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Participatory budgeting advocates make the case in San Francisco

After suffering two years of deficits that have seen San Francisco’s safety net slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars, here is a budgeting idea that community organizations can get behind: participatory budgeting.

The idea works like this. The city offers up a pot of discretionary dollars to be spent by taxpayers. Community leaders host meetings to identify needs, recruit volunteers to research project ideas and then present the plans to the community, which votes on which ones will be implemented.

The idea appears to be a good one, which is why it’s catching on here. And if you believe Josh Lerner, co-director of the Providence, RI-based Participatory Budgeting Project, and Joe Moore, an alderman from Chicago’s 49th Ward and the first U.S. legislator to institute the practice, the plan might help to transform civic engagement in neighborhoods across the country.

Last Tuesday, the two men made the case for the alternative budget model before a crowd of 40 at Centro del Pueblo Auditorium on Valencia Street, in the Mission. The event was hosted by the Center for Political Education, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, and a slew of community organizations that included the Chinese Progressive Association and the San Francisco Community Land Trust.

Lerner, who has worked on budgeting projects worldwide, outlined the plan’s history and its basic model while Moore offered up the more personal story of his ward. Participatory budgeting was first introduced as a social justice project in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989; now more than 1,200 cities worldwide have adopted the practice in some form.

Last fiscal year, Moore had $1.3 million to spend on infrastructure projects like paving roads, installing new street lighting and painting bike lanes. In his Chicago neighborhood, 100 volunteers came out and proposed 36 projects. Of those, 14 were funded based on 1,652 voters aged 16 and up. Interestingly, voters did not have to be citizens or registered voters, but they did need to provide evidence that they lived in the ward. Putting the ideas into practice cost the ward $60,000.

“There is no policy that I have received more popular support from than participatory budgeting,” Moore said.

According to Lerner, participatory budgeting offers civic benefits through an activation of community volunteering, leadership development and the creation of “a transparency of decision making rather than a transparency of decisions,” he said. “It is hard to continue to put your interests first when you see other people with greater need.”

Aides to John Avalos, a District 11 supervisor and mayoral hopeful, and Jane Kim, a supervisor from District 6, attended the event. Moore and Lerner will have a closed-door meeting with department heads and representatives of Mayor Ed Lee’s office later this week to discuss how the proposal can be applied to effective use in San Francisco.

Speaking to the SF Public Press at a town hall meeting held at James Denman Middle School last week, Mayor Lee said participatory budgeting “sounds like a radical idea.”

“It is probably around the corner,” he added, though he didn’t see a realistic possibility of including the proposal in this year’s mayoral budget, the first draft of which is due June 1. However, “We certainly want to do that with the Board of Supervisors,” he said.



Participatory Budgeting From the Bottom Up

The challenge is to deliver as claimed- to create greater inclusivity and empowerment of underrepresented voices- instead of merely drawing in the usual suspects (white middle class activists and nonprofit heads). To a large extent, the answer is in the design. We must involve those underrepresented voices from the very beginning. It definitely needs support from those at the top (government officials) but needs to be designed from the bottom. This point was reiterated by Josh Lerner a number of times. As Albert Einstein said, "You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it."


Thanks for the nice article Kevin. One clarification to a quote that was included out of context: “It is hard to continue to put your interests first when you see other people with greater need.” Actually, it's very easy to do this, and people do it all the time. What's hard, as I explained at the event, is to do this when you sit across the table from someone with greater needs for regular meetings over several months, as is the case in participatory budgeting. By bringing people together face to face repeatedly to discuss local problems, participatory budgeting forces folks to grapple with needs other than their own. I've seen this have transformative effects on many participants, as they start to look beyond their own needs and prioritize other people who are worse off. -- Josh Lerner / The Participatory Budgeting Project /