Center for Community Engagement

‘Real decisions about real money’: Participatory budgeting for Springfield?

On Monday, April 11, 2011, Springfield and area residents, nonprofits, and local representatives are taking what could be the first step towards implementing “participatory budgeting” (PB) in Springfield: they’ll listen and learn about the very first PB success story in the United States. Organizers of the event—including the Springfield Institute, the Participatory Budgeting Project, and Amherst College’s Copeland Colloquium, Center for Community Engagement, and Roosevelt Institute—hope to spark interest and excitement for adapting this democratic model in Springfield.

In 2009, Alderman Joe Moore of Chicago became the first elected official in the U.S. to directly hand the financial decision-making of his discretionary budget —$1.3 million—to his constituents. The citizens of Alderman Moore’s 49th ward prepared proposals in working committees, and ultimately 1,600 residents voted on how to spend this public money. The genius of participatory budgeting is that it fully democratizes a decision-making process traditionally only made by a small local elite. Participatory budgeting first began in 1989, when the citizens of Porto Alegre, Brazil, collaboratively developed part of their municipal budget. Since 1989, over 1,200 cities have utilized this process to actively engage entire communities on diverse public issues.

Perhaps a simple idea on paper, the practice of collaborative budgeting for an entire community is hard work.  Josh Lerner, co-director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, explains that people who participate in the process “are surprised [by] how long it takes to make community projects happen - how many different agencies they have to meet with, how many approvals they need, how many concerns they have to address.” Yet they’re also “surprised [by] how much of a difference their participation can make. With participatory budgeting, people get to make real decisions about real money.”

Participatory budgeting isn’t just about the money, either: it’s a process that allows stakeholders to move beyond individual concerns to a more holistic understanding of their community’s issues. It engages entire communities in the democratic process—including members who have been historically excluded. Springfield Institute executive director Aron Goldman would like to see PB in Springfield for exactly this reason: “Participatory budgeting provides a real structure for traditionally unengaged and underrepresented residents to have more control over how their own tax dollars are spent.” Goldman cites extremely low voter participation in Springfield—twenty three percent of registered voters actually vote, and in communities of color and low-income communities, this number is cut in half —as an indication of why Springfield needs to find ways to get citizens more involved. With additional budget cuts hitting communities nationwide, Goldman adds that “participatory budgeting offers residents a first-hand sense of budget limitations, and gives a greater sense of responsibility.”

Should the citizens and representatives of Springfield choose to consider participatory budgeting, they’ll have the support of the Participatory Budgeting Project, Alderman Moore, and Amherst College alumnus and Copeland Fellow Daniel Altschuler behind them. A co-organizer of the upcoming meeting and scholar of participatory governance, Altschuler is eager to see how Amherst College can be a resource to “help [Springfield] continue to explore participatory budgeting.” Altschuler hopes that Amherst groups like the Roosevelt Institute (who together with the Springfield Institute has twice co-taught a course on public policy) and the Center for Community Engagement will play a role if participatory budgeting catches on in Springfield.

Goldman and Altschuler’s primary focus for the moment is to get as many stakeholders to the table for April’s meeting. Connecting with local officials, community organizations, the governor’s office, and Springfield citizens, they’re determined to have a diverse and excited audience on April 11. Goldman knows that the potential of this first step is huge: “If April 11 marks the beginning of the planning phase for several experiments with PB around the region, we will have really hit the bull's eye.”  

Join the conversation about participatory budgeting in Springfield at 4 p.m. on Monday, April 11 at Springfield Technical Community College (Building 2, Scibelli Hall, seventh floor). For more information about the meeting, send an email to daniel.altschuler[at]sant.ox.ac.uk. To learn more about participatory budgeting, read this piece about Alderman Moore and watch this five minute video of the 49th ward’s budgeting process.

Jenny Morgan is a staff writer for the Center for Community Engagement at Amherst College. She loves ghost stories, planning road trips, and picking up new languages (like British English). She welcomes any comments at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.