Progressive city governments in thousands of cities around the world are partnering with residents to plan their futures, not through the traditional top-down advisory model, but through an exciting new process known as participatory budgeting.

Five cities in North America have undertaken the challenge of bringing thousands of residents and their ideas directly to the decision table.

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In this first opinion piece, Norman Kearney, an MA student in philosophy and public policy at the London School of Economics and Hamilton Councillor Russ Powers, discuss participatory budgeting, opening local budgeting to citizens.

They note that the process has happened in many cities in North America, including Chicago and Toronto.

 

In New York City, this spring, 9,000 residents spent five months planning how to spend $4 million on capital projects.

Guelph, Toronto, Chicago, and Vallejo, California have also shared their budgeting authority with residents, leading not only to better planning, but to a healthier and happier civic attitude, as well.

Hamilton could soon become the sixth city in North America to empower its residents with real decision-making power between elections, but it should keep this in mind: for a process of engagement to count as participatory budgeting, and so produce its many benefits, it must be an open, inclusive, and bottom-up process, in which the rules and roles are decided by residents, and the decisions of residents must be binding.

And, of course, there must be money on the table.

Participatory budgeting is credited to Porto Alegre, Brazil. What began in 1989 as an experiment in direct democracy has since grown to involve 50,000 residents in deciding how 20 per cent of Porto Alegre's budget is spent every year.

Imagine how many more people contribute through the grapevine - at the dinner table, at the coffee shop, on the bus - to what is happening in their city.

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Russ Powers is the councillor for Ward 13.

Crucial to the success of participatory budgeting are neighbourhood assemblies. These bodies discuss the general needs of their neighbourhoods, then, with the help of city officials, develop the general statements of need into specific spending proposals. Beyond this point the process varies considerably, but by drawing on some of the best practices from around the world we propose the following:

Assemblies would elect budget delegates to negotiate a compromise budget, which would be presented to the assemblies for their feedback. This step would allow residents the option on their ballot of choosing the product of extensive deliberation - a consensus option.

A list of all spending proposals would also appear on the ballot so that residents could rank their preferences in the event that they disagree with the compromise budget - a direct democracy option.

If support for the compromise budget fails to reach a certain threshold, say two-thirds, then the spending proposals would be funded in order of popularity until all of the available funds are exhausted. Finally, once the budget is set, assemblies would elect members to a monitoring committee that would oversee the City's implementation of residents' decisions.

Participatory budgeting drastically increases participation and creates classrooms for civic education, leading to better communication between staff, elected officials, and voters.

Residents feel empowered, and a layer of cynicism and apathy is peeled away.

Although not every proposal is feasible, and not every feasible proposal is chosen by voters, in the thousands of experiences with participatory budgeting around the world a sense of shared community ownership prevails.

Recent initiatives in Hamilton have made reference to participatory budgeting. Lets make sure we do it right: bottom-up and binding.

Russ Powers is councillor for Ward 13 and has served the community of Dundas for 25 years as a member of the Dundas Town Council, Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Council, and Canada's 38th parliament.

He is vice-president and director of the association of municipalities of Ontario.

Norman Kearney is a masters student of philosophy and public policy at the London School of Economics.

This spring he was in New York City to observe its new participatory budgeting process and to attend the first conference on participatory budgeting in North America.