Participatory Budgeting for Your Community

Grass roots citizen participation in urban spending

Summarized by Kevin Zeese

This is a summary of a presentation by Alderman Joe Moore, Maria Hadden and Brenda K. Konkel given as part of the economic democracy track of the Democracy Convention in Madison, WI on August 27, 2011. Their biographies are at the end of the summary.

The 49th ward of Chicago located along the far North side of the Lake Michigan represented by Alderman Joe Moore.  It is a diverse, progressive community of 60,000 people.  Participatory budgeting in the ward involves a portion of the municipal budget being turned over to the people to decide how it should be spent.  The ward is in its third year of the process, that has included two participatory budget election cycles. Voters have voted how to spend $1.3 million that each alderman receives annually to spend at their own discretion.  Moore was able put participatory budgeting into place on his own, no other political figure was necessary for the decision.

Moore became aware of participatory budgeting at U.S. Social Forum held in Atlanta, Georgia in 2007.  He thought it would fit well with his constituency because it is a politically active group of people.  He did some more research on participatory budgeting, spoke with Josh Lerner who directs the Participatory Budget Project based in New York City.  There are now a number of other cities across the nation implementing versions of participatory budgeting.  New York City is the furthest ahead of cities in the United States.

Participatory budgeting gives people the power to make real decisions, unlike a community meeting where elected officials listen to people and officials make the decision.  Here, the community decides how to spend the funds.

Most examples involve municipal governments. Participatory budgeting started in Porto Allegre Brazil in 1989.and has spread throughout Brazil. It then spread throughout South America, Europe, Canada and now coming to the United States.  About 1,200 cities now engage in some form of participatory budgeting.

Basic common principles

–          Residents identify local needs, generate ideas from the residents

–          Choose representatives to dig deeper into each issue and formulate proposals

–          Residents get educated and then vote for what to fund

–          Government then implements whatever people choose

–          Residents monitor implementation of proposals.


–          Community members have the power to make decisions, local residents know better what is needed and better more equitable decisions made democratically

–          Develops greater democratic action by citizens, gain more understanding of government, and understand the complexity of trade-offs needed

–          Builds communities, strengthens community organizations, people get to know their neighbors, feel more connected. People decide how to spend money rather than spend time and money on lobbying

–          Connects people to different groups and to each other.  Builds a sense of community. Politicians get more connected to their constituents.  A lot of people, who have never been involved, get involved.

–          Makes government more accountable and efficient.  Open, transparent process where no one can claim politically connected people get special treatment.  And, even people whose projects lost accept the result and understand it

In practice how does it work – one Alderman, $1.3 million, 100 volunteers, 36 project proposals, 1,652 voters, 14 winning projects, 6,929 happy constituents (42% increase in Moore’s voter support, rather than a run-off as he had in the previous election, he won with 72% of vote).

As to the process, during the summer community leaders convene to develop the process (July-August), they meet for several months to develop process.  Nine neighborhood assemblies are held in different parts of the community to explain the process (Sept-Oct).  This included one ward-wide assembly in Spanish.  Six committees deliberated after the assemblies (Nov. to March).  Voting was held in April. This was followed by implementation and evaluation.  Then process begins again.

From the outset, Moore took special care to really involve the whole community, organizations, civic groups, advocacy groups, various income levels, race – to make sure that all the diversity of the community was represented.  The assemblies were held in eight different parts of ward and one ward-wide assembly was held in Spanish.  The did lots of publicity to get the word out including flyering, the Internet, lawn signs and email blasts to the ward.  They educated the public, explained the process and how it would work.  People were invited to join committees to get more input, do research and develop the proposals that would be voted on. Membership on these committees was self-selected.  About 60 people got onto the committees and developed proposals.

The money the voters would distribute came from a discretionary fund known as Aldermanic Menu Money.  This has been available to each alderman since the early 90s. It is used for capital projects e.g. infrastructure, roads, street lights, parks, sidewalks, gardens, murals etc. Money cannot be spent on operational costs of projects – only on capital projects, i.e. it cannot be used to hire more police or school teachers. It can only be used for public purposes not private purposes.

The committees created included: parks and environment, public safety, traffic safety, streets, transportation, arts and other projects. Each committee developed project proposals that would be voted on.  When it came time to vote, Moore’s office did extensive advertising to encourage people to vote, let them know what was going on and get out the vote.  One difference with voting for candidates is they allowed people to be informed within the voting precinct about the projects. (In candidate elections no electioneering is allowed inside the precinct.)  In fact, the perimeter of the voting area had people making presentations about projects, answering questions so people were informed voters who understood each project being voted on.

Participatory budget includes citizen participation in a meaningful way resulting in the education of citizens. Voters learn what it costs to re-pave road, ally or put in a new sidewalk.  For unusual projects citizens had to figure out what things would cost, e.g. showers at the park or solar powered trash compactors.   For example this led citizens to learn more about cost and effectiveness of police cameras and it moved them to better lighting rather than more cameras.

The community decided that they would let people 16 and older were allowed to vote regardless of citizenship status. Thirty-six projects were on the ballot.  Voters got to vote on up to eight projects. One vote for each project, no weighted voting i.e., they were not allowed to make multiple votes on a project.  Projects with the most votes up to the $1.3 million available were approved.  Sidewalk repairs and bike lanes were the top two vote getters.  Dog friendly park and community garden came in third and fourth.  Underpass murals to brighten up underpasses came in fifth.  Mix of traditional and non-traditional projects were approved by the voters.

The pie chart showing where the money went before participatory budgeting and after was very different.  There was much less spent on street resurfacing than he had previously spent and there was more variety in projects.  The pie chart had much smaller slices and a wider variety of projects.

The implementation process was very involved.  Democracy continued for the underpass murals, people also voted for the actual murals that would be put up.  They requested proposals from artists, 200 proposals came in which were narrowed down to 24 by the committee and then people voted for their favorite with the top 12 (tie so actually 13) were implemented. Moore had a blog to keep people up to date on implementation of the projects.

This is an ever changing process while the first year worked well, made some changes in the second year. One change was figuring how to deal with some projects which were very local, i.e., for a particular block, and if people did not live on that block it did not get their votes.  So second time, they asked people to vote in general how much of the budget should go to street resurfacing. They were told the priorities in the community for which street would receive funds up to the total amount approved. Voters were given one of 11 options from 0% to 100%, were told how much each option would cost and how many blocks would be repaved.  Voters decided to spend about half the available funds on road resurfacing.

Moore found this very helpful to him politically and more aldermen in the city wanted to implement participatory budgeting.  In one campaign one challenger to an alderman pushed participatory budgeting and the opponent opposed it.  The participatory budgeting advocate made this an issue and won the election, crediting in part his support for participatory budgeting.

The cost of participatory budget was minimal.   Moore assigned one staff person to manage the process.  Other staff members helped when needed.  They received a lot of in-kind help from the community from designers and consultants who worked for no fee.  Moore used some of his expense allowance for printing.  All in all about $60,000 was spent which is about $1 per resident.  The Participatory Budgeting Project was very helpful in developing the process and implementing participatory budgeting.

A resident of the community, Maria Hadden, joined the process. Now she serves on the board of the Participatory Budgeting Project, which has a newsletter and Facebook page.  Maria is a resident of the 49th Ward who got involved two years ago and fell in love with the process.  It seemed natural to her that residents should have a say in how to spend dollars in their community.  Now she wants to see it spread to other places.  It can be done anywhere, works with city budgets everywhere. This is not new money, but existing budgets and figuring out how to better allocate things.  There is lots of interest in developing it in different parts of the country. Among the areas of expansion in the United States:

–          New York City has launched a process in four districts, bi-partisan group of four legislators dealing with $60 million spending on infrastructure, with some access to operational funds as well.  This has been designed as a pilot for other cities to learn from and emulate.  They involved organizations throughout the city as well as in the four districts, a steering committee of individuals and organizations, community boards which are an entity in New York government.

–          San Francisco has a supervisor, John Avalos who is using it an issue in his campaign for mayor.  There is lots of other interest in San Francisco.

–          Greensboro, NC is also look at citywide use of participatory budgeting with local foundation showing interest and is working with city manager.

–          Providence, RI, Lawrence and Springfield, MA, a group in New Orleans – the Citizens Participation Project in New Orleans.

–          In Madison, WI former and current city councilors are talking about it.

Former City Councilmember Brenda K. Konkel described the experience in Madison, where the mayor showed some interest, but did not really understand it and backed away, now kind of opposed.  His position changed as part of a complete rightward shift in his policies. A couple of months ago Alderman Moore presented participatory budgeting in Madison and now there are three alderman who are interested.  They put it on the council schedule but, now a new mayor came in, Paul Soglin, and he had his own ideas and participatory budgeting got taken off the agenda. Currently the public gets to participate but only after the decisions are made. Mayor Soglin realizes it is not a good process.  He did not have a lot of time this year as the budget process started right after he took office, especially the capital budget.  Mayor Soglin has a long, online survey, asking people what they value in city services. The survey has lots of flaws but the mayor is aware of that and working to make it better. City officials are open to participatory budgeting.  The city council members do not have their own pot of money and they have no staff so those are difficult hurdles that are different from Chicago. It would be interesting to see in Madison how the bike-car conflict would play out in the city because strong views on both sides. Konkel thinks it would be good for the community to have these discussions and she expects the two sides would find they are more compatible then they realize. The operating side of the budget is where a lot of money is spent, e.g. police, community services and this is where a lot of tension comes in the city.

Most cities do not have the menu money that Chicago has for each alderman. New York has something similar, allocated among city council each year.  That is why usually participatory budgeting is done at a city-wide level. Another option is to look at a specific part of the budget, e.g. transportation or community improvement projects.  Each community will be a little different in how they implement participatory budgeting.  The budget crisis opens up possibilities because people want to figure out new ways to do things.  Participatory budgeting also takes the pressure off the politicians. And in tough budget times, by opening up the process to voters it educates the people so they can see the challenges and help figure out solutions.

The next step in Chicago is to expand participatory budgeting to other wards. Moore want to make sure they do it right because worse than not doing it, is doing it badly as it damages the credibility of the process.  Now Moore is trying to get foundation funding for four or five Chicago wards to take on participatory budgeting.  Once it is demonstrated that it works in a variety of communities and is popular, overtime he hopes to convince the mayor to open up some of the operational budgets to a participatory process.

Participatory budgets are of interest across political boundaries because of distrust of government.  Even so the U.S. is in the infancy stage of participatory budgeting, way behind some of the rest of the world which is a couple of decades ahead us.

More information:

Joe Moore has lots of information on his official website about participatory budgeting,

The Participatory Budget Project based in New York City provides updates from throughout the United States and around the world on participatory budgeting.

Joe Moore is a 20-year member of the Chicago, Illinois, City Council, and is known for his pioneering work on living wages, community policing, and participatory budgeting. He is a co-founder of Cities for Peace, now known as Cities for Progress, a national organization of progressive local elected officials and is the former Chair of the National Democratic Municipal Officials Conference a nationwide organization of Democratic mayors and city council members. His website is

Maria Hadden is a resident of Chicago’s 49th Ward and a member of its Participatory Budgeting Leadership Committee,

Brenda K. Konkel is Executive Director of the Tenant Resource Center, Board Chair WYOU Community Television, Alder City of Madison Common Council 2001-2009, one of many hosts of A Public Affair WORT Community Radio, Progressive Dane Steering Committee, blogger at, James Madison Park Neighborhood Representative to Capitol Neighborhoods and involved in all kinds of other community activist things.


Share This