Chicago: The Elected Official as an Engagement Leader

Chicago was one of four communities selected for an in-depth case study in the NLC and Knight Foundation's Bright Spots in Community Engagement report. The full case study is reprinted below.

“...the people that are really involved and engaged in the leadership process and community groups are not the usual suspects. Overwhelmingly, the people involved in this process are new people.”
— Joe Moore, Alderman, City of Chicago

The story of Chicago’s 49th Ward provides an opportunity to understand the motivations of public officials in community engagement. Alderman Joe Moore brought the concept of participatory budgeting to his ward, and has continued to be its most active proponent. He embraced this bottom up budgeting process because he thought it would address a major threat to his career; in turn, the process seems to have transformed Moore’s own perception of his role as an elected official.

After serving for 16 years as a Chicago alderman, Moore was narrowly re-elected in the 2007 election. This experience was something of a wake-up call for Moore, who felt he needed to reconnect with many of his constituents. The 49th Ward, which encompasses the neighborhood of Rogers Park, has roughly 60,000 residents living in an area of two square miles. It is extremely diverse, with over 80 languages spoken. It is about 30 percent Latino, 30 percent African American, 30 percent white, and 10 percent Asian American.
Moore had been exposed to a number of public engagement principles and practices as a member of the Democratic Governance Panel of the National League of Cities. He attended a workshop on participatory budgeting in 2007, and decided it might be a productive way to reconnect with his ward.

Image removed.In many cities, participatory approaches to budgeting are being adopted by mayors and city councilmembers because they are facing increasingly difficult budget shortages and feel that engaging citizens is a way to either make budget cuts with less controversy or show residents that raising revenue is necessary. In both scenarios, it is the increasingly problematic state of public finance that is driving the prospects for public engagement.

In Chicago, each alderman is allotted a line item (referred to as “menu money”) amounting to approximately $1 million annually, to spend on capital improvements and initiatives within the ward. "e menu money practice has occasionally come under !re in recent few years for being an inefficient allocation of capital resources. Moore felt that using participatory budgeting to allocate earmarked funds to his ward might help demonstrate the value of the program.

In 2009, Moore brought together leaders from 40 to 50 civic, religious and community organizations, and asked each of them to appoint one or two representatives from their organization to serve on a steering committee to design the process and timetable for allocating the 49th Ward menu money. The process occurred in several phases.

In the first phase, the ward was divided into eight geographic regions where meetings were held to describe participatory budgeting as a tool and outline how residents could engage in the process. Participants were then organized into committees of citizens that would come up with options for spending and projects such as parks, arts and streets/transportation. The committees deliberated for six months, brainstorming and reviewing project ideas, conducting research, obtaining cost estimates and ultimately selecting their candidate projects for inclusion on a ward-wide ballot. Early in 2010, during two neighborhood assemblies, the committees presented their project proposals, received feedback, and put together final project lists across the six project areas that appeared on the ballot.

Ward voters selected their top eight projects in April 2010, with the highest vote-getters, in rank order, receiving the menu money until it was exhausted. Moore’s promise to the voters was that he would implement the results of the vote. Shortly thereafter, Moore and his team evaluated the success of the participatory budgeting effort and deemed it so successful that they used the same process, with some revisions and improvements, in 2011 and again in 2012. Now heading into its fourth year, the participatory budgeting process in the 49th Ward continues to consist of a series of neighborhood assemblies, work by committees to develop project proposals, and a ward-wide election to determine which proposals should receive funding.

In 2010, 36 individual proposals appeared on the ballot, and more than 1,600 residents voted in the election. The number of voters dipped to roughly 1,000 in 2011. Participation on the neighborhood assemblies apparently reached its highest level in the third year of this novel community engagement process, and the number of voters rose again to 1,300 in 2012.

Lessons and Observations

Image removed.Throughout the process, Moore and his allies in the ward have received free assistance from Josh Lerner and his colleagues at the Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit based in New York City. Lerner says that in the second year of the process in the 49th Ward, there was a stronger emphasis on reaching underserved populations, partly through a decentralized voting process. He reports that participants in the process became more racially and ethnically diversified, and thus more representative of the ward as a whole, in 2011 and again in 2012.

The experience of participatory budgeting in other cities (mainly in other countries) is that engagement grows and deepens over time. In some Latin American cities, tens of thousands of people take part in the process annually. Moore asserts that the process in his ward has significantly increased the number and diversity of people engaged in the public life of the ward. “The people that are really involved in the leadership process and community groups are not the usual suspects, these are new people, not the meeting junkies,” says Moore. “The Ward has 58,000 people, but the meeting junkies are the same 200. Overwhelmingly, the people involved in this process are new people and that has just been terrific to see.”

In addition to increasing involvement in decision-making, participatory budgeting in the 49th Ward seems to have spurred citizens to be more active problem-solvers. Today, for example, a dog park and a community garden, two projects that were initiated and approved through the process, are now operated by teams of neighborhood volunteers.

One way in which the process might improve is by taking advantage of online tools. So far, they have been used only minimally. Some of the recruitment is done via email, and there is a website and blog for the process that explains participatory budgeting. The blog includes a video component, and lists the projects that have been proposed for the voting. There are a number of possibilities for using online tools to strengthen the process, among them:

  • Allowing people to vote for the projects online, and offer comments on how to improve them, either as a preliminary to the final vote or alongside it.
  • Using GIS mapping tools to allow residents to identify potential projects, and/or visualize how they would affect the ward.
  • Using budget simulators to help people allocate dollars among their favorite projects.
  • Supporting people to implement ideas by offering online team management tools.
  •  Creating a stronger ongoing network of participants through a ward or neighborhood-based online forum like the ones supported by
  • Creating a portal that will allow participants to gather an analyze data on the process.

It is possible that continuing the process, and potentially adding new online elements, could expand the impact in the 49th Ward. But Lerner cautioned that the online elements work best, “where people are more wired. It can work anywhere, but it takes more support and assistance to be effective in reaching larger numbers of people, particularly in harder-to-reach communities. It’s often funding-dependent, so it’s a choice about where you put your resources.”

One measure of the success of participatory budgeting in the 49th Ward is that it is now in its fourth year. Another measure of its success is that the use of the budgeting process is spreading. Working with the Chicago Community Trust and the University of Illinois at Chicago, Moore and Lerner are expanding the implementation of participatory budgeting in the city to five or six additional wards. Building on the success of the process in the 49th Ward, Lerner has also launched similar work in eight districts in New York City for 2013. As Lerner suggests, “I think that success means that the work we started needs to be sustainable and growing, either by engaging more people in Ward 49, or spreading to more wards, or spreading to other cities. Taking on larger budget issues or using participatory budgeting to deal with budget cuts would also be an advancement. But, ultimately, as with our work in Ward 49, the key to success is that the decisions that have been made by the public need to be implemented.”

It is clear already that the process has had an effect on how Alderman Moore views his role in the community. In 2011, he was re-elected with 72 percent of the vote. “I take the result of the last election as a sign of popular support for participatory budgeting and any similar initiatives that nurture citizen engagement and promote participatory governance,” Moore says. “I take it as a sign that people in the 49th ward want to be active participants in governing.