Working together in the city that works
"When people are given enough information and time to deliberate, they generally make sound decisions"
- Joe Moore
Joe Moore is the Alderman of Chicago’s 49th Ward. A lawyer by training, he has devoted the last two decades to serve as an elected official in his ward. In 2009, he initiated the first participatory budget in the United States. Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process of deliberation and decision-making that started in Porto Alegre (Brazil) in 1989, and is now implemented in over 1,000 cities around the world.
In this interview, Joe Moore argues that democracy today is in a state of crisis, and that participatory budgeting is an antidote to the cynicism and disengagement that people increasingly feel towards the government. Moreover, he claims that participatory budgeting is a significant source of community engagement and civic learning, and one step toward the democratization of public institutions and the restoration of public trust in the democratic system.
When did you learn about PB for the first time?
At the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007, when I attended a presentation about PB in Porto Alegre and other cities. At that time I found it very intriguing, and the first thing I thought was: “this could be a wonderful tool for engaging the public in deciding how those capital expenditures are allocated. I wish I was mayor and could implement something like this”. After that initial moment, I suddenly realized that Chicago is one of the few cities in which city council members have some money that they can spend at their discretion, and then I said to myself: “I could still do this”.
How does this discretionary money work?
In Chicago it is called the “Aldermanic Menu Fund.” Each alderman is given $1.3 million every year to spend on capital projects, that is, infrastructure, in their ward.
How do city councilors typically use their discretionary funds, and how do they make those decisions?
Typically they are used for routine infrastructure improvements such as street repair and upgrade, alley resurfacing, sidewalk repairs, curb and gutter repairs, traffic signals and streetlights. Each alderman has different ways of setting priorities and making the decisions to use the menu money. In my case, before participatory budgeting, I made decisions based on constituent requests, recommendations from my staff, and my own personal observations in the ward.
Let’s go back to 2007. What happened when you returned home from the U.S. World Social Forum in Atlanta with the PB idea in mind?
Nothing much happened at the beginning. The people I represent have a tradition of community activism, and I felt that something like PB would prove very popular among my constituents, but things were really quiet on this front until I was introduced to a gentleman named Josh Lerner who was very interested in trying to implement PB in the US. In order to make something like this work, you need to have a buy-in from the elected officials because they are the ones who control the money. In my case, all I needed to do is to convince one elected official, which was myself.
Did you have any concerns?
Of course, there was a potential that it would fail. There was a possibility that people wouldn’t show up, or that that the process did not work well or that it would be co-opted by small interest groups. I was aware that there was a risk, but I was also convinced that it was a risk worth taking.
How did the process get started?
The first thing I did was to bring together community leaders who represented a broad cross section of the diversity of the 49th ward. This included leaders of the major community organizations, block club leaders, local school council members, businesspeople, and people form religious communities, form churches, synagogues and mosques. There were about 70 people. I called the meeting and explained the concept of the discretionary fund, because not many people were aware of its existence.
What happened next?
As a result of that initial meeting, over 40 people agreed to serve on a steering committee to begin to design the process and the ground rules. For the next four months, the steering committee met regularly to decide the PB process.
What did the steering committee do during those four months?
The steering committee designed the process and the rules surrounding the process. The proposed process involved holding a series of community meetings in eight areas of the ward. In these community meetings the steering committee explained the menu money and the ways in which that money could be spent, and introduced the concept of PB, which was totally new for the community. We also held one ward-wide neighborhood assembly in Spanish because we have a large Spanish-speaking population. In short, the purpose of all these meetings was to explain the aldermanic menu program and to educate participants about participatory budgeting. Towards the last part of each meeting, people were invited to brainstorm ideas on projects.
How did you do that brainstorming exercise?
The participants were divided in small groups where they spent about half hour coming up with various ideas on how to spend the money on.
What happened with those initial ideas?
In each meeting, we asked for volunteers to become ‘community representatives” who would agree to spend the next several months refining the ideas that came up from the neighborhood assemblies as well as offer their own ideas of projects that could be submitted to voters for their approval.
How were representatives chosen?
The steering committee initially determined that the community representatives should be elected by the people who attended the various community assemblies, but at the first neighborhood assemblies we made the decision that anyone who wanted to participate as a community representative should be allowed to do so. We wanted to create a welcoming and inclusive process.
What were the main issues surrounding the rules and the process to define the rules?
One of the main issues related to the requirements to be part of the process and vote for the proposals. After considerable debate, people agreed on involving the community as a whole.
Could you elaborate on this?
As you can imagine, during the deliberations there was much discussion about rules on who could participate in the process. The most debated aspects of this discussion related to age and citizenship status. The voting age in the US is 18 years old, and the first inclination was to follow that guideline, but the steering committee thought that it was important to lower the voting age to 16 years old in order to encourage young people to participate in the process. The committee also agreed to open the process to anyone who resided in the ward, regardless of voter registration or citizenship status. All you had to establish in order to be involved in the process was demonstrate that you were at least 16 years of age and a resident of the 49th ward.
What happened after the community representatives were selected?
The steering committee got together and reviewed the ideas that were generated at the first round of neighborhood assemblies, and then organized those ideas into six different areas: transportation, public safety, arts and others projects, parks and environment, streets, and traffic safety. Then we had the first meeting with the community representatives. These representatives formed six different committees, each to deal with one of the six categories. Those committees were charged with the responsibility of developing project proposals.
How long did the six committees take to develop the original ideas into feasible proposals?
About three months. Some committees met with more frequency than others. In those three months, the six committees met to research the project ideas, to determine their feasibility and cost, and to recommend proposals that would be submitted to the voters for their consideration. It was in this phase when the committees met with experts from the City of Chicago and its sister agencies to get information, cost estimates and project feasibility.
What was the reaction of government officials to these requests for information from the community?
They were not accustomed to meet with community residents and groups. They were only used to meet with the aldermen, and didn’t know how to handle this situation, so they asked my office to convene those meetings. My office became the contact point for organizing these meetings with government officials, and a member of my staff was present at every meeting, often acting as facilitators and mediators between government officials and community groups.
How many proposals did the committees develop in this phase?
After they got information about costs, potential legal issues and technical feasibility for all the original ideas, the committees developed three dozen preliminary proposals.
Was there a chance to inform the community about these proposals before voting day?
Yes, we made sure that there were several opportunities for the larger community to learn about the proposals. This was very important for the quality of the process, because we didn’t want people to just vote: we wanted them to have an informed vote. So, we held two large neighborhood assembly meetings where the committees presented their ideas to the public for final input. Also, prior to the voting day, we had posters, pictures and displays on the different proposals in different parts of the ward. People could also learn more about the details of the proposals on the voting day itself. The six committees displayed their project proposals on the perimeter of the room and voters could ask additional information about the projects before casting their votes.
How was the voting process conducted?
It was a secret ballot. We also had our own version of early voting the week before the election, for people who were unable to attend voting day on Saturday. Each voter was given eight votes, and could vote to up to eight of the 36 projects. In total, 1,652 people voted.
Was this close to your expectations?
Honestly, we didn’t know what to expect, because this was our first time doing this. All I knew was that through this process there would more people making decisions about how to spend the menu money than ever before, because before all decisions were made by only one person. Fortunately, this process expanded the circle of decision-makers and allowed more people to have a say in decisions that affect their lives. We expect that the circle will further expand over time.
Were the proposals voted similar or different from the previous pattern of menu money allocations, before PB?
Some were similar, but many were different. The approved projects were a mix of traditional infrastructure (resurfacing streets, street light, traffic signals) and non-traditional projects such as a dog park, artistic murals underneath the train line viaduct, artistic bike racks, a shower for one of our neighborhood at the beaches, historical makers, bike lanes, community gardens, solar powered garbage containers, etc. Before participatory budgeting, for the most part, I emphasized the traditional infrastructure projects like street and alley resurfacing, sidewalk repairs or street lighting.
Looking back, what were the main accomplishments of the PB process?
The most important accomplishment was that it engaged people in the political and governmental process. It served as an antidote to the cynicism and disengagement that people increasingly feel towards the government at all levels. It also brought new people into the civic life of our community. The vast majority of the people who served as community representatives had never attended a community meeting before but this process captivated them and made them want to participate. It also worked as an educational tool.
What do you mean?
I mean that through their participation in the process, people learned many things. They gained more knowledge about how government operates. They learned about the trade-offs that are required to be made when making budgetary decisions. They learned about the true cost of the projects. Participants also learned to compromise, to work with neighbors and to settle disagreements. At the same time, people learned to organize. As a result of the participatory budgeting process, there have been several new community organizations that have been created in our ward. The learning also impacted residents of other districts in Chicago: as word of our process has spread to other parts of our city, residents of those districts have demanded that their alderman adopt a PB process with the menu money. As a result, several of my colleagues are learning about PB and considering adopting this process.
Did this impact go beyond Chicago?
Yes. I am aware that our success in the 49th ward is inspiring municipal officials and community groups to implement participatory budgeting in their localities. The first example of this is New York City, where four city council members, after learning of our experience, have embarked in a participatory budgeting process in their districts. The project is currently undergoing, and the voting date will be at the end of March 2012, roughly at the same time of our third PB election in Chicago.
Indeed, you are now at the beginning of the third cycle of PB in the 49th ward. Can you tell us a little bit about the second cycle, the one that concluded in 2011? Did you make any changes to the 2010 process, or did it remain the same?
It remained essentially the same, but with one notable exception. People generally believed that the first year process went extremely well, but one concern that people shared was that project proposals that were extremely localized received fewer votes than the ward-wide projects.
What type of localized proposals are you talking about? Can you give us an example?
The most typical cases were proposals to resurface a street in a city block. If you think about it, this makes sense: people vote their interests, and if you don’t live on that block or drive down that street regularly, you are less likely to vote for that street to be improved. People know that these types of projects are still needed, but at the time of voting they tend to receive only the votes of those who are directly affected by the problem, and these are not enough votes to make a difference. In the first PB election in 2010, only seven percent of the menu money was allocated to street resurfacing. This is very small when compared to 2009, before PB, when I allocated 61% of the menu money to street resurfacing.
How did the steering committee deal with this issue?
The steering committee, which is now called the leadership committee, dedicated some time to deliberate about this issue. After much debate, the committee decided to make one change to the ballot in the 2011 election. Rather than having specific proposals on the ballot for street resurfacing, voters in 2011 were asked to vote on the percentage of the 2011 budget that should be devoted exclusively to street resurfacing. Voters were asked to choose among increments of 10 from 0% to 100%. We added the votes and calculated the average, which was 57%. The second part of the ballot included a question in which people were asked to allocate the rest of the money to the full range of project proposals.
Back to the topic of learning, this change encouraged people to think more abstractly and to recognize that streets still needed attention while respecting the principles underlying the PB process.
What do you see as the main challenges for the PB process in your ward?
The main challenge that we faced, and still continue to face, is making sure that public participation in the process reflects the diversity of our community. The 49th ward is one of the most racially, ethnically and economically diverse communities in the nation, and while our PB process attracted people from all nationalities and ethnic groups, among those who participated in the process there was an overrepresentation of white middle and upper class folks.
What about gender representation?
It was about equal. Perhaps even more women participated than men.
What were the main lessons from this PB experience in the 49th ward?
There were many lessons, but two are particularly salient. The first lesson we learned is that when people are given enough information and time to deliberate, and a good process for the deliberation and decision-making, they generally make sound decisions. The other lesson is that we need to double our efforts to reach out to communities of color and low-income communities to participate in both the process leading up to the election and the election day itself.
In the 2007 municipal elections, you barely won in the second round with 51% of the votes. In the 2011 elections, after you implemented PB, you won in a landslide. How do you interpret this?
I don’t have any empirical data from research on why voters voted the way they did in the 49th ward in the last election, and probably different voters were influenced by different factors. Having said that, I take the result of the last election as a sign of popular support for participatory budget and any similar initiatives that nurture citizen engagement and promote participatory governance. I take it as a sign that people in the 49th ward want to be active participants in governing rather than being passive observers of government. I also take it as a sign that people are hungry for more open and transparent ways of making decisions that affect them.
Any final reflections?
Elected officials at all levels of government could learn something from the 49th ward participatory budgeting process. Democracy today is in a state of crisis. People believe that those of us in government answer only to the rich and to powerful special interests, and that average people no longer have any power. Democracy cannot function if it is seen as illegitimate. PB is one step to democratize our system of government and restore public trust and confidence in our democratic system.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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