How understanding the local budget empowers community

by: Sally Duros |

Two foundations in California are priming their communities for open government initiatives by teaching them how the local government budget works and that they can have a hand in influencing it.

The California Endowment has hired the nonprofit consultant, Participatory Budgeting Project, to launch participatory budgeting initiatives in 14 low-income areas across the state. And Liberty Hill Foundation is training the community at the grass roots level about what the budget means in preparation for Los Angeles’ open data Websites.

Participatory budgeting, PB, is a process that any institution with a publicly oriented budget can try. Even though it is new in the United States, it has a long track record, says Josh Lerner, Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project.

Participatory budgeting started in Brazil about 25 years ago and since then has spread throughout Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia and now the United States. “It’s as much about learning about the government for community groups as it is a way to organize,” he says.

The process is not about consulting the public; it is about giving them real power to make real decisions about a real pot of money, Lerner says. It’s not usually for the whole budget but rather for that part of the budget that is discretionary. And it’s not a one-off event. It usually lasts for several months so that people have the time as well as the power to make decisions.

In the work for the California Endowment, “We’re trying to bring groups together to collaboratively build healthier communities.” That entails going out into the neighborhoods and holding community workshops and strategy sessions at the places where people gather.

Launched in Chicago

In 2009, Alderman Joe Moore of the 49th Ward in Chicago was the first U.S. politician to sign on and use the principles. When members of his ward successfully used it to choose neighborhood improvements, the PB process caught on and was quickly adopted by three other wards. It spread to New York in 2011, where 8,000 people decided how to spend $6 million across four city districts.  And in 2012, Vallejo, Calif., in the midst of its bankruptcy launched the first citywide project. At least eight U.S. cities — now including St. Louis, Boston and San Francisco— have used participatory budgeting, and around 20 more are planning new processes, Lerner says.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is said to be very close to hiring a director of participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting replaces that city budget meeting that often turns into a shouting match with a more orderly structured process that encourages people to engage more effectively.

“It is really a laboratory for uncovering how government works and how it could work differently,” Lerner says.

Lerner says community foundations or other civic leaders interested in participatory budgeting should consider three main factors in making a decision whether to pursue it.

Community support: Participatory budgeting works best when there is strong community interest in having input into the budget.

Political support: Elected officials must be invested in the idea and understand the commitment to going along with the process.

Funding support: Participatory budgeting is primarily an engagement process and as such it takes time and resources.

“Democracy takes time and takes a lot of work,” Lerner says.

One you’ve made the decision to go with participatory budgeting, the process looks like this, with some variations depending on local needs.

Brainstorm, bring people together to brainstorm either in large meetings or online.

Recruit volunteers to act as community liaisons.

Turn the ideas into proposals for funding.

Present proposals to the city for vetting and cost estimates.

Assess feasibility, the city determine whether it can be technically done and how much it will cost.

Put the projects that are technically feasible on the ballot.

Vote. Community members vote for their top projects, and the projects with the most votes get funded.

“The vote is not just to have people fill out a ballot,” Lerner says. ”Often people will spend a half an hour reading through the project and learning about their neighborhood or their city and talking about it with neighbors.”

It is key to have a concrete vote at the end on the actual project. But unlike votes for public office that are held in a polling place, PB voting can be held in a supermarket, at a school, in the subway — wherever people gather.  As to who is eligible to vote, that is decided by each locality. In many cases, local steering committees have put that age at 16.

In addition to the on-the-ground votes, some localities are using online platforms. And Lerner says that SMS and mobile tools are being developed that can be useful. Boston is developing some tools to be used in a youth development project.

Preparing Los Angeles’ community for OpenGov 

In Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation is providing training about the Los Angeles Budget and energizing youth to get involved in spending new discretionary funding on programs tailored for them.

Liberty Hill’s motto is ‘Change, not Charity’,” says Chief Operating Officer Preeti Kulkarni. “One way we foster change for the better is by encouraging civic engagement, not only through get-out-the-vote efforts, but through improving access for grassroots community members to develop the skills and knowledge to participate in the decision-making process.”

To that end, the Advancement Project, one of Liberty Hill’s grantees, has been meeting with the Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation as well as the Controller’s Office as open data rolls out in Los Angeles. The Controller’s office recently launched Controller Data and the Mayor’s office will soon be launching its open data site.

“Currently we have created training curriculum and materials to increase access and make the Los Angeles City budget understandable and useable for community advocates,” says Lori Thompson Holmes, Manager of Online and Digital Initiatives for Advancement Project. That project is funded in part by a $50,000 grant from Knight Foundation.

Open data, community priorities a force for change

Through its training, the Advancement Project shares the government Websites with the community and helps them understand how the information on the sites, combined with community’s clear view of priorities, can be a force for change. To that end, early this year, the social justice group started sharing information online through a Tumblr WeBudgetLA.org

Teaching the public about the budget is essential, because as we have learned from the open government world, “Start with a problem. Use data as a resource.” Not the other way around.

In addition to the City of L.A. budget training, Liberty Hill is also focusing on its youth-activist program — Brothers Sons Selves. Through that Liberty Hill is bringing the voices of boys and young men of color to the discussion of how L.A. will spend the billions in education funding that will soon be coming to the city through Local Control Funding Formula—a new school funding system.

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sally

Sally Duros believes good writing is a superpower. You can connect with Sally on , and on Twitter.

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