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
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
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
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.