Participatory Budgeting in Chicago

Participatory Budgeting in Chicago

Chicago became the first city in the United States to adopt a Participatory Budgeting (PB) programme in 2009. Thanks to PB, the residents of Chicago can address their local concerns by voting directly on how to allocate the infrastructure budget, participating directly in the decision-making process. By 2017, PB Chicago has engaged over 13,000 residents in 12 different communities to directly decide how to spend over $18 million in public dollars.

At a Glance

  • Participatory budgeting (PB) is the participation of non-elected citizens in the conception and/or allocation of public finances.
  • Alderman Joe Moore of the Democratic Party volunteered to become the first elected official in the US to try PB in 2009. When it was first launched by Mr Moore, the residents of his ward were allowed to decide how to spend the ward’s “menu money,” a $1.3 million pot of capital funds intended for small-scale local infrastructure improvements.
  • By 2017, PB in Chicago has engaged over 13,000 residents in 12 different communities to directly decide how to spend over $18 million in public dollars.

Policy Reference
Connected Policies
Selection as a Future-Just Policy

PB is a democratic process that gives neighbourhood residents and stakeholders real decision-making power over real money. Collective decision-making on budgeting, allows citizens to voice their concerns and choose which infrastructure projects the city should endorse. A more effective and just governance is achieved because decision-making stems from the first-hand knowledge of the residents thanks to PB.

As the first city in the United States to launch a PB programme, Chicago has managed to develop a system that enables the efficient implementation of PB, through establishing a “PB Rulebook” which provides a comprehensive outline and division of labour among different areas of interests and social groups.

The City of Chicago is divided into fifty legislative districts or wards. Each district is represented by an Alderman who is elected by their constituency to serve a four year term. In addition to representing the interests of their ward residents, together the fifty Aldermen comprise the Chicago City Council, which serves as the legislative branch of government of the City of Chicago. The wards get to nominate infrastructure projects based on their needs as part of the PB system. Achieving the highest rate of public participation as its main goal, the PB programme in Chicago is an exemplary system of local governance.

Future-Just Policy Scorecard

Our “Best Policies” are those which meet the Future-Just Lawmaking Principles and recognise that interrelated challenges require interconnected solutions. The World Future Council’s unique research and analysis ensure that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and respect for the environment are coherently considered by policy-makers.

   Sustainable use of natural resources

  • The PB programme does not directly address protecting natural resources however, reports show that PB voters tend to select projects that will improve the natural environment and the local community for example through tree planting.

   Equity and poverty eradication

  • To facilitate broad participation, each ward holds at least five days of voting at the Alderman Office, at least one voting assembly, and at least two mobile voting tables in places with a high concentration of historically under-represented populations.
  • Research shows that every year more people from low-income neighbourhoods participate in the PB process, which allows the proposed projects to address their particular problems.

   Precautionary approach

  • Human safety is frequently addressed by the PB programme because the projects are developed and voted on directly by the residents who have the first-hand knowledge of the safety needs of their areas. For instance, the winning projects include improving safety of areas below viaducts, and of streets through street resurfacing and installing new streetlights.

   Public participation, access to information and justice

  • According to the “PB Rulebook”, anyone who lives, works, studies in the ward or has children who are students in the ward is allowed to serve as a community representative, which means they can form discussion groups dedicated to transforming ideas from the communities into full scale project proposals.
  • Residents who live in the ward and are aged over 16 can vote for projects. Individual wards may use a lower voting age, if agreed on by the Alderman and the Ward Leadership Committee.
  • The PB programme establishes Demographic Committees which are meant to ensure maximum participation from community members who might not otherwise participate, in order not to divide or separate sectors of the community. Potential Demographic Committees may include but are not limited to: youth, seniors, and non-English speaking communities.

    Good governance and human security

  • To maintain the programme, training, workshops and expert support are provided. Communities are encouraged to develop sustainable projects and to support existing leaders and cultivate new ones.
  • PB helps elected officials do their job better, by putting them in closer touch with their constituents.

   Integration and interrelationship

  • The PB programme enables cooperation between the city wards and universities, public schools, local civil society organisations and scientific institutes, thus, spreading the direct, democratic participation approach to other areas of social life.

   Common but differentiated responsibilities

  • Every committee deals with different areas of interest in the PB programme, for example in the 49th ward of Chicago there are six committees that are assigned with different undertakings which are; Parks and Environment, Public Safety, Traffic Safety, Streets, Transportation, and Art and Other Projects.


PB is the participation of non-elected citizens in the conception and/or allocation of public finances. During the PB process, residents are allowed to present their ideas for a project and they can vote on which project to implement. These projects range from sidewalk or bike lane repairs to planting trees and building recreation rooms for public schools. The first full scale PB process was conducted in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989.

In 2009, Alderman of Chicago’s 49th ward Joe Moore became the first elected official in the United States to launch the PB programme. As part of the programme the residents of the 49th ward allocated one million dollars of the ward’s capital budget, the so called “menu-money” to the projects of their choosing. The first winning projects included planting new trees, fixing sidewalks and installing new streetlights. Since then PB has spread not only to the other wards of Chicago but to other states, such as California, in the United States.


The general objective of PB is achieving public participation in budget allocating but the specific objectives of Chicago’s PB programme are:

  1. equitable participation for a more diverse, representative, fair and just process,
  2. actively engaging the whole community and reduce obstacles to participation,
  3. strengthening the community and the residents through outreach, education, dialogue, and civic engagement,
  4. ensuring renewal and support for the individuals participating, through training and workshops as well as expert support.

Methods of Implementation

Each Alderman, as part of their responsibility, receives $1.32 million in city bond money to spend on capital improvements in their ward. This amount is called “menu money”. Each cycle, the PB process takes places in the participating wards. Basic process of PB in Chicago is as follows:

  1. Stakeholders brainstorm spending ideas
  2. Volunteer community representatives develop proposals based on these ideas and determine final ballot items
  3. Project expos are held to showcase ballot items
  4. Residents or members vote on proposals
  5. The governing body implements the winning projects


Chicago has taken a step towards achieving a more inclusionary, bottom-up way of governance. Thanks to PB, the residents of Chicago can address their local concerns by voting directly on how to allocate the so called menu-money. Some of the winning projects include; a youth-designed skate park, a culinary institute, a small business micro-loan programme, green roofs for businesses. By 2017, PB Chicago has engaged over 13,000 residents in 12 different communities to directly decide how to spend over $18 million in public dollars.

The PB programme provided residents with an opportunity to learn about the needs of their ward, the interests of their neighbours, and the city budgeting process through training and workshops which increased the capacity and efficiency of the programme.

Empowering the public also shows positive results of increasing participation rates; a 2014 report indicates that in Chicago, the majority of active participants reported no previous involvement or low levels of previous involvement in civic activities and organisations. Applying PB has greatly increased involvement in decision-making and had a spill-over effect on participation percentages of local elections as well.  Additionally, PB is becoming institutionalised into Chicago’s city government. In November 2014, the Mayor and City Council voted to fund the hiring of a new city of Chicago Assistant Budget Director whose primary task is to support Aldermans as they implement PB projects.

As of 2017, nine wards out of fifty in Chicago are participating in the PB programme.

Potential as a Transferable Model

Chicago was the first city in the US to adopt a PB programme, but soon other cities such as New York City, Vallejo and San Francisco followed. Chicago’s PB programme efficiency and the simplistic yet specialised outline of its implementation helped inspire the growth of PB across the US and Canada. However, the PB model of Chicago is applicable to other parts of the world as well because it has a localised approach that could be adapted based on communities’ unique needs.

Additional Resources

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