On March 11, 2021, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, or ARPA, into law. Ever since, Evanston has grappled with a big question: What’s the best way to spend more than $43 million in federal relief funds?

Though the city’s share is just a sliver of the $350 billion the act gave to state, local and tribal governments, it’s gone to a wide variety of local projects: $3 million to renovate the Family Focus building, $2 million to bring back the Northlight Theatre, $500,000 to retain child care employees and more. On Sept. 12, Interim Director of Community Development Sarah Flax updated the City Council on their spending, reporting that the city has slightly less than $10 million left to allocate.

That figure isn’t completely accurate, though. The City Council has set aside $3 million in ARPA funds and someone else will decide what to do with that money: The public. If you live or work in Evanston, then you will be able to suggest project ideas for that funding, help develop them into full proposals and vote on which ones to fund.

It’s called participatory budgeting – and this is the RoundTable 101 guide on how it works.

Part 1: Crash course in PB

What is participatory budgeting?

Participatory budgeting, or PB for short, is a process of direct democracy and civic engagement in which community members collectively decide how to spend a part of their public budget. The idea is that whichever public body controls that budget – like a City Council, a ward office and so on – will adhere to the community’s decision and allocate the funds to the democratically selected projects.

Where is PB practiced?

Participatory budgeting was first developed and practiced in ​​Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 as an anti-poverty measure, and is now practiced around the world. The first known practice in the United States was on Evanston’s border, when Chicago Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) introduced it to Rogers Park in 2009 to allocate $1 million of his ward office’s discretionary capital budget. Today, participatory budgeting has been used in 13 of Chicago’s 50 wards, along with other wards, cities and school districts across the country.

How does PB work?

The basic steps of a participatory budgeting cycle go like this: 

  • Step one: A public body sets aside a portion of its budget to use in a PB cycle.
  • Step two: That public body writes and approves a rulebook covering how the cycle will work, usually through a community steering committee. 
  • Step three: Ideas for projects and allocations are collected directly from community members.
  • Step four: Community volunteers called “budget delegates” evaluate the viability of those ideas and develop the viable ones into detailed, actionable project proposals.
  • Step five: Those budget delegates bring those proposals back and present them to the community for review.
  • Step six: The community votes on which proposals they want funded, and one or more with the most votes are declared winners depending on the overall budget.
  • Step seven: The public body makes funding allocations for the winning proposals and begins implementation.

The guiding principle of a participatory budgeting cycle is that whenever possible, decisions on how the process will go are left to the community at large, rather than elected officials or government staff.

What kind of projects and budgets can the process be used for?

In principle, participatory budgeting can be used for any kind of project at any level of budget, from a municipal ward to the federal budget. The issue, of course, is scaling; running a directly democratic budgeting system is far easier in a single ward or city than over the entire country, so the process is most often practiced at the local level.

In practice, what projects participatory budgeting can be used for varies from place to place based on where the money is coming from and what body is running the cycle. For example, Ald. Moore’s use of his ward’s discretionary capital budget meant that PB projects could only be used for infrastructure maintenance and improvements; similarly, cycles run by school districts can, of course, only consider projects related to their schools’ facilities and programs.

Part 2: Evanston’s pilot

How did participatory budgeting start in Evanston?

The City Council decided at its Dec. 6, 2021, meeting to initiate an Evanston participatory budgeting pilot program. Council members voted 6-0 to create a Participatory Budgeting Committee, chaired by Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward) and including Council Members Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward) and Bobby Burns (5th Ward), and Mayor Daniel Biss.

How much funding will Evanston use, and where is it coming from?

At the same meeting, the City Council set aside a total of $3.5 million for the pilot from the city’s ARPA funding. As mentioned before, $3 million will be available for the winning projects; the remaining $500,000 is budgeted for the pilot cycle’s administration, including hiring a full-time PB manager and purchasing food and materials for public events later in the process.

What kind of projects can this funding be used for?

Because the city is using ARPA funding, projects have to comply with the act’s federal regulations. The act lists four primary categories of eligible uses for cities like Evanston:

  • Supplementing municipal revenue loss
  • Providing premium pay for essential workers
  • Investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure
  • Responding to the pandemic’s negative impacts on public health and the economy
Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee members discusses rulebook amendments at their Sept. 14 meeting. Credit: Alex Harrison

At a rulebook drafting meeting on Sept. 14, Flax said that although these categories may sound strict, they will still allow for many creative ideas to be considered. She said her goal in vetting project ideas is not to screen them out, but to find a way to make them work.

“If the city isn’t doing something that you wish it were still doing, let’s talk about it,” Flax said. “It may very well be eligible, and there’s a really wide array of ways you can help an economic impact, you can really get a lot of things under there.”

Who is leading Evanston’s pilot program?

At the helm of Evanston’s pilot cycle are three committees with different roles and responsibilities:

  • The Participatory Budgeting Committee mentioned before, made up of three council members and the mayor. It has direct oversight over the pilot and provides input on how the City Council will fit into the process. 
  • The 17-member Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, composed of two council members, four organization representatives and 11 at-large residents. It is tasked with drafting a comprehensive rulebook for the entire process, and has a membership curated to balance ward representation, gender, age, race and more.
  • The 34-member Participatory Budgeting Leadership Committee, composed of all steering committee members plus another 17 at-large residents. This larger committee will suggest revisions for and vote on the steering committee’s rulebook draft, as well as facilitate events and outreach throughout the rest of the process.
Credit: Duncan Agnew

Helping each of these groups is “PB Evanston,” a Northwestern University group serving as the city’s consultant and technical assistant.

Headed by School of Education and Social Policy Prof. Matt Easterday, the team of NU researchers and student volunteers help facilitate meetings, conduct outreach at community events and provide resources to aid the three committees.

Part three: Next steps

Where is Evanston in its pilot cycle?

At the time of this article’s publication, Evanston is in the rulebook creation phase. Steering committee members voted on provisions for the rulebook asynchronously using a “choose your own adventure” style survey sent by Easterday on Sept. 2. The resulting draft was then shared with leadership committee members on Sept. 12, along with a survey for suggested revisions.

Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee votes to approve a draft rulebook at the Sept. 14 meeting. Credit: Alex Harrison

On Sept. 14, the steering committee met to vote on revisions and hammer out the final draft for approval. After a marathon two-and-a-half hour meeting, a final draft was passed unanimously, and it now goes to the leadership committee.

If leadership members approve it, the draft will go to the four-member PB committee for final approval and adoption. If either group disapproves, it will go back to the steering committee for further revision. Once a final rulebook is adopted, the pilot can move on to idea collection.

What kind of rules will Evanston follow?

The participatory budgeting rulebook covers every aspect of the pilot cycle, including project criteria, voter eligibility, services provided at events, the overall timeline and more. Here are some of the more significant rules included in the draft rulebook:

  • Anyone, of any age, can submit project ideas.
  • Anyone 14 or older with a meaningful connection to Evanston, meaning they live, work or own a business in the city, can be a budget delegate and is eligible to vote.
  • Budget delegates will be assigned to issue committees based on common topics that project ideas fall under, such as transportation, streets, public safety and so on.
  • The voting system will stay undecided while different options are evaluated.

At the Sept. 14 meeting, Easterday stressed to steering committee members that although the rulebook is comprehensive, it doesn’t need to be all-encompassing and can be treated as a living document.

“We only need to define the minimum requirements that have to be done, so we don’t have to get every single implementation detail,” Easterday said. “We can always go above and beyond whatever we put in the rulebook, and in addition, we can also make amendments throughout the process. So this is not final, we’re just trying to get enough of an idea of what we want to do so we can move forward.”

How long will the cycle take to finish?

Because this is Evanston’s first time practicing participatory budgeting, the timeline is not precise and has an extra month built in to allow for problem-solving and adjustments along the way. The target timeline runs from now until August 2023:

  • September to December 2022: Once the final rulebook is adopted, the community’s ideas will be collected through community assemblies, pop-up canvassing, digital outreach and other means. Community members will also be asked to volunteer as budget delegates.
  • December 2022 to June 2023: Budget delegates will work with PB Evanston and city staff to evaluate and vet the collected ideas, and then develop up the passing ideas into a maximum of 12 full project proposals.
  • June to August 2023: Science fair-style project expos will be held, where budget delegates present their completed proposals to the community with posters and visual aids. Following this, community members will vote for which projects they want to be funded. One or more projects are declared winners based on the popular vote and how they fit into the $3 million budget.
  • August 2023 and beyond: The City Council approves allocations for the winning projects and staff begin implementing them.

How can I get involved?

PB Evanston is recruiting volunteers to become budget delegates and help with outreach and event coordination. You can sign up at their website here.

Alex Harrison reports on local government, public safety, developments, town-gown relations and more for the RoundTable. He graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in June...