Municipal politics is often seen to be the forgotten cousin to federal and provincial politics, however what many people do not fully appreciate is that the effects of the decisions made at the municipal level usually have a more profound impact on people’s lives than Victoria or Ottawa.
With that in mind, it can be disheartening to see a lack of interest and enthusiasm in our local politics. That could be for a number of reasons: some folks don’t see the point, some don’t like politics in general, and some don’t feel heard by their local government.
The Township does its best to inform residents of community open houses and residents are encouraged to attend as many open houses as they can. Unfortunately, however, if the residents don’t see their opinions and concerns acted upon when it comes to budget time, many throw up their hands and say: “what’s the point of attending these open houses?”
As a possible solution to the lack of engagement at the grassroots level, this author would like to introduce participatory budgeting (PB). The PB Process is being used in many cities around the world to bring decision-making right to the grassroots level. It does this by giving residents in communities the power to vote directly on how a portion of their city’s budget is spent. In some places, like New York City, the amount is in the millions of dollars. In others, like Toronto’s pilot project, the amount was $150,000 to start (it’s now up to $250,000). In the Township of Langley, this resident believes we should start small, but dream big.
So how does the process work? It’s actually quite simple, but proper execution is crucial. Even though it can be a year-long process to bring it from the planning stage to the implementation stage, the benefits of participatory budgeting is that it allows the electorate to have some direct control over their own neighbourhood’s development and helps the grassroots build better communities.
Considering the New York City example, one can imagine Langley’s process would look something like the following:
• Step One is the planning and explanation stage. Through information sessions and community meetings, residents and stakeholders learn about the PB process and form a community PB committee to plan the process. This step could be facilitated by Township staff.
• Step Two is the idea generation stage. Through community meetings and online methods, residents are given some background information on the budget and then brainstorm project ideas and select delegates who will facilitate the next step in the process.
• In Step Three, these community delegates meet in committees to transform the community’s initial project ideas into full proposals, with support from experts from (ideally) a variety of fields, including Township staff. The PB committees assess project proposals and work to advance those that meet the most pressing community needs.
• In Step Four, the PB committee presents the final project proposals at an open community meeting, and the residents vote on which projects to fund through a variety of methods. This voting happens simultaneously in each of Langley Township’s seven communities.
• Finally, in Step Five, the winning projects are included in the Township council’s budget adopted at the annual March budget meeting. PB committee members, delegates and other participants oversee the implementation of projects by Township agencies.
The point of participatory budgeting is to give the residents of a community the opportunity to directly engage in how public dollars are spent. Examples of projects completed with funds from the PB process include improvements to parks and playgrounds, modern equipment for local schools, improvements to public spaces in the form of seating, lighting, or beautification, and numerous other meaningful improvements. New York’s website on PB offers many other examples.
Would the proposed implementation of a made-in-Langley form of the participatory budgeting process solve our lack-of-engagement woes? That is unclear. Would it give power to the people of our community and enable each of the Township’s unique areas to implement local solutions to their issues? Certainly.
Further, by keeping the age limits on participating in the process as low as possible – in some cities children as young as eight years old can provide ideas and vote – we can contribute to our young people becoming more involved in our communities and become voters and engaged citizens for life. Young people’s involvement is important given the many studies that show that cities designed with children in mind are often the best cities.
The main argument against implementing a PB process here in our Township is probably not a mindset of “We can’t” because we most certainly can. The primary opposition to the PB process would likely be from politicians and community leaders too afraid to embrace positive, city-shaping ideas.
We can have innovative, game-changing initiatives happen right here in the Township of Langley. We just need to be innovative, to put on our gumboots, roll-up our sleeves, and get to work.
Michael Pratt, Murrayville