Participatory Budgeting: Letting Citizens Guide City Spending

The city of St. John's is about to host its pre-budget consultations. There are public sessions taking place on November 8th (tonight) and November 17th (next Saturday) at City Hall. Happy City will be there, and it'd be great to see the room packed with people getting involved in the budgeting process.

But what does "getting involved in the budget process" mean? Different places have very different answers to that question. Here in St. John's, our pre-budget consultations happen only weeks before council votes on the budget itself. Most people would argue that's not enough time for substantial changes to be worked into the budget.  

That said, when Happy City was in the room for last year's consultations, we heard quite a lot about snow clearing. No surprise there - snow clearing makes its way into a lot of the discussions Happy City has had. That input made a difference - the budget for snow clearing went up, and council cited the budget consultations when they talked about it.  So, there is a channel for public input to make its way into the city's budget thinking.

But how does the process work? How are all the ideas coming in being prioritized? Why did snow-clearing stick while some other suggestions (ahem) melted away? In a system like ours, it's very hard to make that clear - the decision is council's, and it rests on their judgments and discussions.

That is, of course, what elected officials are there for - to make decisions on our behalf. You might be thinking "Sounds about right to me -I don't know enough about the city's finances to make the call anyway." Fair enough -  and you're right. There's not a lot of information to go on. The thing is, "leave it to the experts" is just one option - and lately, a movement in the other direction has started to catch on.

It's called Participatory Budgeting, and the name is pretty self-explanatory. To quote the very useful Participatory Budgeting Project definition, "participatory budgeting is a different way to manage public money, and to engage people in government. It is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It enables taxpayers to work with government to make the budget decisions that affect their lives."

It's usually a pretty simple process. Local people get together to come up with ideas for investments in their community. They build these ideas into proposals, and then the whole community gets to vote on them. The top proposals get funded. It's not the whole budget,but it is a chance for a significant amount of money to be allocated according to how the city, or the neighbourhood sees need.

Participatory budgeting started out in Porto Alegre, Brazil, but has by now been used all over the world. In North America, Chicago's 49th ward allocates its capital budget this way, as does Toronto Community Housing

Advocates would say that the value of PB goes way beyond the actual investments being made based on community input. Simply by dragging cities and their citizens into the same room and making sure they hear each other, it's building a space for a more sophisticated and inclusive discussion about where we want our cities to go.

So could it happen here in St. John's? There's no reason why not. And it's hard to see the downside of a process that strengthens the relationship between the dollars we all put in, and the community we get out. 

Written by Josh Smee at 07:50

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