Participatory Budgeting Gains Steam in San Francisco

Participatory Budgeting Gains Steam in San Francisco
When Mayor Ed Lee ventured across San Francisco’s 11 districts this spring talking with residents about what to cut and what to save from the budget, he won praise for opening what some called a new era in fiscal discourse: giving people a more direct say about where their money is spent. But what if, rather than the mayor in the driver’s seat, it was the community itself that presented, weighed and voted on district budgets? The idealistic notion under consideration in San Francisco, sometimes called “participatory budgeting,” hands decision-making power for budgets to the residents of neighborhoods and whole cities.

If the process works as it did for the 49th Ward of Chicago, where the nation’s first participatory budgeting effort began in 2009, San Francisco neighborhoods could expect some big changes. When allowed to vote directly on spending, ward residents in Chicago shifted more than $1 million from a few costly maintenance projects, such as street resurfacing, lighting and sidewalk repairs, to an array of projects aimed at literally reshaping the community. They built bike lanes and racks, a dog park, a garden, underpass murals and beach showers.

“In these cash-strapped times, it’s a great step for government at the local level to get outside City Hall,” said Pete Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy in Malibu.

Given the fiscal crisis in local governments, Peterson said, “we’re increasingly seeing people asked not just for their input and their participation, but for the delivery of actual services.”

Now, participatory budgeting has become a campaign issue in San Francisco, where District 11 Supervisor John Avalos said that if elected mayor, he would take money from the city’s transportation authority and allow resident-formed committees to choose how and where to spend it.

Beginning with small capital projects, such as sidewalk repairs, street improvements, bike lanes and pedestrian-safe zones, provides “a good opportunity to bring neighborhoods together to decide how those allocations can be made,” Avalos said.  He said that later, long-term operating projects like senior programs and child care centers could be budgeted by popular demand.

“San Francisco already has a great footing” for citizen-monitored budgets, he said, “and we can go to the next level.”

This spring, Avalos was one of about a dozen City Hall officials to meet Chicago Alderman Joe Moore and Josh Lerner, co-founder and co-director of the Brooklyn-based Participatory Budgeting Project. They described how the Windy City’s 49th Ward became the first district in the country to let local residents directly decide how to spend a portion of the city budget through neighborhood assemblies and popular “consensus.”

In 2009, the 49th Ward had a $1.54 million discretionary spending budget. Through the established process, $937,000 went to infrastructure improvements including road resurfacing. Another $325,000 went to street lighting. The rest were smaller items — $93,000 to sidewalk repairs, $60,000 to curbs and gutters, $49,000 to alley resurfacing and $8,000 to alley speed bumps.

In 2010, the first year participatory budgeting was used, a very different distribution of funds over a range of new projects resulted for a smaller $1.3 million budget. Residents cut down street resurfacing nearly tenfold, to $99,000 for a single three-block project, and cut street lighting to $260,000. They nearly doubled the expenditure for sidewalk repairs, to $175,000, and eliminated spending on curbs and gutters, alley resurfacing and speed bumps.

Instead, the bulk of funds went to an array of community-centered projects: $260,000 to a traffic pedestrian signal; $105,000 for 15 decorative multifunctional bike-racks throughout the ward; $110,000 for a dog park; $101,000 for three new bike lanes; $84,000 for benches and shelters at three El platforms; $84,000 for 13 underpass murals; $50,000 for beach showers; $42,000 for historical signs; $42,000 for 10 solar-powered garbage containers; $33,000 for a community garden; and $25,000 for a park path.


Avalos and others estimate a similar initiative could be enacted in San Francisco as early as the next fiscal year starting July 1, 2012, making this the nation’s first citywide experiment in a budgeting process now used in more than 1,200 cities across the globe. Lerner is helping launch a participatory budgeting initiative this fall in New York City while also working closely with city officials and community organizations to establish the process in Providence, Rhode Island; Greensboro, North Carolina; New Orleans; and Springfield and Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Community advocates say the new system could give those communities facing steep budget cuts a direct say in how money is allocated. Oscar Grande, an activist with People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights, a Mission District-based group helping spearhead the local participatory budgeting effort, said: “Every year we gear up for battle at the Board of Supervisors and with the mayor about what to cut and it feels like a lot of begging, with deals made in the back room. We feel it’s time to think about ways that regular everyday people can actually be in control of the decisions being made — with direct, tangible results.”

Lerner, who first learned about the process in 2003 while completing a master’s degree in city planning in Toronto, said participatory budgeting is ultimately “a political project: opening up governments, reconnecting people with decision making, and giving them real power to make real decisions with real money, which is a fundamental break from how democracy has been run.”

Incubated in 1988 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, participatory budgeting has since caught on in towns and cities across Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada and even the Caribbean, and has earned approval from the United Nations as a “good governance practice.” So far, though, Americans have been slow to catch on, and Grande and others say San Francisco could lead the way.


The concept behind participatory budgeting is simple. Advocates say it would work like this: Each year in the fall, San Franciscans would gather in neighborhood assemblies that are open to residents of that district — something akin to town hall–style meetings — and residents would propose where they would like to see discretionary funds spent. (Discretionary funds rarely exceed 20 percent of the overall budget in most U.S. cities, where large fixed costs like labor contracts, debt payments and infrastructure repairs and maintenance make up the bulk of expenditures.)

The assemblies would break into smaller groups and elect delegates who, over the coming months, are responsible for turning those initial ideas into concrete projects with price tags and plans for carrying them out. Finally, in the spring, the proposals are brought back to the public and voted on. While the process is drawn out, Lerner said, it’s formulated to achieve optimal results.

“You can’t expect people to make complex policy decisions in a few hours — it takes time,” he said. “The reason participatory budgeting works is because it’s a yearlong process that involves months of meetings, research and discussions. And that’s what delivers democratic decisions in the end.”

Lengthening and slowing down the decision-making process may appear to be a drawback, where “a bunch of novices are going to take forever to make decisions,” said Barbara O’Connor, emeritus professor of communication and the director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because that’s the thing that engages them.”

A bigger downside, she suggested, is the potential dilution of “fundamental social issues that a region needs to deal with” in favor of a more small-item, neighborhood budget priorities.

“Single-issue people can often make the most change in society,” she said. “San Francisco has done a lot for the gay community and for the homeless communities, for example. But distinct neighborhoods may not feel that way. The tradeoff on granularity is that it’s granular: participatory budgeting will move away from lofty issues. A lot of people are truly annoyed because they feel their government hasn’t represented them for a long period of time, and they’re so overwhelmed with the bigger issues that they just disengage. But their voices shouldn’t be diluted right now.”

In the case of San Francisco, politicians and community organizers alike say the path toward participatory budgeting should be incremental steps, starting with small capital improvement projects and moving into larger operational projects over time.

Mayor Lee has, in principle, thrown his support behind the process, launching what he calls the San Francisco Budget Challenge and taking what aides say is a more “inclusive, collaborative approach” than did past mayors. This spring he reached out to labor groups, nonprofits and community groups to improve transparency and “ensure that the public participated in the discussion and influenced the outcome of the budget process,” said Christine Falvey, a spokeswoman for the mayor.

Some community organizers have expressed concerns that moving too quickly — before activist groups have a chance to form a stronger, interest-based alliance — might be counterproductive.

“We’ve been having conversations with our members and we’re not ready to jump head-first” into participatory budgeting, Grande said. Rather, “we’re more inclined to be part of a grouping or some kind of coalition that is beginning to develop this, and saying, ‘Let’s study, let’s learn, and two years from now we can begin implementing this in bite-sized chunks.’”


Other cities in the region are interested in participatory budgeting but are waiting to see what happens in San Francisco first.

Shawn McDougal of the Oakland and Berkeley-based Community Democracy Project said his group is preparing city charter amendments that would clear the way for participatory budgeting in those cities.

“If it takes off in San Francisco in a way that’s not just rhetorical or symbolic, but really energizes people to come up with creative solutions to problems, that will be an inspiration for people throughout the state and the country,” McDougal said. He said he hopes to have enough signatures this year — 8,000 in Berkeley and 17,000 in Oakland — to get a measure placed on at least one of those cities’ ballots. The effort could lead to a charter amendment by 2012.

The initiative is also catching on in smaller cities like Vallejo, where Marti Brown, a city council member, hopes to see the process take root around federally administered Community Development Block Grant funds, which would “let the public decide the price point at which we’re willing to pay for the programs and services selected, whether it’s public safety, infrastructure projects or youth programs.”


The push for participatory budgeting can be seen as the latest chapter in a long American tradition of furthering grassroots democracy, going back to the earliest town hall meetings of New England. In the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the enactment of recall and referendum initiatives signaled a new stage in that process. But the cultural stir-up during the civil rights era of the 1960s saw the most inspired effort to address concerns of the under-represented — particularly the War on Poverty, under President Lyndon Johnson, when the federal government actually paid community organizers to provide resources and mobilize disadvantaged communities against special interests, in what was then called “maximum feasible participation.”

Today, said Max Nieman, a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Government Studies at UC Berkeley, it isn’t just the poor but almost every ethnic and cultural group that lacks the special interests, lobbyists and hired consultants to go to bat for them. In this context, Nieman said, participatory budgeting is more broadly about “trying to wrestle with the problem of legitimacy.”

“The traditional avenues and channels of policy making — electing representatives, attending public meetings and hearings, writing letters, signing petitions, launching initiatives — just isn’t working” anymore, Nieman said. “A huge swath of the population feels excluded from the important decisions that affect their lives, whether it’s transportation and parks and recreation, or taxes and fees, and it’s a serious challenge being faced by our governing institutions.”

Taking advantage of the online technology and social research that’s become available for citizen engagement is a natural next step, he added. And yet, using the Internet to grow participatory budgeting could have its drawbacks.

Mira Luna, who helped develop the Bay Area Community Exchange Time Bank, and a key advocate pushing the new budgeting process in San Francisco, warns that the temptation to replace real bodies and grassroots organizing with online consensus-building might miss the larger point. “The easy route is to make it a sexy-tech San Francisco flagship program — to do it all online and get maximum participation,” Luna said.

But “part of the city isn’t online and doesn’t use computers, so if it’s only Internet driven, many people would be cut out of the process,” she said. “Face-to-face dialogue, hearing each other’s needs — we want people making proposals and making decisions on those proposals. You can try and simulate all this online, but it works better in person, with community.”

Another challenge to participatory budgeting may be the factor of diversity itself: Every community is different, with distinct needs and approaches to solving problems. Grande, for example, is concerned that unless communities of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds turn out strongly and engage, participatory budgeting won’t bring them any better results than the standard budgeting processes of the past.

“We love the tool but we have to make sure that it’s an equitable process,” he said. “Our communities aren’t homogenous. They’re diverse, multilingual, multi-age communities, and there has to be a lot of support and some deep education so that when the city is ready to roll on this, we’ve got communities that are prepped and ready to engage. If it’s just a free-for-all, it might be hard.”

Further potential pitfalls await the process as well. Pepperdine University’s Peterson cautioned that the connection between “the public’s voice and actual policy making” might not be as simple as advocates believe.

There is a “gap between a two-hour discussion workshop about a budget and translating that into an actual budget with thousands of line items,” Peterson said. “Public feedback is good, but there are still a lot of complex decisions that still have to be made by council.”

Like it or not, he said, established forms of local government exist precisely to do the detailed, itemized budgetary work that the rest of us are not trained for. Peterson even suggested that it might not be governmental budgets that should be called on at all to address community issues, but rather a voluntary corps of citizens within communities who are willing to engage in carrying out the programs they want to see enacted, in effect, for free.

“As you discuss cuts, it’s not just about prioritization,” he said, “it’s about services that are important, but which government doesn’t have the money to deal with. And that’s where civil society plays a bigger role, with volunteers stepping into places where government was before.”

For example, after a severe 2008 storm damaged and shut Polihale State Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, residents got tired of their local government stalling on a $4 million reconstruction effort to re-open it. So instead, citizens organized themselves into a work crew that graded roads and rebuilt bridges and bathroom facilities. With $100,000 in donated steel and free food supplied by local restaurants, residents completed the park’s restoration in two weeks.

“We shouldn’t have to do this, but when it gets to a state level, it just gets so bureaucratic — something that took us eight days would have taken them years,” said Troy Martin, whose company donated the steel. “So we got together, the community, and we got it done.”


When Moore, the Chicago alderman, helped enact the process successfully in his ward, the economic crisis was at the top of people’s minds. Since then, it’s fair to say that the mood in the country has in some ways changed, namely in voters’ willingness to reexamine how their money is managed on the federal, state and local levels.

“It’s a lot harder to say that politicians and public officials know what’s best now, or corporations for that matter,” said Lerner from his perch in Brooklyn. “It’s really the crisis that catalyzed this.”

In San Francisco, Lerner said, “we found that people understood participatory budgeting more quickly than any place else we’ve been. The questions weren’t basic ones like ‘Can this work?’ but practical questions like ‘How will this work here?’”

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