What if everyone in Seattle got to vote on the city's budget? Council Member Nick Licata got people thinking about that question earlier this year when he held a series of meetings about an idea called "participatory budgeting." The process, in use in other cities including Boston and New York, allows citizens to vote directly on how certain city money should be spent.
Now, it's going to happen in Seattle.
Basically, it works like this: Cities set aside a part of their budget to be allocated by a public vote. Volunteers organize meetings where citizens brainstorm ideas for projects or programs they want to see in their neighborhoods, and then they help turn those ideas into formal proposals, which are vetted by city departments. Then citizens vote on which project they want to fund.
Participatory budgeting is meant to include whole new groups of people in the work of spending the city’s money. And it seems to be working. In Porto Allegre, changes in leadership have recently stalled some projects, but overall the new way of budgeting has increased sanitation, bus service and the number of students in schools. In Boston and New York, more low-income residents and people of color got involved in voting for projects than in traditional elections, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project, which helps cities start the process and presented this week at a forum and city council committee meeting in Seattle.
"It brings people to the table who don’t usually have a seat at the table when budgets are being made,” says Ginny Browne, who works with cities on the west coast for the Participatory Budgeting Project. Often, voting on a participatory budget involves people who don’t have legal immigration status or are under 18—in other words, people who don’t usually get to vote at all—and is held in unconventional places, like transit centers or online. (It’s up to cities to figure out logistics, like how to verify that people aren’t voting more than once.)
Licata and Mayor Ed Murray announced Tuesday that in next year's budget, the mayor will suggest (it'll need council approval) setting aside $500,000 to be budgeted by "youth and young adults." It's a nice parting gift for Licata, who will be retiring when his term ends at the end of this year.
Licata told me earlier this year he'd eventually like to see participatory budgeting expanded to actually influence some of the city's largest departments. And he hints at that in the city's official announcement, saying starting with youth "is a great way to introduce participatory budgeting in Seattle.”
For now, how will the city find the kids who get to vote on this $500,000? What kinds of projects will youth be asked to submit? And how will they vote on which projects get funded? How will city staff, as promised in a press release, "ensure that all Seattle youth have a voice at the table"?
The specifics are all still up in the air, according to the city's Department of Neighborhoods. This fall, that department will put together a steering committee to hash out the details. According to the mayor's office, Murray has sent legislation to the city council that will spend $173,000 on creating the program. Kids will start figuring out how to spend the money next spring.