Here in the beach-lined Rogers Park neighborhood, Chicagoans are activating an experiment in democratic governance: participatory budgeting. A simple yet radical departure from traditional city budgeting processes, the participatory system allows residents of a given area to directly vote on how government money is spent within their community. Rogers Park’s Ward 49 can call itself the first place in North America to put it into practice. “We were the first one. We beat New York. They emulated a lot of what we did,” said Alderman Joe Moore, who called the system a profound deviation from the status quo “in a city like this, where so many decisions are made from the top down.”
Five years after Moore’s district first tried participatory budgeting, three other wards have followed its lead, picking up a practice pioneered 25 years ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Since 2011, nine city council districts in New York adopted it. The city of Vallejo, Calif. did the same last year, as did one council district in San Francisco. The results are promising, with participation levels relatively strong and zero scandals to date.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in late October that he’s interested in taking participatory budgeting citywide. And this isn’t just talk: Emanuel’s 2014 budget includes funds for a manager of such a program, who would provide technical support to bring the process into each of Chicago’s 50 wards. Other U.S. cities will be watching, potentially opening to the door for mainstreaming a practice that has struggled to gain legitimacy beyond the provinces of the left.
In my latest story for Next City, reporting live from Rogers Park, keep your eye out for the parakeet, the hidden paperback, and the lady who leaves early for a scotch... and is caught in the act!