UIC Helps Chicago Launch Groundbreaking Budget Process by and for Ward Residents

As governments lose revenue and their constituents’ trust, elected officials search for more transparent, equitable, cost-effective ways to manage public budgets.

Beginning this year, four Chicago wards will undertake “participatory budgeting,” a process used by only two other U.S. cities. Ward residents will be empowered to decide directly how to spend $4 million in taxpayer dollars.

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute will coordinate the process, teaming with the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project. Aldermen John Arena (45th Ward), James Cappleman (46th), Leslie Hairston (5th), and Joe Moore (49th) have signed on.

“The residents won’t just advise their aldermen. They’ll actively decide where the money goes, through established planning procedures — community outreach, needs assessment, proposals and voting,” says Rachel Weber, associate director of the Great Cities Institute.

“Our goal is to reach the areas of greatest need and to involve as many residents as possible, especially those who previously haven’t participated in politics,” Weber said.

“Ultimately, the initiative will foster a sense of ownership and connectedness in the community.”

Moore became the first elected official in the U.S. to try participatory budgeting in 2009. Residents of his ward determined how more than $3 million would be spent, including $150,000 for urgent sidewalk repairs, $125,000 for a new playground, $120,000 for murals at transit viaducts, and $75,000 for shade trees.

The 2012-2013 initiative is the first time other Chicago wards will use participatory budgeting.

The process began over the summer as a city-wide steering committee was formed and local organizations joined ward leadership committees.

In October, ward leaders and aldermen will hold public assemblies and brainstorming sessions and launch websites for citizen input. Volunteer representatives will be asked to join committees for specific issues such as public safety and art.

In November, representatives will attend workshops to learn about budgeting, project development, and key spending areas.

The representatives will present their proposals to the public in person and online in March and April. Residents will vote on projects in May, and aldermen will submit the prioritized projects to the city for implementation as discretionary funding requests.

Approved projects will be overseen by community representatives, who will report to residents on their progress.

The project is supported by a $25,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust; a $20,000 grant from the UIC Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement; and a $5,000 grant from The Field Foundation of Illinois.

“We aim to make participatory budgeting sustainable,” said Thea Crum, Great Cities Institute project manager. “Throughout the initial cycles, we’ll develop a city-wide infrastructure with an interactive website, a guidebook, and ongoing steering committee. We plan to institutionalize the process, not only for aldermanic discretionary projects, but for other public budgets as well.”

UIC ranks among the nation’s leading research universities and is Chicago’s largest university with 27,500 students, 12,000 faculty and staff, 15 colleges and the state’s major public medical center. A hallmark of the campus is the Great Cities Commitment, through which UIC faculty, students and staff engage with community, corporate, foundation and government partners in hundreds of programs to improve the quality of life in metropolitan areas around the world.

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