A Different Look at Participatory Budgeting: Realistic Possibilities for Neighborhood Engagement and Equity

By Sue Pastor — Under the umbrella of “Greater Madison Engaged,” a number of groups brought area residents and public officials together in May for a day of conversation about civic engagement. Awareness seems to be increasing that our “technologies” for participation, such as the classic three-minute comment at public meetings, do not produce a swarm of residents eager to contribute—and have not produced a landscape of equal opportunity in our community. A variation on participatory budgeting may be a way to address the intersection of public participation and equity, with a goal of equitable participation toward more equitable outcomes.

A perhaps unrecognized strength (opportunity) on this terrain is the structure of existing neighborhood associations. There are involved Madison residents—people who contribute their time, uncompensated, to neighborhood associations. Associations have a quasi-official status, in that the city looks to associations to communicate with residents, and residents are at a disadvantage in the absence of one.

For example, where there is no active neighborhood association, developers may not be required to inform or consult with residents about planned changes to their environment. Neighborhoods that are adept at organizing festivals, block parties, art walks, and garage sales, may prove adept at organizing for other reasons. Where there have not been active associations, people may be interested in forming them, if the association provides access to deliberative processes around decisions that matter.

Recognizing this, as well as our weaknesses—aka challenges (what one sees in looking at our records on equity and public participation with no rose-colored glasses)—participatory budgeting could be one tool toward a culture of involvement. This culture should not be simply for its own sake; efforts toward it should clearly communicate the responsibility of every neighborhood to achieve equity—in the immediate environment, and at the level of the city. And in light of this, resources cannot be distributed evenly—because doing so will exacerbate the existing inequalities.

At the kick off panel to “Greater Madison Engaged”, Will Green of Mentoring Positives and Off the Block Salsa poignantly highlighted (paraphrased here) the difference between life in the developing urban playground that is Capitol East, and life in the Darbo neighborhood, asking who doesn’t want aesthetically lovely places to meet, have a meal, and enjoy recreation.

Participatory Budgeting, Civic Engagement, Equity

While the benefits of participatory budgeting include increasing public participation, it is important to note that public participation is an aspect of culture, and no approach will shift our current pattern—or anyone else’s—overnight. Chicago Alder Joe Moore is known nationally for his advocacy around participatory budgeting and implementation of a process for Chicago’s Ward 49. His early efforts were featured in this newsletter in May 2011, in an article by Adam Porton. Moore’s website currently reports that the 2100 residents who took part in the process this year represent the largest group in the seven-year history of the process, and a 16 percent increase in turnout from the previous year. The population of the ward is between 55,000 and 56,000.

Participating residents voted to spend 65 percent of their $1 million on improvements to streets and sidewalks; they also selected improvements to trees, lighting, and parks. Seven more Chicago alders have now adopted participatory budgeting in their wards. Writing on his blog, Moore says “ … the participatory budgeting elections have exceeded even my wildest dreams.  They are more than elections.  They are community celebrations and an affirmation that people will participate in the civic affairs of their community if given real power to make real decisions.”

The priorities of Ward 49 residents seem consistent with those of Greensboro, North Carolina residents, where a participatory budgeting process took place this year for the first time. Each of five “districts” in this city of roughly 280,000 had $100,000, and district recommendations must be approved by city government. Priorities were similar across districts: traffic and pedestrian safety improvements; park equipment; shading for community pools; and bus shelters. Community art, in the form of murals, also was a priority.

Participants in the Greensboro process complained, however, that ideas on the table did not address the most significant needs. This may be partly a function of capital versus operating budget funds. If the process is geared toward spending on building (capital), then it will not address social programs (operating). Without some modification, the process itself may not be geared toward transforming inequality or mitigating social needs, such as lack of access to summer educational/recreational programs for youth, which Greensboro residents identified. Participants also perceived a lack of outreach around the process, pointing to inadequate effort to get people involved.

The Ward 49 and Greensboro priorities suggest that the process is probably well suited to identifying needs in the built environment and with certain aspects of infrastructure. This is not a bad thing—neighborhood residents often know better than city staff how certain areas are used, are safe or unsafe. At the same time, some lack of connection to intense needs may be embedded in the process, which is grounded in “ideas” about how to spend the money, not necessarily the current reality of life on the ground in each district.

Back in 2011, through the efforts of MadisonAlder Marsha Rummel, Moore’s Ward 49 approach was presented to the Madison Common Council Organizing Committee, Three years later, Alder Maurice Cheeks joined Rummel on a $100,000 budget amendment to include funds for participatory budgeting in an amendment to the 2015 budget. The amendment, which was not adopted into the budget, focused on areas with Neighborhood Resource Teams, and highlighted the importance of outreach around the process. In part, the resolution read: “This project is anticipated as a first-year start-up budget to support a participatory budgeting effort that fosters citizen participation in local government by offering an opportunity to influence neighborhood programs and projects.

Still needed, still possible—clarity about what can be achieved, and recognition that, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “It’s gonna be a long walk home.”

PD Co-Chair Sue Pastor has been closely involved in the formation of the new Greater Sandburg Neighborhood Association on Madison’s far east side.