Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It offers people a fundamentally different way to engage with government. PB lets them determine what government does with taxpayer money, rather than just electing politicians to make those decisions for them.
PB began in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, where, since 1989, as many as 50,000 people have decided how to allocate as much as 20% of the city budget, in an annual cycle of assemblies and meetings. In the past twenty years, PB has spread to cities in Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. There are over 1,500 participatory budgets around the world, most at the municipal level. The United Nations has promoted PB as a best practice of democratic governance.
PB in Chicago
In 2009, Chicago Alderman Joe Moore and The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) launched the first process in the US where residents of Moore’s ward decided how to spend $1 million of his annual discretionary capital budget – the aldermanic “menu money.” Residents identified hundreds of project ideas, developed dozens of ideas into full proposals, and then voted to fund street and sidewalk repairs, bike lanes, playground and park improvements, street lights, one hundred new trees, murals, and many more community projects.
In February 2012, GCI partnered with The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) and a broad coalition of aldermen, city-wide institutions, and community-based organizations to launch Participatory Budgeting Chicago (PB Chicago). PB Chicago is an initiative that aims to implement and expand PB processes and direct democracy throughout Chicago. GCI is the lead university partner on PB Chicago, responsible for providing overall project management, community engagement, and evaluation.
Since 2012, PB Chicago has led PB efforts for decisions around aldermanic infrastructure funds, tax increment financing money, and student-led improvements in Chicago Public Schools. PB Chicago has engaged over 13,000 residents in twelve different communities in directly deciding how to spend over $18 million in public dollars.
The Chicago Community Trust
Crown Family Philanthropies
The Field Foundation of Illinois
Robert R. McCormick Foundation
UIC Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement
Woods Fund Chicago
In the fall of 2015, seven Chicago wards, including five first-time wards, began the PB cycle. The 45th Ward (Alderman John Arena) and 49th Ward (Alderman Joe Moore) returned, while the wards listed below all began their inaugural PB campaign. 5,058 residents voted on how to spend over $6 million. Winning projects included improvements to public schools, park improvements, street resurfacing, lighting, pedestrian safety and much more.
10th Ward – Alderman Sue Sadlowski-Garza
17th Ward – Alderman David Moore
31st Ward – Alderman Milly Santiago
35th Ward – Alderman Carlos Rosa
36th Ward – Alderman Gilbert Villegas
The 2014-15 menu money cycle took place in three wards: the 22nd (Alderman Ricard Munoz), 45th (Alderman John Arena), and 49th (Alderman Joe Moore). 3,053 residents voted on how to spend $3 million. Winning projects included street resurfacing, parks, lighting, pedestrian safety, murals, and much more.
In 2014, Chicago was the site of the country’s first PB process to allocate tax increment financing (TIF) funds. Alongside PB Chicago, the community organization Blocks Together worked with residents and businesses in the neighborhood of West Humboldt Park to develop a process that would allow residents to directly decide how to spend $2 million in TIF funds for projects that might never have received funding through the usual channels. 292 residents voted to fund green roofs, a skate park, a culinary institute, and small business microloans. From this effort, a new tool kit for using PB to spend TIF funds was created, which can be found below.
The principal of Sullivan High School also put up $25,000 for a PB process inside the school. Students worked with Mikva Challenge daily for eight weeks to develop project ideas. 378 students (70% of the student body) voted to build a new recreation room.
The second PB Chicago aldermanic menu money cycle took place between the fall of 2013 and the spring of 2014. The 22nd Ward (Alderman Ricard Munoz), 45th Ward (Alderman John Arena), and 49th Ward (Alderman Joe Moore) received votes from 2,912 residents for $3 million in public money, with funds going to street and sidewalk repairs, tree planting, library upgrades, beach access, and more. A full evaluation report can be found here.
From September 2012 to May 2013, residents in the 49th Ward (Ald. Joe Moore), 46th Ward (Ald. James Cappleman), 45th Ward (Ald. John Arena), and 5th Ward (Ald. Leslie Hairston) determined how to allocate their ward’s discretionary capital funds. 2,574 residents across the four wards voted on projects valued at $4 million. The winning projects included a community garden, a turf field, police cameras, bike lanes, and more. A full evaluation report can be found here.
Documents, news, and important information
Democratizing Tax Increment Financing through Participatory Budgeting – A Tool Kit »
PB Chicago at the White House (February 2016) »
GCI represented at White House Convening (June 2014) »
The Art of Participatory Budgeting (November 2014) »