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.