Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to footer

Participatory Budgeting in Evanston, IL: The 2022 Version

In 2009-10, I was lucky enough to learn about Participatory Budgeting as a way to promote real democracy. I was doubly lucky to learn from the first PB project initiated by a U.S. municipal official, the 49th Ward of Chicago where Alderman Joe Moore and his wife, Barb Moore, spearheaded the process. Evanstonians know the 49th Ward as East Rogers Park, the Chicago neighborhood with which Evanston shares a border — and many political and cultural interests and characteristics. Joe Moore went on to become nationally recognized as a leader in the PB movement and is a member of the Advisory Board for Participatory Budgeting Project, the organization that pioneered PB in the U.S.

Since that first PB process, I have been an advocate and applaud Evanston’s City Council for designating $2.5 million of ARPA funds for a PB process. The City has already created a Participatory Budgeting committee and I’m excited to watch the City’s process unfold. Here is the link to the Committee’s webpage with meeting agendas, minutes, and other materials, including a working draft of an RFP for hiring a PB consultant. The committee members are Mayor Biss and three alderpeople (Nieuwsma, Burns, Reid, from wards 4, 5, and 8 respectively).

I see that Chicago Ald. Maria Hadden recently attended a committee meeting to provide her expertise. Ald. Hadden is a long-time resident of Rogers Park who participated in the first PB processes of the 49th Ward as a young community member. She went on to become a PBP staffperson for the Midwest and then ran against Joe Moore, unseating him after 28 years (it was time for him to transition to elder statesman).

Now that more Evanstonians are focusing on the PB process, here are my personal observations, based on
— 40+ years of democracy activism 
— 71 years of life experience (most of it lived in Evanston and the Chicago area)
— 12 years of self-study on participatory budgeting, including a failed attempt to kickstart a PB process in Evanston in 2017, using Northwestern University’s Good Neighbor Fund as the pilot project.

NOTE: I have intentionally NOT yet reviewed the City’s current materials (packets, etc.) so that I can keep my own observations fresh until written down and published here. I look forward to reviewing the City’s draft RFP to see how the PB landscape has changed (or not changed), etc. It’s possible I will have to write a Part 2 to this blog (if the RFP includes interesting parameters).

A. GENERAL OBSERVATIONS about Participatory Budgeting
C. 2017 EVANSTON PETITION: Northwestern University’s Good Neighbor Fund as a PB Pilot Project

A. GENERAL OBSERVATIONS about Participatory Budgeting

It’s important to note that my personal expectations about PB have been tempered since I first embraced it in 2009. To help my fellow Evanstonians avoid undue disappointment, let me note up front: 

1. Participatory budgeting alone does not make a real democracy. There are many other obstacles to real democracy embedded in our founding documents and nested governments, including the U.S. Constitution, the Illinois Constitution and state law, Cook County statutes, the Evanston City Code, and tacit (unexamined) assumptions of western civilization. For a big picture look at an alternative North American model, see my 2018 blog: In Case of Constitutional Crisis…Start here: The Great Law of Peace.

2. Nor does a one-time participatory process undo all the bad or undemocratic budgetary decisions made by the City of Evanston in the past (for which voters and officials can share the blame).

On the other hand, there are benefits to PB that 
— are not always included in the formal messaging 
— not readily apparent at first blush
— may differ from one jurisdiction to another

A variety of benefits are detailed in the following sections. But let me say up front that the most game-changing benefit of the PB process is that it provides a meaningful experience of REAL democracy in action. Most U.S. voters don’t know that the U.S. version of democracy is, at best, stunted, at worst a dried-up, desiccated fossil. Self-governing can and should be much more satisfying, fun, educational, and rewarding than our current system. Going through a PB process shows what we’ve been missing for 233 years. If Evanston’s process follows the basics as I understand them, I think Evanston residents are in for 
—a welcome change from decision-making as usual
—an eye-opening expansion of our regard for public process

One final note about avoiding undue disappointment: Soon after the 49th ward’s first PB process, Evanston’s then-City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz must have also made the effort to learn about PB. The following year, he instituted his version of PB which, unfortunately had almost no similarities to PB as designed and promoted by PBP. The process was certainly more participatory than Evanston’s past budgeting processes and I applaud Mr. Bobkiewicz for promoting a variety of innovations in Evanston operations. But Mr. Bobkiewicz would have done well not to use the PB brand name for his version of Evanston’s budgetary process. It was a big letdown from the original (just as, I might add, the U.S. Constitution is a big letdown after learning about the Great Law of Peace).

Nuts & Bolts

In 2017, to kick off my PB petition using Northwestern’s Good Neighbor Fund as a pilot project, I wrote a short blog Democracy in Action: Participatory Budgeting Petition. Here’s the short list of PB benefits from that blog:

Why Participatory Budgeting?
— PB is a common sense process for making group decisions about public resources.
— Everyone can be involved at every decision point of the process — from design to project suggestions to final allocation.
— Grounded in reality, not abstract theory. Real money is on the table — in this case $1,000,000
— Usually funds multiple projects at once — not one winner takes all
— Creates long-term working relationships among residents, officials, and other community stakeholders.
— Cuts through entrenched civic stalemates — e.g., police citizen oversight board, library audit, school gap, board & commission quorum issues, affordable housing
— Satisfying personal and communal experience
— Restores trust in our collective adult responsibility to promote good decision-making for the benefit of all

In other words, real people coming together to make real decisions about real resources and real issues in real time with real results.

For those not familiar with the mechanics of the PB process, here is my understanding of a basic 4-6-month process, incorporating the following elements. Please note that, although I have studied PB for 12 years, including briefing sessions with Barb Moore, Joe Moore, and Maria Hadden, and attending the premier of the 2016 film Count Me In (by Ines Sommer, Sommer Filmworks), I have never experienced a full-blown PB process from start to finish. 

The Elements of a PB Process
START WITH: Guaranteed pot of money designated for XX kind of projects
This is decided in the planning stages. The guaranteed pot of money means that the money is already in place for whatever projects the community votes on. This provides a lot of confidence to voters that their time and input will be well spent and their votes will be meaningful.

THE PROCESS: 4-6 months of community meetings
Introductory public meeting: description of process, schedule, etc.
Main process (3-4 meetings)
— Residents’ first proposals
— Synthesize like proposals
— City costs out proposals
— Proposals are finalized
— Format and display proposals so that easily compared (e.g., posters). Posted on-line well ahead of voting day.

Public event where proposal posters can be viewed and discussed (e.g., in gymnasium) 
— Who can vote? (e.g., all residents 16+ years, citizenship and voter registration not required)
— How many votes per person? (e.g., about 1/4 the number of proposals)

All top vote-getters will be implemented up to the amount of the guaranteed money.

Northwestern University’s Good Neighbor Fund as a PB Pilot Project

Diving a little more deeply into the possibilities of participatory budgeting in Evanston, here’s some details about my 2017 petition, Participatory Budgeting for Evanston-Northwestern University Good Neighbor Fund (posted on MoveOn).

As most Evanstonians know, the Good Neighbor Fund is a $1,000,000 annual payment that Northwestern University makes to the City of Evanston, in lieu of taxes or some other payment for NU’s use of city infrastructure, services, etc. Unfortunately, the fund is not a direct contribution to the City’s operating budget, but, per the agreement between former Mayor Tisdahl and NU, the university earmarks the money for what it wants to fund. In other words, the whole fund was extremely undemocratic, from multiple perspectives.

After experiencing the first two annual payments (2015 and 2016) with limited opportunity for public input, I drafted a petition to encourage the use of participatory budgeting for the third payment. Not only would it be a more democratic allocation of the fund, but it would make a good PB pilot project.

Unfortunately, my petition was not terribly successful. I was only able to get 58 signatures, largely because 
— PB was new to most Evanstonians
— PB is hard to explain through a petition
— gathering petition signatures for anything is a time-consuming process
— the petition was a solo, volunteer effort
— the term “participatory budgeting” is a mouthful that doesn’t lend itself to conversation

Here’s part of the messaging that I included on the petition:  

The current agreement runs for three more years with the next GNF installment to be made after July 1, 2017. In response to Americans’ re-awakened interest in collective decision-making. this third year is an opportunity for even greater impact. Positive, long-lasting impacts of using a PB process to allocate the 2017 Good Neighbor Fund are potentially many, with ramifications far beyond the initial GNF investment:

1. Inclusion: open to everyone in Evanston and at Northwestern
2. Value-added budgeting — more bang for the buck. PB research has shown that the community-at-large is much more creative with limited resources than a single decision-maker or a small group of traditional stakeholders. (Ald. Moore has been especially eloquent on this surprising aspect of PB.)
3. Community education: fun and painless action-learning for all participants, including residents, officials, university, media
4. A living process: rejuvenation of institutions, traditions, people, community
5. Practical, effective communications, including all kinds of checks-and-balances, are built into the decision-making process, minimizing any later need for damage control and maximizing effectiveness of the Good Neighbor Fund.
6. Stewardship: more people caring about implementation, maintenance, tracking, etc., of the GNF investments
7. Satisfying human experience: Compared to ten minutes in a voting booth every two or four years (voting for representatives who may or may not actually represent one’s views on every issue), a single PB process affords numerous opportunities for direct, personal, and extended input. PB is an adult life experience like no other — filled with imagining, speaking, listening, research, writing, arguing, synthesizing. Adults-in-training (children, youth, young adults) can also learn PB and have the same satisfying experience.
8. Foundation for the future: a more nuanced understanding of democracy and government that can create better budgeting at the county, state, regional, and federal levels.

For some additional historical context, here are the media pieces on my petition featured in Evanston outlets: 
—  Op-ed Evanston Now by D. Hillman (June 21, 2017)  — some very interesting comments   
—  Article by Brian Cox — Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press (July 11, 2017) 
“Evanston activist:  Let the people decide how $1M from Northwestern is spent” 
—  Letter-to-the-editor, Evanston RoundTable by D. Hillman  (July 13, 2017)  

Nuances for Evanston

Finally, here are some random reflections on PB. They may be useful to Evanston’s committee, officials, and residents in making this process a big success.

1. LIVING IN A DEMOCRACY, year-to-year 
Teaches people what democracy really is and what self-governing feels like: an organic unending process during which people acquire skills and information that can never be taken away:
— learn the basics on running a 21st century municipal government (e.g., a more grounded version of Leadership Evanston)
— publicly share ideas and information from the grassroots
— stay up-to-date on running a government, etc.
— develop working relationships with each other and with officials

a. Guaranteed. A PB process hits the ground running because the $$ has already been allocated. Citizens often get demoralized about participating in community visioning sessions or City meetings. Coming up with a good idea or identifying an unmet need is often only half the battle; the next step in many of these well-intentioned public forums is to find the money to match the good idea. In participatory budgeting, that step has already been taken care of, so people can focus on the realities — the ideas, the needs, the fairness of allocation, etc.

b. Targeted. A good PB pilot project for a community that is new to participatory budgeting will usually start out with a targeted pot of money — i.e., in the case of the 49th ward, the money could only be used for infrastructure (e.g., built environment, not on-going programs). Using a targeted pot keeps people focused and the process relatively efficient.

Key to a successful PB process is trust that the process will go as planned and that ALL the winning projects will be implemented in a timely fashion. An example of broken public trust (in my opinion) is a community garden that was approved through a South Side PB process, but then officials diddled around for at least 3 years. This garden was featured in Count Me In; I don’t know if it was ever implemented.

as expressed by Ald. Joe Moore after 2-3 years of implementing PB in the 49th ward

a. Dog Parks vs. Potholes
People together are more creative than a legislator acting solo: Joe was referring specifically to the variety of projects that residents proposed and then approved. I believe he said that if it were up to him and his staff, they would have mostly just filled the potholes with the infrastructure money. But people also voted for community gardens, dog parks, streetlights, etc. 

On the other hand, eventually Joe had to divide the infrastructure money into two pots: one for the PB process and one for only the potholes. 

b. Shared Decision-making
Joe appreciated the fact that the decision-making responsibility had become a shared one. In a PB process, no one person takes the blame or credit for the decisions or bears the burden (time-consuming, labor intensive) of making the decisions.

c. Price of Projects: Corruption, union wages, or ??
One of the best anecdotes about Chicago’s first rounds of PB involved the step in which city staff costs out all the proposals so that they can be compared, voted on, etc. Residents double-checked City’s costing and discovered that what Chicago was paying for certain things (e.g., streetlights) was way more than other places. I never learned the outcome of this discovery. Moreover, it could have been an indicator of something positive (e.g., union wage jobs) or negative (e.g., corruption). Whatever the case, it seems a good step to focus on in terms of (a) checks & balances, and (b) data collection.

Residents and officials both feel the frustration of regular Citizen Comment periods during municipal meetings. The most common complaint is that there’s no real opportunity for back-and-forth dialogue between officials and residents. A secondary problem with Citizen Comment is that citizens have to spend an inordinate amount of time just waiting to say their 3-minute comment, which is often reduced to a much shorter time if many other citizens want to speak. The time issue is caused by unpredictable length of committee meetings, presentations, etc., which usually proceed Citizen Comment. 

Also, compared to Citizen Comment, which is often a one-time, shoot-from-the-hip experience, participatory budgeting is a step-by-step process, with lots of interim time built into the process during which everyone can reflect on the process as a whole, as well as details as they arise. Conversely, a well-run PB process is a very time-defined process so that people don’t get jerked around by unexpected delays, whether unintentional or manipulation by bad actors. 

Year by year, the budgeting process works both ways:
—What does the City of Evanston need to spend $$ on?
—What does the City of Evanston no longer need to spend $$ on?

The Participatory Budgeting Project has developed a Divest & Invest packet (6 pages) as an additional tool in the PB process. This 2020 version:– demonstrates graphically how a “divest-invest” participatory budgeting process might work re “punitive institutions” that are currently in the budgets of schools and local government in order to re-invest the $$ into a wider array of basic community needs and community-wide priorities. — contains a case study from St. Louis, Close the Workhouse 

One of the long-term problems with participatory budgeting is that it’s hard to maintain year-after-year. There are a variety of reasons for this:
— people lose interest because PB doesn’t solve every democracy issue
— once people experience the process, they might find other ways to get civically engaged
— officials and civic institutions often forget to do outreach to new voters, e.g., (a) young people and (b) residents new to Evanston.
— in our current rat-race economy, people don’t have enough time. This points to the necessity of a universal basic income. See my version of UBI for voters: FUNDED SOVEREIGNTY: Universal basic income for participatory democracies.