding on related costs.

This is currently impossible, however, according to project coordinator [and NCDD member] Maria Hadden, of the New York City-based Participatory Budgeting Project, a nonprofit which has worked as a project lead for Chicago’s wards and similar processes nationwide.

She says Chicago wards’ discretionary funds can only be spent on fixed assets, not services. “The menu money is bond money, and it cannot be used for anything other than infrastructure,” Hadden said.

This kind of problem – older laws on the books undercutting newer attempts at public engagement – is hugely frustrating for our field in general, and it’s why NCDD supports the recommendations of the Making Public Participation Legal report around revising our legal statutes to remove barriers to effective public engagement processes. (Learn more about the report and our involvement here.)

It seems clear that the Chicago PB processes only being allowed to spend money on projects that are legally considered “infrastructure” limits the participants’ creativity and the possibilities for how PB money can be spent – something that can hurt morale and possibly thwart a community’s willingness to engage in such an involved process altogether. Altering the laws the govern such decisions may or may not be a simple thing to do, but as in many situations like this, it could unlock a lot of the potential for the kind of transformative change that real public engagement can bring.

The last thing we are taking away from this article – mentioned multiple times in the article – is advice that we all sometimes have trouble following: start early.

“We should reconsider and maybe try it again next year, much, much earlier,” he added, perhaps in the summer. “I think that if we do that we have a good chance to succeed and get many more people in voting for the projects.”

“The early bird gets the worm,” as they say, and though it’s an annoying cliche, it remains true: the more time we have to plan and generate buy-in, the more effective our engagement processes will be. Our project schedules are constantly pushed and pulled by funding limitations, busy schedules, and lots of variables we often can’t control, but as much as we can, we should always be trying to get working as early as possible.

So while it is disappointing to see the 5th Ward’s PB process discontinued, we think it is a good learning opportunity for the rest of us that could make our efforts stronger in the end. But we also remain optimistic that PB can make a comeback in the 5th Ward eventually, and that it could come back stronger than ever.

We wish everyone involved the best of luck, and we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on Chicago’s public engagement processes as it continues to pioneer new practices and provide new lessons.

You can find and read the original Hyde Park Herald article here: www.hpherald.com/2014/01/15/low-turnout-blamed-for-participatory-budgeting-ending. Also see NCDD supporting member Janice Thomson‘s insightful blog post on how and why Occupy Roger’s Park members have protested PB in Chicago.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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  1. […] 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 […]

  2. Roshan Bliss says:

    Thanks so much for sharing the post! As a Denver resident, I’ve been following Engaged Public’s work, and am looking forward to seeing what’s next!

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