Let the People Decide

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,’
published by the 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

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Let The People Decide

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