From Chicago's City Hall to the halls of Congress, important policy and spending decisions have been made for far too long by a handful of politicians behind closed doors working in concert with corporations and special interests. This old way of doing the public's business has bred anger and mistrust of all levels of government.
It shouldn't come as any surprise, then, that only 1 out of 5 Americans trusts government to do what is right most of the time. Citizens don't believe their government listens to them and they don't believe they have any power to affect public policy.
This anger and mistrust aren't healthy for democracy. We need a new governance model, one that empowers people to make real decisions about policy and spending decisions.
As a Chicago alderman, I have embarked on an innovative alternative to the old style of decision-making. In an experiment in democracy, transparent governance and economic reform, I'm letting the residents of the 49th Ward in the Rogers Park and Edgewater communities decide how to spend my entire discretionary capital budget of more than $1.3 million.
Known as "participatory budgeting," this form of democracy is being used worldwide, from Brazil to the United Kingdom and Canada. It lets the community decide how to spend part of a government budget, through a series of meetings and ultimately a final, binding vote.
Though I'm the first elected official in the U.S. to implement participatory budgeting, it's not a whole lot different than the old New England town meetings in which residents would gather to vote directly on the spending decisions of their town.
Residents in my ward have met for the past year -- developing a rule book for the process, gathering project ideas from their neighbors and researching and budgeting project ideas. These range from public art to street resurfacing and police cameras to bike paths. The residents then pitched their proposals to their neighbors at a series of neighborhood "assemblies" held throughout the ward.
The process will culminate in an election on April 10, in which all 49th Ward residents 16 and older, regardless of citizenship or voter registration status, are invited to gather at a local high school to vote for up to eight projects, one vote per project. This process is binding. The projects that win the most votes will be funded up to $1.3 million.
Though the process isn't yet complete, it's already yielding positive results. Hundreds of residents in the 49th Ward, many of whom had never before been involved in a civic activity, have become engaged in the participatory budgeting process. Rather than being passive observers of government they've become active participants in governing.
More important, they know they have the power to make decisions, and that their government is not just hearing them but actually following their mandate.
Empowering people to make real decisions openly and transparently is the first step toward restoring public trust in government.
Joe Moore is alderman of Chicago's 49th Ward. Known as one of the most progressive members of the Chicago City Council, Moore has gained national recognition for his successful sponsorship of a resolution against the war in Iraq, and measures requiring living wages for employees of big box retail stores and environmental restrictions on Chicago's coal-fired power plants.
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