Let the People Decide

04 September 2006
Article
 

Let the People Decide
Low-income residents take control through
By Josh Lerner, Shelterforce
Utne.com, 31 August 2006

Low-income residents making public-spending decisions? It sounds like a liberal fantasy, but two Canadian cities --Toronto and Guelph, Ontario -- are living the dream through "participatory budgeting," a system that lets residents decide how best to allocate public funds.

The Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition (GNSC) and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation's Tenant Participation System are two of the first citizen-participation budgetary programs in North America. The model crossed the border from its birthplace in Latin America, where hundreds of cities have adopted similar tacks. Josh Lerner, in a piece for Shelterforce (the article is adapted from his paper "Participatory Budgeting in Canada,">Transnational Institute), points to Canada's "increasing inequality and neoliberal politics" as an impetus for residents taking budgetary concerns into their own hands.

In the 1990s, after some success fund raising for community activities, a handful of groups in Guelph took the advice of some city staff members and opted to forgo competing against each other for funding. Instead, they banded together to cooperatively decide where the money they received would go. The GNSC now funds community projects from summer camps to language courses. Eastward in Toronto, budget cuts inspired residents under North America's second largest public housing authority to take matters into their own hands, adopting a participatory budgeting model in 2001 to address property maintenance and improvements. Though the two groups have different purviews, they use similar tactics in bringing issues to debate. Residents and representative groups propose lists of priorities, and a budget is drawn up, allotting money based on greatest necessity (yearly in Guelph, every three years in Toronto).

The budget meetings "helped increase solidarity among tenants," says Lerner, as residents understand the severity of some budgetary needs over others. It's also helped otherwise unengaged citizens get involved, though not all are biting. Despite enlisting translators and childcare services, some residents aren't able to overcome communication barriers -- both because of foreign languages and technical speak -- if they can attend the meetings at all.

Even with its flaws, says Lerner, "participatory budgeting still tends to facilitate more equal participation than other public engagement processes." The efforts in Guelph and Toronto have made "public participation more powerful, government decision-making more democratic, and public spending more equitable," he says.  But there are prerequisites to success. By enlisting some enthusiastic bureaucrats (civil servants, not politicians, Lerner warns), keeping the initial efforts low-profile, and bringing in a variety of financial backers, the programs can build and recruit residential support, and eventually gain enough strength to overcome any legal or procedural roadblocks that City Hall or the like may throw in their way. -- Rachel Anderson