Retraced Steps: Participatory Budgeting Reconsidered

Okay, I’ve written some long posts on this, fairly recently. I don’t know if I have a long post in me today [Sure you do. ~Ed]. I just want to say that, owing to the way in which PeeBeeHamOnt has not yet had a chance to properly ask the people of Ward 2 whether they even want a PB process this year, let alone who gets one and for how much, I’ve temporarily climbed back into the saddle. Almost no one seems to have figured out that I left in any case, so it’s just as well. I’ll still ask if anyone wants to take over, once we’ve got the Good ship PeeBee back in the water. But for now, I’m back.

The plan now is to share information and get people talking about whether they even want a proper PB process in their ward of Hamilton, Ontario. It’s something that nobody has really done this year. Even our Councillor has been fairly circumspect in his consultation, largely sticking to the neighbourhood associations, but that’s neither here nor there. PB isn’t really as much about him as residents of the ward have come to believe, and really, why should it be? He’s a representative of the City of Hamilton, and he has a job to do, which doesn’t really include designing and implementing direct democratic processes. It’s actually a bit surprising to me that anyone would expect otherwise. It took my colleagues and I almost two years to devise a comprehensive but simple process that everyone could grasp, and I had time on my hands. The Councillor has two overworked assistants who are neither political scientists nor social planners. What do you expect?

We will be unveiling that basic plan on its own website in a few days (if I get it assembled and working quickly enough), where you will be able to sign up and discuss the plan, to help us refine it well enough to win Council approval.

The timeline was the most complicated part about our plan this year, and required varying but in some cases quite considerable amounts of volunteer work and resident involvement, which some were less impressed with than others. In some instances, it was a pretty big ask, even I will admit. But I realized early on that, without a dedicated core of volunteers, no truly participatory process can be implemented. You simply can’t hire enough people to run a grassroots engagement campaign to build groundswell support for a fairly untried (and to date still not completely implemented; some 2013 and 2014 projects still haven’t broken ground, for various largely bureaucratic reasons that the City has not been fully transparent and forthcoming about) system of problem solving self-governance.

The key is, it really does build true community engagement. That’s the real brass ring attraction to PeeBee: communities coming together to find, indicate and try to solve problems that professional staff experts don’t always really see as simple fixes. Some problems really are delicate, Byzantine and expensive procedures, no matter who is hired to handle it. There are huge liability issues for the city, and contractors know this well enough to know that their fees go up in scale when working for the City, whether they’re the best for the job or not. City Staffers are always on the lookout for these liability issues that can hamper a city-approved project, and it slows up the works immeasurably.

When I think back to the first year of PBW2, I am inevitably reminded of the largely unrealistic ballpark figures and sparse feedback supplied by the City Staff. I don’t really blame them. They have their own timelines and workloads, and we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to show them that we would see this stuff through. Why would they open the doors wide to let us in to pull the levers and make things happen that weren’t part of their carefully crafted, vetted and approved timelines? Direct Democracy isn’t actually in any City Staffer or Councillor’s job description. Public Consultation, as defined by the City of Hamilton, is a fairly rigorous and time consuming top-down process that is largely handled in a set-and-forget style. Ideally, we’re asked what we want, and then the elves step in and do the real work, no muss, no fuss. This is the way Canadian politics is handled in general. We are conditioned not to look behind the curtain. And when we don’t get the desired result, we largely shrug and go home, chastened for having dared to imagine it would or could be different.

What we don’t understand, because it hasn’t been here that long, is that PeeBee changes all of that. It empowers the public in many ways. It asks for ideas, yes, but it also asks for innovation and a level of critical problem solving that most bureaucracies and politicians are not conditioned to expect. It’s messy. It’s noisy. and like Kenneth, it doesn’t respect or give a damn about established best practices, or the status quo. It demands change, and it demands it sooner rather than later. And interestingly, though we haven’t seen enough of it yet here in Hamilton, it’s a proven and effective means of solving problems and engaging citizens in countries around the world. This stuff works. But you have to let it work, or it costs everyone dearly.

The first hurdle is getting tax payers to trust one another. We tend to vote for politicians who woo us and give us the impression, right or wrong, that they are trustworthy and diligent, and can communicate with us to learn what our concerns are ahead of City Staff timelines. Many of these people are not really schooled or qualified in any meaningful way to help a governing body identify and solve problems, but we hire them–and they are hired by us, you need to remember–largely because they are one short step away from being just like us. The very real problem is, our politicians, like City Staff in general, work in a bubble that some of us activist types call City Culture, and if you’ve ever taken high school science, you’ll remember what happens to petrie dish cultures that are allowed to go too long without being cleaned out properly. It’s not a criticism; more of an observation of systems and their nature for incubating defects as well as assets.

Long story short: PeeBee circumvents a lot of that inculcated mess, giving regular folks a chance to speak directly to representatives and city staff on an almost daily basis, to clarify and resolve problems that cost everyone time and money if left unfixed. The many dominoes that get knocked over when someone stumbles across a seemingly minor problem, like, say, cracks in the sidewalk, are quite surprising: damaged shoes (meh), damaged mobility devices (not quite so meh), and personal injury (now we’re talking) lead to health outcomes that, in a society largely covered by universal health care, winds up costing taxpayers in ways they never imagined. The longer a problem persists, the more damage and cost to the tax base.

But, if you take a resident’s problem seriously enough to implement or invite a novel solution, you spend a bit of money now, but you save more down the road, particularly if you do it responsibly, with an eye to safety and especially to durability. Filling potholes with hot asphalt is a pretty inadequate solution to the problems the city is beset with now. The suggestions may not all be as useful, but by taking the suggestions and testing them, or eliminating them based on empirical evidence that proves it doesn’t work, we can all help to arrive at solutions that last, and that everyone will be satisfied with.

PeeBee isn’t the only way this can get done, but it’s one of the most immediate and certainly most gratifying way that I know of to engage citizens and solve problems at the local level. Whether that translates to stronger, more responsible government is down to how well the City and the residents learn to get along with one another. Engaged residents can be your friend or your enemy, depending on how reasonable and responsive you are to their (sometimes seemingly irrational) demands.

It’s a handful of seemingly simple steps to get from problem spotted to problem solved, and not all problems can be solved the same way, or even with the same pot of money. There is no magic cure all for local level discord and civil unrest. But mutual respect and a willingness to work together in good faith can mend more than just fences.

If you are a resident of Hamilton, Ontario, expect to see a petition to be coming to you soon, to let Council know that you too would like to participate in a PeeBee (Participatory Budgeting) exercise. We’re planning to be at Art Crawl, and may even be doing some informal canvassing of the neighbourhoods, starting with Ward 2, where PBW2 is currently being retooled to better serve everyone’s needs.


Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: