Photo by Alan Cleaver, http://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/2750890246/
What would it look like if community members could decide how millions of dollars of public money are spent?
This is precisely the question a group of steering committee members from Vallejo, California sought to answer recently. The city is beginning an ambitious plan to implement participatory budgeting, or PB, a simple but novel democratic approach to public budgeting, allowing the community to directly decide how public money is spent. Many may find it surprising that Vallejo is the first city in the United States to implement PB on a citywide scale. Keep in mind that this is a city that just four years ago became known for a less illustrious first— Vallejo was the first California city to file bankruptcy after the financial crash in 2008. Vallejo has come a long way in a few short years, and with participatory budgeting, the Valley-Joe will be following in the footsteps of Chicago and New York, where individual districts have implemented similar processes. The question is, can it succeed on a citywide scale, and can Vallejo engage its diverse but divided population to get involved?
According to the Participatory Budgeting Project, a New York-based non-profit that supports the process in North America, PB works generally according to the following process: diagnosis, discussion, decision-making, implementation, and monitoring.
Participatory budgeting was first implemented in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the late 1980s. It was started as part of a series of initiatives designed to address some of the vast inequalities in Brazilian society, specifically in Porto Alegre. Local government resources were distributed in an extremely unequal manner, with high-income neighborhoods thriving while shantytowns lacked basic infrastructure. PB sought to level these disparities by giving the community a direct voice in how public resources were allocated.
According to a World Bank report on the process, “PB is a process through which citizens present their demands and priorities for civic improvement. Since 1989, budget allocations for public welfare works in Porto Alegre have been made only after the recommendations of public delegates and approval by the city council.” The paper goes on to cite the direct improvements from the process. In ten years, the number of schools in Porto Alegre quadrupled, and sewer and water connections increased from 75 percent to 98 percent, while the number of participants in the participatory budgeting process increased to 40,000 per year. Based on this success, other areas in Brazil caught on and PB is now practiced in more than 140 municipalities in the country. Soon it spread to other areas of Latin America and eventually the world: it is now estimated that 1,500 cities have participatory budgets in place.
The United States has been slow to catch on, but in recent years a few successful PB projects have emerged, paving the way for Vallejo. Chicago’s 49th Ward under the leadership of Alderman Joe Moore was the first district in the U.S. to implement PB in 2009, starting with a pot of $1.3 million in discretionary funds. 1,600 people turned out for this initial process, voting on improvements for their ward.
Following Chicago, in 2011, four New York City districts launched their own process to decide how to spend over $5 million in discretionary funds. This year, four more districts have joined for a total of around $10 million. Looking at Chicago and New York, and given the success of PB in Brazil and worldwide, why has the U.S. been so slow to jump on board?
“One of the main issues is that we’re not used to looking for ideas about democracy from other countries,” says Josh Lerner, Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, “We think we know how to do democracy best. What could a country like Brazil teach the U.S. about democracy? The other big issue is that some elected officials don’t want to share power and think they know best what the community wants.”
Despite this critique, PB is clearly starting to take root in the U.S., and Vallejo, if it succeeds, is in a position to silence the critics.
PB comes to Vallejo courtesy of councilwoman Marti Brown. After closely following the development of PB in Chicago and New York, Brown saw an opportunity and spearheaded the implementation in Vallejo. The Vallejo community will decide how to spend a minimum of 30% of the revenue generated by the voter-approved Measure B sales tax - approximately $3.2 million, collected over a 15-month period from April 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013.
“I just thought, there’s got to be a better way to engage the public around making budgetary decisions that have a direct impact and influence on the lives of everyone that lives in the city,” Brown said.
Not everyone on city council agreed with her. The process was approved by a contentious 4-3 city council vote, with mayor Osby Davis voting against it. But it was approved nonetheless, and now its supporters will do what they can to ensure the program is successful.
In September, the city council put together a steering committee composed of community leaders from a wide range of organizations from the NAACP to homeowner’s associations, to decide what the process would look like. They decided things such as voting age, accessibility, meeting times, timelines, outreach, and project eligibility. In just three meetings of the steering committee, members were amazed at what they were able to accomplish. “I was really excited about how inclusive we are making the actual ‘who can present an idea’ and ‘who can vote,’” said Joey Lake, the appointed chair of the steering committee. Vallejo residents or stakeholders 14 and up will be able to present project ideas and residents 16 and up will ultimately vote for their favorites in May, 2013.
Vallejo, an extremely culturally and economically diverse city of 115,000 in Northern California, has made headlines for all the wrong reasons as of late, and community leaders hope the PB process can help shed some of the negative exposure the city has received since declaring bankruptcy in 2008.
Despite ultimately exiting bankruptcy in 2011 in relatively good standing, Vallejo still has some issues to resolve, chief among them public safety. This reality is clearly something PB will need to address, as violent crime rates remain abnormally high for a city of its size, due in part to cuts in the police force and gang affiliations. In fact, as the final steering committee meeting was underway in the city’s library, a large protest took place just outside the doors of city hall, drawing attention to five recent fatal officer-involved shootings in Vallejo, three of which took place in the previous week.
Lerner thinks participatory budgeting can help the community come up with innovative ways to stop crime. “What we’ve found elsewhere is that people learn a lot about the roots of crime and ways to reduce crime through this process,” he says. “Sometimes, this can change their initial opinions.” Lerner cites an example in Chicago, where residents asked for security cameras, and after meetings and discussions, the community ultimately chose to prioritize street lights instead, something the police department found to be more effective in crime prevention.
So what can Vallejo expect from this process? In New York, projects funded by popular demand last year included $80,000 for new books and equipment to Brooklyn’s Kensington public library, $100,000 for transportation for seniors and a Meals-on-Wheels van in East Harlem, and in the Rockaways $147,000 for a water pump, pagers and an oxygen refill system for volunteer fire departments. In Chicago last year voters chose to devote slightly more than half of the $1 million to street resurfacing, with the remainder going towards new sidewalks, a new playground, trees for parkways, and artistic murals for underpasses. Brown is excited to see what the community comes up with. “I joke with people all the time that there is a huge crane over on Mare Island that is about ready to be stripped and thrown into a landfill and I’m thinking art project on the waterfront,” she says. “It’s about sixty feet tall and I think it would get a lot of attention and interest. Who knows, maybe someone will pick that up as a project and turn it into an art project. I think the possibilities are really endless.”
Public assemblies are currently kicking off. Vallejo residents will be able to directly participate in the process and share their ideas on how the city should be spending their tax dollars. The biggest challenge will be outreach to ensure the broader community is truly involved. “It’s easier for a handful of people to sit in an office and decide how to spend money than it is to engage thousands of people,” Lerner points out. “And that takes work—it takes resources, it takes capacity, it takes commitment.”
Other cities in the Bay Area like Oakland and San Francisco are already inquiring about how PB could work in their community, surprised to be following the lead of a city like Vallejo. San Francisco has groups that have been pushing for PB for the past couple years, while the Oakland-based Community Democracy Project, a grassroots organization that is working on an initiative campaign to create PB in Oakland, appears to be gaining traction in the East Bay. Oakland, on the surface, would seem to be an ideal launching site for PB. The combination of numerous activist groups, deep-rooted community organizations, marginalized populations that have traditionally had minimal input on how the city spends public money, and a current budgeting process facing scrutiny for a lack of transparency make the city ripe for an alternative budgeting process.
Vallejo’s leadership has shown the initial commitment. Now it will take follow-through. But the stakes are much larger than Vallejo itself. If PB succeeds in Vallejo, many communities in California will most certainly look to follow the city’s lead. And from there, who knows? Maybe Brazil can teach the U.S. something about democracy.