Each year, San Diego’s adopted budget brings calls from groups of underfunded and overfunded programs, evidence of priorities out of whack at City Hall.

One group in town is looking to address the issue by putting some of those decisions directly in residents’ hands.

For two budget cycles, the Community Budget Alliance has combined outreach and education for residents into informal lobbying on the city’s annual spending decisions.

Now, it’s also pushing to give those residents a formal decision-making role.

Formed by the Center on Policy Initiatives, a left leaning think-tank, the alliance is composed of over 40 organizations—nonprofits, faith-based groups, neighborhoods associations, etc. — trying to get direct feedback from residents on what the city should do in their neighborhoods.

The alliance has held an informal process for the last two years. They held town hall events, where they compiled spending requests that they compiled in a letter to the mayor’s office outlining their priorities.The group says it played a role in securing certain spending decisions, such as teen night (a youth crime-prevention program), increases to library hours and streetlight funding, a sidewalk conditions assessment and a pilot program to provide bus passes to low-income youth.

The program itself is part of a national policy trend known as “participatory budgeting” used in cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

In those three cities, the public has a formal decision-making role over a predetermined pot of money.

In a recent interview, Christie Hill, program and policy director at CPI, said the alliance is making headway toward making that happen here, and that the alliance’s outreach process complements ongoing community group processes.

So basically what the Community Budget Alliance is doing is a combination of outreach and education that formalizes constituent concerns into a list of budgetary priorities. Is that a fair description?

The community budget alliance came together early in 2012 based on a need that folks felt like they didn’t understand how the budget process was working, but saw the needs in their neighborhood and wanted to better understand how to get involved in the budget process to affect change in their communities.

But it seems you’re almost at the mercy of a receptive mayor, or a receptive City Council. Or, said another way, there isn’t any guarantee that your recommendations are going to be taken into account. Is there any discussion of trying to get this process written into the municipal code?

Right. The alliance is really concerned with making sure all residents, including alliance members, have meaningful opportunities to design the budget. One of the things we learned early on is that, even though the formal budget conversation starts in January and February, there are conversations happening way before that that are impacting what appears in the budget. And so that really led us to look for best practices that would allow for more meaningful ways for community residents to participate, particularly ways that allow for more diverse voices to be a part of the process, because one of the things that our members were hearing from their communities, and experiencing, was that not all of the formal ways that exist right now allow for great diversity in voices to be heard. Part of why we’re recommending participatory budgeting is because it really allows for a wide engagement for community residents to have power, and decision making around budgetary decisions.

So are there any discussions right now to adopt a formal or binding participatory budget process?

Yeah, we are just in early conversations with Council members about having a pilot project for participatory budgeting to take place in the city. It’s happened in other cities, as well as abroad, so we are in early stages of getting that adopted by the Council.

Who have you spoken with? Which Council members have been receptive to this?

We’re really in the early stages. We have spoken with Councilmember Mark Kersey, and staff members from Council member (David) Alvarez’s office, and we’ll be continuing to have conversations with other Council members over the next month about this process, and figure out what’s a good timeline for it to roll out in San Diego.

The city has its capital improvement program (CIP), basically a long-term priority list of different infrastructure projects. Would the CBA program complement that process? That includes a community element, where residents have a role in putting that list together.

Right, the CIP decisions, and how those are made, has actually been a concern of the alliance from the very beginning. We were really involved in advocating for a process that involves community members, so we gave feedback on the process that was ultimately developed that uses community planning groups. We think it’s a good start, but we really feel like you have to have a process that doesn’t solely rely on the existing structures, and really allows for residents that don’t normally participate in these conversations in a way that is successful for them. We think that the community input process that was developed last year and formalized this year is a good start, but there are some limitations to it.

The limitations being the reliance on community planning groups, which tend to draw out the same folks who are usually involved?

Yeah, that it relies on community planning groups, and not all community planning groups are created equal. Not even all of the neighborhoods have community planning groups. And some community planning groups are not a welcoming space because of language barriers, and we’ve had community residents express feeling intimidated by their CPGs, not feeling that they can really participate in the same way. We think community planning groups serve an important role, but this other process can happen alongside it, and ultimately we all have the same goal, which is to get as many voices as possible participating.

In New York, they have a similar process to our CPGs that runs alongside the participatory budget process. Having one does not exclude the other.

Some cities that have done a lot with participatory budgeting — New York, Chicago, San Francisco — how does what the alliance has done so far compare to what those cities are doing, and how those cities began their process.

The alliance right now is not engaging in participatory budgeting. That is an actual program that has to be implemented by cities. We’re advocating for that, but the activities that we’re doing, while we’re trying to raise awareness about the budget and how it impacts neighborhoods, we are not implementing participatory budgeting through the CBA.

I guess what I’m asking is, those cities that do have a formal process, is it typical that they begin with something informal like what the alliance is doing now?

Oh, I hear you. In New York and Chicago, both of those processes began with individual council members using discretionary money that they had, and the amounts ranged between $1 million and $3 million. It was done on what would be the equivalent of our district-by-district basis. And so in New York it started with four council members in 2011, and in 2012 four more came on, because they saw just how well received it was by the community, and what a great process it was.

Are there any broad things that can be said about a budget that has been written with some help from participatory budgeting? What that looks like, as opposed to a traditional top-down budget?

The way the process works, it’s not cookie-cutter, it varies from city to city based on needs and implementation, but the basic components are there’s a steering committee of community residents and city leaders that come together to design the process. That’s the first step in any city. And then, they’re designing the process to really make it work for that particular city. Then you’re going to hold town hall-style large meetings in the neighborhoods, just to brainstorm ideas. What do you want? What’s needed? And then they elect delegates who actually take those ideas, and work with city staff and others to develop them into proposals, so they’ll weed out what’s actually possible. And then they’ll come back with those proposals and residents will have an opportunity to vote on them. Throughout the process, you can have broad participation, so you can have youths participating in voting, you can have the voting take place over an extended period of time, like over a whole weekend, so you can get the most response possible, and once they vote on the proposals, the top vote-getters are implemented. So, a predetermined amount of money is set aside at the beginning, so residents know that their decisions count, and at the end of the day, they have $3 million to allocate.

It’s not advisory, which is what our current process is, which is an important distinction. This is decision making about a pot of money that’s predetermined. That’s really important for resident engagement. In New York they had over 2,000 people participate in their first year, across the four districts.

This is still a relatively new concept, but are there any broad conclusions to be made about what a participatory budget looks like, as opposed to a normal budget? Have legislators or academics been able to draw any conclusions about the types of broad changes we end up seeing?

There was an evaluation done after the New York process, that I don’t know whether it was rigorously qualitative, but an evaluation of the New York process did find you had more community participation, especially by underrepresented groups. Over 60 percent of the people who participated were people of color. And over 60 percent have incomes less than $35,000. There was a large number of women that participated, a large number of volunteers that got involved and you also saw that in Chicago, the alderman — their aldermen are our council members — that pushed this process, his voter support actually increased, from 51 percent to 72 percent, after participatory.

So, there’s more trust in your elected officials. Abroad, the mayors who implemented participatory budgeting in Brazil were more likely to be re-elected, so there’s lots of public goodwill. We’ve also heard anecdotally from public officials in New York that they believe, after going through that process, that the public was more likely to support bond measures, because they understood the need on one hand, but also the really hard choices that need to be made about what gets funded, so they were more likely to vote for those choices.

There’s been a lot of discussion about a large municipal bond, with some revenue attached, that would go before voters in fall 2016. Advocates have always said the project list will come from a robust outreach. Do you think the CBA is positioned to take the lead in the process, if that idea moves forward?

I think participatory budgeting would be a great process, to help to decide what projects are part of that bond. It leads to really strong outcomes, and since it allows itself to be designed for the unique nature of each city, it would be San Diego residents going through a constructive process that’s fair, and transparent, and the community budget alliance would love to be part of that. But participatory budgeting as a program we think would be a great way to prepare, if we’re able to get a pilot over this next year. A pilot project would serve as a good model and lesson for what could be possible when we do go for that bond.

Your efforts to get a participatory budgeting pilot program, is that something you’re pushing for as early as this coming year?

We are going to be evaluating. We know we’re in for a difficult budget season, but we think there are opportunities that exist, and we’ll be evaluating when that can happen. What’s great about participatory budgeting is that it isn’t about finding new money, it’s about allocating existing money differently, and about giving back control to the public.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.