Engagement, reach keys for participatory budgeting effort

Northwestern University Professor Matt Easterday begins his presentation on participatory budgeting at City Hall on Thursday. Credit: Alex Harrison

Organizers from the Northwestern University-based PB Evanston group held a meeting Thursday night to kick off the City of Evanston’s participatory budgeting process, where residents will present, develop, and vote on projects for which the City will allocate US $3 million in funding.

A handful of residents attended the Civic Center’s umbrella room for the event, which was led by Northwestern professor and PB Evanston director Matt Easterday. He introduced the public to the process, which was first developed in Brazil in 1989 and is now practiced in around 7,000 municipalities worldwide.

“In short, it’s a democratic process where community members decide how to spend part of the public budget, so it gives people real power over real money,” Easterday said. “The city has donated $3 million of ARPA funding and is letting residents decide how to spend it.”

City Council committed ARPA funds to participatory budgeting in December 2021. A committee comprised of Mayor Daniel Biss and council members Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th district), Bobby Burns (5th district) and Devon Reid (8th district) met for the first time in February 2022 to begin planning the process, and on June 27 the City Council approved an agreement with Northwestern to bring in the PB Evanston team to facilitate and provide technical assistance.

Ndona Muboyayi (left) hears Matt Easterday answer his question. Credit: Alex Harrison

Evanston is currently in the participatory budgeting phase, and the city has opened an app for residents to join a steering committee to direct the process and develop a rulebook. Easterday said this rulebook will be a comprehensive roadmap for the city’s process and will include goals and principles, evaluation metrics, voter eligibility, design criteria, voting rules and an overall timeline.

Easterday said the committee will have “11 to 16 members” from across Evanston, including individuals, board members and representatives of local civic organizations. He said the composition and level of involvement on the steering committee will be critically important to how much the wider community buys later in the process.

“It’s really important to have a really representative group of steering committee members, because they make big decisions about how the OP is going to work,” Easterday said. “That depends a lot on the community, right? We’ll show up and do it right, or we won’t. Really, that’s the good and bad thing about it, is that it’s up to us.”

During and after the presentation, Easterday and City Grants Manager Sarah Flax answered questions from the audience about how the participatory budgeting process works and how it will be designed to suit the specific characteristics of the Evanston community. The main concern was how to ensure that underrepresented communities were aware of the process and able to access it.

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