More and more cities are experimenting with participatory budgeting. But who really gets to decide how the money is spent?

It might be the hottest idea in democracy since the voting machine.

In an effort to cut wasteful spending and generate political support, cash-strapped municipal officials are turning to a process called participatory budgeting, which allows residents to devise and vote on small-scale infrastructure projects. Pioneered in Brazil, it's since been taken up by some 1,200 cities in just over two decades.

The American trailblazer is Joe Moore, alderman of Chicago's 49th Ward and the first elected United States official to invite his constituents to choose discretionary spending projects. In late 2007, shortly after he was nearly voted out of office, he attended a workshop on participatory budgeting during a social forum in Atlanta.

"I knew instinctively it would prove very popular with my constituents," says Moore, who credits his landslide reelection victory in early 2011 to the initiative. "I've been on the city council for 21 years, and this is by far the most popular initiative I've ever launched. I think it really struck a chord with people who felt they were not being listened to."

Moore's district is home to more than 60,000 students, artists, professionals, and immigrant families speaking some 80 languages. When he launched participatory budgeting in May 2009, he invited community leaders to join him at workshops led by the Participatory Budgeting Project, a New York-based advocacy group.

That November, Moore hosted a series of assemblies, including one in Spanish, in which he introduced the process to locals and explained his $1.3 million discretionary budget. Over the next few months, some 60 volunteer community representatives met regularly in committees on streets, public safety, parks and environment and other areas, to brainstorm, research and fine-tune possible projects. The groups ultimately put forth 36 proposals.

On April 10, 2010, more than 1,500 residents – age 16 and up and regardless of legal status – voted to implement 14 projects ranging from sidewalk repairs to bike lanes and racks, solar-powered garbage containers to street lights. Nearly 2,000 residents turned out to approve a handful of additional projects in early 2011.

Moore's favorite project so far is a series of murals local artists have painted on a dozen train underpasses. “They've brightened up the community with some really attractive art,” he says, explaining that residents voted not just to approve the project, but also held an artists' competition to choose the murals.

Retired salesman Sanford Goldman, 80 and a Rogers Park resident since 1957, served on this year's arts and innovation committee. "We all have differences of opinion but we worked very well as a committee," says Goldman. "It's been a pleasant surprise."

His committee ended up proposing four projects: 22 new underpass murals, at a cost of $121,000, the planting of more than 100 trees, "You Are Here" neighborhood information boards at Metra and CTA station entrances, and a new public garden in a little-used area alongside the railroad tracks. Residents will vote on these and 18 other proposals on April 28.

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Participatory budgeting originated in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, created by The Workers' Party, a labor-friendly political force known for institutional innovations across Brazil. After taking power, the party put together a "popular administration" that sought to break away from the authoritarian tradition of public policies and hand budgeting power over to residents of the city. Months later, community members and delegates from across the city's 16 regions voted on projects that determined up to a fifth of the city budget.

The results there have been dramatic. By 1998, the number of residents served by a sewage system had nearly doubled, as had the number of children in elementary schools, and half the city's unpaved streets had been paved. As a result, The Worker's Party won elections across Brazil, and participatory budgeting spread across the country and through Latin America. The practice soon reached Europe, Africa, and Asia. The United Kingdom and Dominican Republic have since mandated the practice for local governments, and the United Nations and World Bank have named it a democratic best practice.

A recent New York Times story detailed the debut of participatory budgeting in four of the city's districts*, where residents determined nearly $6 million in public spending. Those interviewed said they had become more involved in their communities, but that skepticism of its impact lingered. Projects to be implemented in the Park Slope district include new bathrooms and technology funding for a few public schools, $80,000 for a composting group, major repairs to a pedestrian crossing and improved pedestrian paths for Prospect Park.

Some residents may question whether composting is as necessary as better school materials. Indeed, a key complaint of participatory budgeting as practiced in Brooklyn and Chicago is that it has forgotten the Brazilian concept's initial focus: giving the disadvantaged a voice in the management of their communities. An analysis by Area Chicago, an organization focused on building a socially just city, found that the process encouraged broader and deeper engagement with community issues. Yet it also found that:

Participation has been disproportionately skewed towards middle or upper-middle class and disproportionately white residents. This experience runs contrary to the reputation of participatory budgeting, known as a process often run by and for the poor and marginalized in Brazil and elsewhere. … Participation, or lack thereof, was a reflection of initial outreach efforts. ... In future years, more organizing is certainly needed.

Perhaps this helps explain the relatively low turn-out; 1,500 voters represents just 2.5 percent of the total population of the 49th Ward.

Another complaint is that implementation can be slow. Of the projects approved by 49th Ward voters in April 2011, none has begun construction (several are awaiting installation of a new gas line). Further, serious philosophical and ethical differences can divide residents, such as those in the 49th Ward who seek to move away from a car-based lifestyle and those who rely on frequent driving for their livelihoods.

But municipal projects are often slow to gestate, and disagreement is part of democracy. The vast majority of 49th Ward residents express favorable views of the initiative, and the PB Project is working with a handful of Chicago aldermen to bring participatory budgeting to other districts.

Residents of several other cities, including Greensboro, North Carolina, and Vallejo, California, are clamoring for participatory budgeting in their town. Moore advises municipal officials to embrace it.

"Participatory budgeting empowers people to make real decisions about their money, and it's transparent," he says. "Not only is it good public policy but it's good politics: by surrendering a bit of their power, officials will realize that it makes them more popular."

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that all four New York districts using participatory budgeting were located in Brooklyn. In fact, only two of the four are in Brooklyn. The other two are in Queens and Manhattan/Bronx.

Top image: 3Dstock /Shutterstock

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