What’s Next for Participatory Budgeting in Seattle

The Priorities for City Investments Identified by the Black Brilliance Research Project

By Paul Kiefer

After six months and a trio of lengthy reports to the Seattle City Council, the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) has come to an end. The two researchers who led the project, Shaun Glaze and LéTania Severe, appeared before the council last Friday for their final presentation, which gave a few glimpses at what lies ahead: An ambitious effort to put a city-wide participatory budgeting process into motion by August.

Participatory budgeting is a form of direct democracy in which residents generate city spending proposals. When the council first embraced the idea last fall, the idea was that it would go hand-in-hand with divestment from policing and reinvestment in community-based public safety. The preliminary research would create a working definition of “community safety” and a blueprint for the participatory budgeting process itself, and Seattle residents would get the opportunity to suggest public safety investments—things like emergency housing for domestic violence victims and youth mentorship programs—for which they could vote later in the budget cycle.

Last fall, the council allocated $30 million to pay for participatory budgeting and the winning project proposals themselves; if successful, it will be among the largest participatory budgeting projects in the United States.

But while the BBRP team has spent the past six months conducting surveys, interviews and focus groups on a set of high-level priorities that will “guide” participatory budgeting, Glaze and Severe told the council that most of the legwork needed to get the program up and running still lies ahead—as do some steps that the researchers initially planned to tackle over the past six months.

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By March 16, council staff and the research leads—with some input from the city budget office and mayoral staff—are supposed to have hammered out the details of a spending plan for the participatory budgeting process. The money for that process will come out of the $30 million, and the final BBRP report also suggested setting aside 20 percent of the available funds to cover unexpected expenses. Whatever remains once the process comes to an end will be available to fund winning project proposals.

The proposed overhead would be significant: In addition to paying for promotional materials, translation, and software development, the researchers’ final report also outlined a plan to pay as many as 37 staffers to collect and review project proposals and encourage residents to participate, among other tasks.

Those new staffers would include the seven members of the “steering committee,” which Glaze and Severe said will create the rules for participatory budgeting, as well as 25 full-time members of five “work groups” and up to five full- or part-time city employees.

According to the BBRP proposal, seats on the steering committee would be year-long, and most members would receive a salary similar to a City of Seattle Strategic Advisor 2, in the range of $100,000 per year, based on a current listing for a strategic advisor position with the Office of Civil Rights, because of their roles as project managers.

But while the BBRP team has spent the past six months conducting surveys, interviews and focus groups on a set of high-level priorities that will “guide” participatory budgeting, Glaze and Severe told the council that most of the legwork needed to get the program up and running still lies ahead—as do some steps that the researchers initially planned to tackle over the past six months.

To choose the members of the steering committee, Glaze and Severe outlined a complex process in which a group of decision-makers will allot points to applicants based on their lived experiences; people with disabilities, Duwamish tribal members, trans or non-binary people, and Black women are among the groups who would receive points because the researchers have determined that their experience is vital to the success of the committee. Who the decision-makers would be, and how they will be chosen, is still unclear. After allocating points to applicants, the group of decision-makers would choose ten applicants from a pool of those who receive high enough scores at random, according to Glaze, to form a “jury” that would then choose the members of the steering committee from the remaining high-scoring applicants.

 

According to the BBRP’s report, applications for the positions will open in March. Excluding the city employees who will provide support for the process, the BBRP’s outline for a participatory budgeting process would require a staff nearly as large as Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights.

Once formed, the steering committee is supposed to create job descriptions for the full-time work group members. Members of the “accountability work group,” for instance, would “monitor and receive feedback” about the decisions made by the steering committee; a second group, called the “lived experience work group,” would “ensure the participatory budgeting process is aligned with the lived experiences of community members.”

Another group, called “budget delegates and process facilitators,” would be tasked with collecting project proposals from the public and developing them “into feasible proposals that reflect priorities from the Black Brilliance Research Project. According to the report, they will also “decide the overall [participatory budgeting] rules.” Some portion of that workgroup would be made up of volunteers, and the BBRP’s report specifies that any Seattle residents who are at least 10 years old (or younger; according to the report, “the Steering Committee may lower the minimum age to participate”), or King County residents displaced from Seattle by gentrification, would be eligible. The report explained that the minimum age requirement came from Seattle Public Schools’ standards for “students’ ability to evaluate research.”

The report says between two and five city staffers will be needed to support participatory budgeting. On Friday, Morales told PubliCola that staff from a city department will “provide ‘back-office’ support – data access, financial management, and some help with outreach.” In their report to council, Glaze and Severe added more details, writing that the city employees will help vet community members’ project proposals and “ensure efficient payments and accounting” without taking any leadership role themselves. The final BBRP report also called for the city to appoint two project managers from within city departments, though, as Glaze acknowledged on Friday, the number and roles of city staff will “ultimately be the mayor’s call.”

In their report, the BBRP researchers specifically said that they do not want the Department of Neighborhoods—the department that runs Seattle’s other participatory budgeting project, the capital improvements-focused “Your Voice, Your Choice“—to contract with the steering committee and workgroups and provide technical support to the process, pointing to surveys they conducted showing that respondents didn’t trust the department to keep their best interests in mind.

Instead, Glaze and Severe said the researchers and survey respondents identified the Office of Planning and Community Development, the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, and the Office of Civil Rights as more attuned to the needs of the city’s marginalized residents. However, Councilmember Morales told PubliCola on Friday that Mayor Jenny Durkan may have other plans. “I’m pretty sure that the mayor has made her decision that this will stay in the Department of Neighborhoods,” she said. In that role, the department would run the eventual voting process and manage the contracts with steering committee and workgroup members.

The researchers say the city will need to make significant investments to ensure that everyone in Seattle can submit ideas and vote for project proposals—for example, creating both online and offline ballots, producing promotional materials in more than a dozen languages, and accelerating an ongoing city project to expand broadband internet access. The BBRP’s original proposed budget  included $60,000 in spending on “internet connectivity supports,” including wi-fi hotspots and computers or tablets for those who currently lack regular internet access, but the researchers later altered course; the project timeline in their final report to council indicated that they now expect the city to begin spending on internet access improvements later this spring using roughly $1.3 million of the $30 million reserved for participatory budgeting. From Morales’ perspective, that was always the council’s intent. “We didn’t expect the research process to address the digital divide,” she said.

Though much of the work needed to get a massive participatory process off the ground lies ahead, Glaze and Severe dedicated portions of both their presentation and written report to suggest opportunities to expand the project’s budget even further. “For every dollar the city cuts to the policing budget in a given year, the participatory budgeting pot should grow,” their report argues, adding that city departments could also make some portion of their budgets available to fund project proposals from the public.

Glaze and Severe also raised the possibility that the participatory budgeting process’ budget could merge with that of the mayor’s Equitable Communities Task Force, a group of 26 community leaders formed last October to invest $100 million in services for Seattle’s BIPOC communities, which was reduced to $30 million later in the fall. During the council meeting, Morales sounded less confident in that idea, but she noted that council staff are in talks with the mayor’s office about how the two projects align. “I don’t know if we’ll end up with one pot of participatory budgeting money,” she said, “but we want to be sure that we’re working towards the same goal and not at cross purposes, and that we’re not duplicating efforts.”

The plans included in the final BBRP report also make clear that Glaze and Severe expect this participatory budgeting project to become an annual part of the city’s budget-making decisions. The steering committee and work group members, they wrote, will serve “at least one-year terms,” and preparations for the 2022 cycle will theoretically begin in the fall, just as the city finishes distributing what remains of the $30 million to the winning project proposals.

While Morales noted that the council itself hasn’t begun to discuss repeating the process next year, she supports the idea of annual participatory budgeting. “I agree that this should be a normal part of how we do business as a city,” she said. “If we’re serious about shifting power and shifting access to resources, this is a smart way to do it.”

First, however, the council will need to lift a proviso on the $30 million to allow the participatory budgeting process to continue. The council will consider whether to lift the proviso once they review the spending plan ahead of the next meeting of the council’s Community Economic Development Committee on March 16.

2 thoughts on “What’s Next for Participatory Budgeting in Seattle”

  1. Wow! First, I have to admit that, if nothing else, this story is a prime examples of the “famous” Seattle Process:
    1. When faced with a problem, you spend time and money discussing (or researching) how to build new bureaucracy to address the problem
    2. Then you spend more time and money building said bureaucracy
    3. Finally you discover a new problem and move to step 1

    There is not point in explaining that the three million already spent would have been enough to provide 125 families of color with a guaranteed monthly income of $2,000 a month, and that 30 million would do the same for 1,250 families of color, without a need for any process. Because in Seattle it is never about actually helping those in need, but it is always about helping the helpers, or about helper helping themselves. Just look at the homeless problem.

    This report suggest that the city of Seattle, as it stands, does not have the infrastructure, in terms of the tech capacity or personnel or otherwise to do this work and that new infrastructure has to be built. I would be hard pressed to accept that. In fact the story suggests that the authors are refusing to use the structures already in place due to the lack of trust.

    Then of course there are the salaries: why not volunteer, so that those in the most dire need can get more?

    Lastly, there are questions about the legality and about the democratic norms. Voting on Your Voice has never been based on the percentage of participants, which means that any organized group can easily dominate something like this and steer the funds their way.

  2. Thanks for the reporting on this project. I appreciate Publicola staying on this beat and I’m interested to see how the participatory budgeting work plays out.

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