How to make democracy bloom
Participatory government works well, but it only lasts when it is enshrined in law.
04/21/2010 10:00 PM
Democracy is like a weed — when it’s wiped out in one place, it pops up years later somewhere else. The latest experiment in local democracy is under way in the 49th Ward.
On April 10, residents of that far North Side area cast binding votes about how to spend $1.3 million in discretionary funds. Called “participatory budgeting” — a rebuke, in its title, to the opaque process that guides much local government budget creation — the process seeks to give local residents a direct say in how their tax dollars are spent in their neighborhoods.
The process began a year ago when ward-based civic organizations developed a set of rules to guide the participatory budgeting process, and it continued through the winter when nine neighborhood assemblies articulated concrete proposals governing use of the tax dollars.
Each 49th Ward resident age 16 and older was then able to vote on projects. They considered everything from parks to public safety, from traffic to the arts. The votes have been tallied, and in this part of the city it’s safe to say the people have spoken.
Some of the projects receiving the most votes for funding are repairing dilapidated sidewalks at 27 locations; developing a network of bike lanes on Touhy, Rogers and Ashland; creating a dog park in Pottawattomie Park and community gardens at two others; painting murals beneath train underpasses; and installing a traffic signal at Clark and Chase streets, near a public school.
An additional eight projects were approved, including street resurfacing and additional benches and shelters on neighborhood CTA train platforms. All of the projects are expected to be completed during the 2010 construction season.
The choices seem reasonable enough — they are inventive and contain a range of projects that no one community group or the alderman’s office would come up with on their own. Most importantly, the list reflects citizen engagement and empowerment.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) is the first elected official in the country to use participatory budgeting, although it has deep antecedents in traditional New England town hall meetings. In the Americas, participatory budgeting has been developed most fully in Brazilian cities. It reminds me of Lincoln’s desire to create a government “of, by and for” the people.
Moore told me that he wanted to bring participatory budgeting to his ward because of the cynicism constituents feel about government.
“Many citizens don’t believe their government listens to them. They don’t believe they have the power to affect public policy. The public budgeting process lets them become active participants in governing,” he said.
Making decisions openly and transparently, Moore argued, is the first step toward restoring public trust in government.
This is exactly right. If people have a voice in the decisions about where government money is spent, they will be more patient when all government services aren’t delivered everywhere at once. They will know that the services are being delivered fairly and not by clout.
Three cheers for Ald. Moore and the citizens of the 49th Ward.
Participatory budgeting requires a great commitment of time and effort on the part of the alderman, his staff and the community. But it empowered more than 1,600 residents, who know they can affect their own government — at least in one ward.
The experiment in participatory democracy is similar to the Ward Assembly and neighborhood government that I started when I was alderman of the 44th Ward in the 1970s.
We learned two lessons from that earlier attempt at small-d democracy. Participatory government works well but it only lasts when it is enshrined in law. In our case, it was snuffed out in the 44th Ward when the political machine won back the aldermanic seat in 1981.
Participatory budgeting worked well in the 49th Ward, and I think it needs to be adopted across the city. We need a participatory budgeting ordinance. In other words, give us all the power to govern. That would give us a voice in the decisions that mean the most to us and to our communities.
Democracy would then bloom again in Chicago.
Dick Simpson, the former alderman of the 44th Ward, teaches political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago.