Tough budget choices? Ask an everyday citizen

Tough budget choices? Ask an everyday citizen

Could you and your neighbors make smarter budget decisions than your elected officials? A Brown sociologist is leading a real-life trial of just such a process in a Chicago ward.

By Alison Fairbrother ’09 | May 22, 2009 |

An experiment in democracy is brewing in Chicago’s 49th Ward. The neighborhood is vying to become the first community in the United States to use participatory budgeting, in which residents directly decide how to spend public money, to allocate its municipal funds. It is an experiment that imports concepts developed as far away as Brazil. And it takes on added significance as federal, state, and local officials across the country face greater public scrutiny in allocating federal stimulus funds and scarce budget dollars. Gianpaolo Baiocchi leads a workshop on participatory budgeting in Chicago.

On April 29, Associate Professor of Sociology Gianpaolo Baiocchi of Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies traveled to Chicago to help kick-start the process. Baiocchi and his colleagues, Josh Lerner from the New School for Social Research and Karen Dolan from the Institute for Policy Studies’ Cities for Progress project, visited at the invitation of Chicago 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore.

Since 2006, Baiocchi and Lerner have led the Participatory Budgeting Project, an initiative to promote the practice and other forms of participatory democracy in North America. “When I first heard of the concept of participatory budgeting,” says Alderman Moore, “I thought it was a perfect fit for my neighborhood. [The 49th Ward] is filled with activists and people who are used to being involved in the community process and who believe in democracy.” It is a process that Baiocchi has studied elsewhere and firmly believes is needed in the United States. “America today suffers not only from economic deficits,” he recently wrote about U.S. stimulus spending, “but from a troubling participatory deficit in its government.

Average citizens are having next to no say in a massive allocation of funds that will change the contours and futures of their states, cities, and municipalities.” It is estimated that more than 1,200 municipalities and public institutions in Latin America, Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe have initiated participatory budgeting. The best known model to date was developed in the municipality of Porto Alegre, Brazil, beginning in 1989. Baiocchi’s book, Militants and Citizens: The Politics of Participatory Democracy in Porto Alegre (Stanford University Press, 2005), captures the lessons learned from the Brazilian municipality. 4th Ward citizens practice allocating budget funds.

When Baiocchi, Lerner, and Dolan talked with 40 community leaders of Chicago’s 49th Ward on April 29, they explained how the process could create accountable and democratic local governance that is directly managed by community residents. The ward representatives formed a steering committee to design a community-participation process. Over the next year, residents will meet in public assemblies and workshops to allocate the ward’s FY2010 capital budget, which is estimated to be $1.4 million.

The community will receive support from the alderman and his staff, as well as from the Participatory Budget Project team, which will monitor and coordinate each step of the process. Initial project funding has been provided by the New World Foundation. At a second workshop on May 19, Baiocchi and Lerner led a deliberation on the rules of the 49th Ward’s process, set to begin in October. Those in attendance carried out a mock participatory budgeting exercise in which they proposed and selected community improvement projects to spend $500,000, roughly one-third of the actual budget to be allocated. Then, they set about deciding how the process would actually work – including decisions such as voting and participation criteria, the selection of delegates, and how long the process will take to unfold.

The next steps will be to produce a rule book for participants and begin the logistical preparations for the fall’s process. ”The early results are very promising,” says Alderman Moore. “I’m looking forward to a successful experiment that will show my colleagues on the city council and, indeed, mayors and council members from across the nation that you can trust people to make these decisions. I think it benefits all of us to have a public that is informed and engaged in the decision-making process.” Adds Brown’s Baiocchi: “We feel very privileged to be able to work with an elected official like Joe Moore in an engaged community. It’s also professionally rewarding to connect knowledge via dialogue to a public such as this one, rather than the more usual modes of recommendations to policy makers.”

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One Response

  1. я думаю: прелестно!

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