Bright Spots in Community Engagement: Chicago Residents Get a Big Say in How Public Money is Spent

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This post was written by Matt Leighninger, Executive Director, Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

This is the third post in a  blog series highlighting communities that were profiled in the new Knight Foundation and NLC joint report, Bright Spots in Community Engagement.  The report showcases 14 U.S. communities that are building greater civic participation and engagement from the bottom up.

The story of Chicago’s 49th Ward shows why many public officials are placing a new emphasis on community engagement. Alderman Joe Moore brought the concept of Participatory Budgeting (PB) to his ward, and has continued to be its most active proponent. He embraced PB partly because he thought it would reverse his political fortunes; the process has not only transformed Moore’s career, it has altered his own perception of his role as an elected official.

After serving for 16 years as a Chicago alderman, Moore was very narrowly re-elected in the 2007 election. This experience was something of a wake-up call for Moore, who felt he needed to reconnect with many of his constituents.

Moore had been exposed to a number of public engagement principles and practices as a member of the Democratic Governance Panel of the National League of Cities; he attended a workshop on PB in 2007, and started planning his own process with the help of the Participatory Budgeting Project, based in New York City.

The 49th Ward PB process includes representatives from civic, religious and community organizations. In the first phase, meetings are held to describe PB as a tool and outline how residents can engage in the process. Participants then form into committees that develop options for spending in areas such as parks, arts, and transportation.  The committees brainstorm and review project ideas, conduct research, obtain cost estimates, and ultimately select their projects for inclusion on a ward-wide ballot.

Ward voters select their top projects from the PB process, and the ward’s “menu money” is used to implement these projects.  In Chicago, each alderman is allotted a line item (referred to as menu money), amounting to approximately $1 million annually to spend on capital improvements and initiatives within the ward.

In 2010, 36 individual proposals appeared on the ballot, and more than 1,600 residents voted in the election. The number of voters dipped to roughly 1,000 voters in 2011. Participation on the neighborhood assemblies apparently reached its highest level in the third year of PB, and the number of voters rose again to 1,300 in 2012.

The Consent – and Ideas, Energy, and Support – of the Governed

The 49th Ward, which encompasses the neighborhood of Rogers Park, has roughly 60,000 residents living in an area of two square miles. It’s extremely diverse, with over 80 languages spoken, and is about 30% Latino, 30% African American, 30% white, and 10% Asian.

Moore asserts that PB has significantly increased the number and diversity of people engaged in the public life of the ward.  “The people that are really involved in the leadership process and community groups are not the usual suspects – these are new people, not the meeting junkies…and that has just been terrific to see,” says Moore.

In addition to increasing involvement in decision-making, PB in the 49th Ward seems to have activated citizens to be more active problem-solvers. For example, a dog park and a community garden, two projects that were initiated and approved through the process, are now operated by teams of neighborhood volunteers. Although Detroit and Philadelphia do not currently engage in participatory budgeting, their community engagement efforts are similar to those happening Chicago in encouraging citizens to be more active in community building and problem solving.

In 2011, Alderman Moore was reelected with 72% of the vote. “I take the result of the last election as a sign of popular support for participatory budget and any similar initiatives that nurture citizen engagement and promote participatory governance,” Moore says. “I take it as a sign that people in the 49th ward want to be active participants in governing rather than being passive observers of government.”