Directing Democracy

mistaken the 5th Ward Neighborhood Assembly at St. Philip Neri School in South Shore for a small PTA meeting. By 6:40pm, less than two dozen people had gathered in the school’s blue- tiled gymnasium, only enough to fill the first two of the ten rows of seats that had been set up.

They were there to take part in participatory budgeting (PB), an experimental new method of allocating infrastructure funding. Chicago’s aldermen all receive 1.3 million dollars each year through the Alderman Menu Program, which each alderman uses at his discretion towards infrastructure and capital improvements. This year, 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, along with two North Side aldermen, have joined 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore in devolving budgetary authority to residents and stakeholders in their wards. The process began in October with neighborhood assemblies like this one. It will continue with community representative meetings, consultations with planners and technical specialists, and a final vote in the spring. Through a dedicated web page and in flyers left on people’s windshields, the program had been promoted with the tagline, “Help Ald. Hairston Spend $1 Million!”

Whatever the people who owned those cars thought, the world outside the 5th Ward is definitely interested. As Sharon Davis, volunteer co-chair for 5th Ward PB, led the assembly through a slide presentation, documentary filmmaker Ines Summer and her crew captured every qualification that was offered. No, menu money could only be spent on infrastructure projects, not on programs or new employees; no, unfortunate

ly, 1 million dollars sounds like a lot more money than it is. Nearby, a team of UIC social scientists stood ready to dis- tribute surveys, labeled “Research Instrument No. 01,” to the group. In fact, it was a 20,000 dollar grant from the UIC Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement, along with a 25,000 dollar grant from the Chicago Community Trust and a 5,000 dollar grant from the Field Foundation of Illinois, that made new PB programs in the 5th, 45th, and 46th wards a reality.

By necessity, then, the process got off to a pretty stodgy start. But as the slide presentation ended and people separated into their assigned small groups, a looser and more inclusive spirit took over the room. Even a cynic might admit it: this felt a bit like democracy.

In my small group, the first speaker was Al P. Debonnett, chief operating officer at International CyberBanque. He pro- posed a golf and tennis bubble in an underused section of Jackson Park. “We’ll name it after President Obama, so we’ll have federal dollars appropriated if we’re smart,” he said, drawing laughter. The small group volunteer coordinator added Al’s idea to the sheet behind her marked, “Capital Eligible.”

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, a 5th Ward resident and fellow at the Institute for Public Safety and Social Justice at the Adler School of Professional Psychology, proposed that the money be used to fund community peace centers. The coordinator’s mark- er hovered over the sheet marked “Program (Not Eligible).” Would this be an infrastructure project or a program? Infrastructure, said Ryan; the ward could purchase foreclosed properties in areas of high crime, train neighbors in conflict resolution, and convert the houses to peace centers. This quickly touched off a debate. Criminality, argued Al, was caused by many other systemic factors, particularly the failure of local churches to maintain order in the community. This was straying pretty far from the 1 million dollars of menu money. Before the debate could continue, the coordinator added Ryan’s idea to the “Capital Eligible” sheet.

After thirty minutes or so, our group had generated nine eligible proposals, ranging from decorated community planters to mobile People Spaces–small parks built into street parking spots. Each person could vote for the three projects that he or she preferred. Once everyone had done so, the large group reassembled. Ryan and Allyson Scrutchens, program manager at South Shore Chamber of Commerce, presented our small group’s

proposals and vote tallies. The most popular eligible proposals were–drumroll please– Allyson’s idea for a community garden on 71st Street (five votes); Al’s golf and tennis bubble (four votes); and, in a tie for third, Ryan’s idea for community peace centers and Linda Murray’s proposal to paint a Metra viaduct (three votes each).

As the meeting ended, it was hard to draw any firm conclusions. As other critics of PB have pointed out, many of those who came already seemed accustomed to having a voice in the political process. The free pizza, still hot enough to munch on after the final vote, may have attracted others. The process was definitely strange; at the same time, and like much of local government, it was also kind of reassuringly boring. PB felt both new and strikingly believable.

I started to wonder at the possibilities. Could participation make everyone, right, left, and center, a little less angry about their gov- ernment? Could transparency come from the bottom up? Though it was dark outside, on my way out of that fluorescent-lit gymnasium, the faint smell of disinfectant made me think of sunlight.

Though it is still a novelty in the United States, in other countries, participatory bud- geting has become a political force. It first began in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989. Viewed as a complement (or corrective) to liberal rep- resentative democracy, PB was intended to amplify the voices of poor and underrepresent- ed residents and to address the disparities pro- duced by extreme economic inequality. In the last two decades, the practice has expanded from its origins in Porto Alegre, first to other cities and parties in Brazil and then to com- munities across the world. From southwestern France to Kerala, India, PB has been used to allocate funds in over 1200 municipalities.

In 2009, the first participatory budgeting program in the United States was introduced in Chicago’s 49th Ward by Alderman Joe Moore using his aldermanic menu money. Until 2009, all of that money was saved or spent at the discretion of the alderman’s office. With PB, however, Alderman Moore opted to cede con- trol over 1 million of the 1.3 million dollars to his constituents, leaving the rest of it in reserve.

According to 49th Ward participatory budgeting liaison Cecilia Salinas, roughly 100 ward residents are involved in the process every year. Completed projects that were pro- posed and developed through participatory budgeting include new bike lanes, a dog park, a community garden, and a series of underpass murals.

In the 5th Ward, says Alderman Hairston, PB seemed like an excellent fit. “We always talk about transparency. This was a way to open up the process.” Like Alderman Moore, Alderman Hairston and the two other aldermen who are trying PB this year have pledged 1 million dollars of their menu budget. They may, however, spend more than that. According to Salinas, in the 49th Ward, portions of the $300,000 in reserve are normally eaten up by budget overruns from participatory budgeting.

Elsewhere in the city, the language of participatory budgeting is becoming fashion- able. As part of efforts to address the city’s budget deficit, Mayor Emanuel has set up a website,, soliciting non- specific “ideas for keeping Chicago on the right fiscal path.” The Chicagoist described the site’s usersas “participatory bud- get contributors.” This may be a bit too flat- tering to anonymous online commentators (internet, bring it on!). The city’s new website is a step toward transparency and inclusion, but in its current form, it isn’t as systematic or potentially radical as actual participatory budgeting.

Oh, sure, for actual participatory budget- ing there’s a website involved ( in actual PB, but it exists chiefly to facilitate the much realer participatory process that began this past month. At every stage of the ongoing process, local residents will decide how to spend a specific percentage of their alderman’s menu budget. Think about it– under a government that is only the sum of its resources, that’s almost the definition of power.

Though the sums are small and the process is imperfect, PB still marks a radical departure from business-as-usual. This is true for both the aldermen who have introduced it and the residents it is meant to draw. Occasional trips to the voting booth are a whole lot easier than in-depth participation, but those trips also barely touch the nitty-gritty involved in true democracy.

The final neighborhood assembly took place in another gym. This one, situated deep inside the massive newish Gary Comer Youth Center, was overlooked from behind a glass wall by a study space teeming with children. Glancing up at the tables of boys and girls working or socializing, it was easy to see why participatory budgeting has the potential to be great. When you’re a kid, nothing is more important than the material conditions of your little corner of the universe. The stoplight or police phone or community garden proposed through PB might change a block or neighborhood for years to come.

After a month of neighborhood assem- blies, this one was pretty well-organized. Fewer chairs had been set up, and more people had come by. Combined with the sleek, shiny surfaces of this new publicly-funded charter facility, the direct democracy on display was highly telegenic. I wondered if the UIC photographer standing nearby was snapping some grant-worthy images.

This meeting was also less spontaneous. One small group coordinator met the most ambitious or ambiguous proposals with the same simple refrain: “one million dollars, that’s all we’ve got.” After a month of patiently indulging what she described as “wonder- ful, grandiose” ideas, it was hard to blame her for demanding more specificity and realism from participants. To their credit, most people obliged.

Among the more plausible ideas, some common themes were starting to emerge. Community gardens were a perennial favorite, as were University of Chicago-style emergency phones. Other popular ideas were harder to see coming. For example, in a series of meetings dominated by middle-aged or older participants, there were at least two well-supported pro- posals for skate parks. Other proposals included better lighting for playground facilities and improvements to the plants of local schools. Though children under sixteen will not be able to vote on the proposals themselves, they have no apparent shortage of advocates.

As one small group began to disperse, leaving behind paper plates laden with cooling slices of pizza, I took a newly empty seat and spoke with 5th Ward resident Robert Daniels. Did he think that participatory budgeting would make a differ-ence? “Oh, yes. I’ve seen what they’ve done in the 49th Ward,” he said. He pointed out that Alderman Hairston had made an effort to schedule these assemblies, as well as general ward meetings, in different corners of her jigsaw-shaped jurisdic- tion. In a city where callousness is often disguised as courage, that’s the sort of small, structural change that quietly makes things fairer.

Several weeks after the meeting at St. Philip Neri, Ryan Lugalia-Hollon was still excited about PB. “So far, the process is beautiful.” He and his wife had both volunteered to be community representatives.

In the spring, when every 5th Ward resident over the age of sixteen will be able to vote on the final proposals, it will be easier to talk about what PB has accomplished. Unfortunately, those accomplishments may be a one-off. Although it is meant to become an annual program, there’s no guarantee that par- ticipatory budgeting will continue past this cycle. As Alderman Hairston pointed out, this year’s experimental program was made possible by outside grants. Moreover, in a time when the city struggles to close a persistent budget gap, aldermanic menu money may soon be harder to come by. In its own wonky way, participatory budgeting gives Chicagoans a chance to be less cynical about local government. I, for one, believe we can meet its demands. I hope it meets our expectations.

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