OUR VIEW: Citizen-Driven Budgets

What would Vancouver look like if citizens were able to make real spending decisions with public dollars?

It’s called participatory budgeting and it has been used around the world to engage citizens in Uruguay’s capital city of Montevideo to Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal borough, from the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis to Toronto’s public housing authority.

First developed in the industrial city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, participatory budgeting allocates a portion of the city’s budget to projects chosen through a democratic process where citizens choose which projects will receive funding.

The 2,000-plus cities worldwide using participatory budgeting are at the forefront of an international movement to involve citizens in determining civic spending priorities. But is this concept too democratic for Vancouver?

As part of Think City’s 2011 Citizen Budget survey, over 60 per cent of 1,754 respondents said they favoured more citizen participation in budget making that would go well beyond the consultation process the city currently uses. In fact, for the last three Citizen Budget surveys, over 20 per cent of those surveyed say they want to see residents provided with the means to learn about, deliberate, and make binding decisions on some or all of the city’s budget.

In a 2008 Think City Dream Vancouver pre-election survey, all three civic political parties agreed, and Vision Vancouver strongly agreed, when asked to rate their support for the following policy option: “The city should provide citizens with direct ways to set city council priorities between elections (e.g., ongoing democratic reform through a citizens' assembly or annual/capital budget development through participatory budgeting).”

Participatory budgeting works much the same way city councillors make decisions about the annual operating budget. With assistance from city staff, citizens are able to draw upon the same kind of professional advice that city councilors receive. However, it is citizens that initiate projects, make the case for why they should be funded, and ultimately, decide which projects go forward.

Where the process has been used the result has been a more engaged citizenry, higher voter turnout in elections, and greater participation by people from marginalized or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Chicago may seem a strange place for participatory democracy, given the windy city’s famous culture of patronage politics and lack of transparency in public finances. However, it was public dissatisfaction with backroom politics that made Chicago ripe for change. As Chicago Alderman Joe Moore said, “…it exceeded even my wildest dreams. It was more than an election. It was a community celebration and an affirmation that people will participate in the civic affairs of their community if given real power to make real decisions.”

While there is no single model for participatory budgeting, the process usually begins by establishing the financial parameters of the process – how much money is available. Then participants engage in a needs assessment to determine priorities. Finally, they weigh the merits of specific projects and rank them in order of priority.

The advantage of the process is that it changes the relationship between citizens, activists, and the government. Instead of simply demanding the government provide, citizens must convince an assembly of their peers why a particular project is good value for money. When citizens become decision makers they are forced to listen and respond to the requests of others, and recognize the constraints of a finite budget.

The capital plan that will be put to voters in the November 2011 election presents the city with a unique opportunity to engage citizens in a participatory budget process. The capital plan is approved by referendum, and authorizes the city to borrow money to build certain projects over the next three years. It’s basically a shopping list of big-ticket items that get bought on the city’s credit card.

Coming up with the list of projects has usually been left largely to city staff and elected officials with some public input. Once every three years voters are presented with a long list of items and then asked to make a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision at the ballot box. Through a participatory budgeting process, Vancouver citizens can take part in a process to decide what goes on the shopping list.

Even if a fraction of the capital budget is put on the table, as was the case in Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal borough, the prospect of opening up the budget process to direct citizen participation would be a major step forward.

Mayor Gregor Robertson and his council have a unique opportunity to break down Vancouver’s very conservative approach to public involvement. If the experience of other cities is anything to go by, participatory budgeting is a democratic reform that will be sustained by future councils, regardless of their political stripe.

It’s time to move beyond advisory committees and web polls and actually involve citizens in decisions that affect their neighbourhoods. If cities as large and complex as Mexico City and Sao Paulo can involve their citizens, surely Vancouver can as well.

Look at California. People

Look at California. People get selfish and opt for solutions which appear to save them money and eventually bancrupt the system. There are times that difficult choices have to be made. It is incumbent on the government to consult with its citizens, sincerely review their concerns and then make decisions which will create a stable, caring society - built on the ideas of social justice. That is why we elect a government and kick them out when they do not follow our ideas. Govenment by the masses and by referendum will not work!

Just a few comments on the

Just a few comments on the development of the process in Porto Alegre: 1. It was not 100% of the budget, citizens were directing -- it was 30% of total expenditures 2. It was representative of the whole city in that the city was divided into 16 regions -- those regions decided the priority projects for their neighbourhoods, then elected 2 delegates to represent these to a series city-wide meetings. At the first meeting, the delegates would report on the priorities of their region and why each project was so important. Before the next meeting, they would report back to the other region participants using a phone tree and garner input for later meetings where the delegates would debate the city-wide priorities. 3. The process was BINDING. City Council promised from the begining that they would honor the budget allocations made by the people (no amending them in council) and did so. The most common excuse for apathy is that "my participation won't make a difference" but in Porto Alegre, it very clearly did -- which is why participation rates in the process jumped from 1% of the population to 40% in the first few years. 4. Interestingly, in Porto Alegre, it was the poorest neighbourhoods and slums that were the first to buy in to the process and mobilized the most people to attend -- their needs were greatest. And when you are face-to-face, citizen-to-citizen, how do you argue that a road needing repaving in your neighbourhood is more important than the housing needs of a poorer neighbourhood where people are getting sick or dying from unsafe housing? Housing was the number 1 priority of the P.A. Participatory Budget for many years. They moved people out of dangerous shanty towns on the banks of the river and into housing projects they helped to build with sweat equity on city land. This really could be the answer to some of the regional inequity we have in Vancouver as a result of not having a ward system. But the key is creating a BINDING, MEANINGFUL process, not just lip service to public consultation and surveys. We have to get people in a room talking to each other - first in their own neighbourhood, and then with people from other neighbourhoods. It's a big commitment, a big step forward, but it's the only way forward for democracy, citizenship, and building community in the modern context, where it is easy to let ourselves believe we don't need other people and individualism is okay.

Citizen Input on budget expenditures

Am very skeptical that the people who often have the time to involve themselves in such a process are at all representative of the community at large. Am also skeptical that this kind of input wouldn't be managed by Vision just as was Mayor Robertson's 'Town Hall Meeting' where his supporters were contacted 8 hours in advance late at night. He then claimed that a town hall meeting had occurred. Council's recent budget survey apparently just had 400 respondents. It was a survey that people like myself would give up on filling in because the results would end up being so meaningless. I found that the survey was impossible to respond to in an intelligent way so gave up on it. I wonder how many others did_if they even knew there was a survey in existence.

Citizen Participation in City Budgets

I can see that allowing a certain percentage of the budget to be decided on by citizens deciding on the priorities could make more people interested in participating.

I tend to think that it's overwhelming to try to assess the needs of the entire city, and so those decisions are left to city staff and the mayor and council.

However, if I could narrow it down to local needs, then I think I would feel more confident that I could make a reasonable decision.

It would be interesting to give this a try and see how it works in practice.

I sent this link to our

I sent this link to our mayor and council with the following comment: "This is an approach to city or town budgeting beyond what most of communities do nowadays. It has a number of positive points: 1. It gives the citizenry the impression that they are truly involved in the finances of their community. 2. If everything turns out OK it could prove to get members of Council re-elected 3. It gives Council and Staff a reason to blame the participatory individuals who helped put together the budget if things get worse. In any case, it appears to be a win-win situation. Do read the link before you make any judgment on the idea. Sincerely"

Participatory budgeting the least we could do

We should do participatory budgeting and more. There's no point to "public consultation" exercises where people don't have any real influence over the decision. Without power, what's the point?

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