#01, June 2019


The participatory budgeting adventure

Five questions for the Mayor of the Mercier—Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough.

Entrusting part of the municipal portfolio to the inhabitants of a city is not a new initiative. Since the beginning of the millennium, the Centre d’écologie urbaine in Montréal has been supporting municipalities that are making this commitment to a true exercise in participatory democracy.

The 40,000 residents of Mercier-Ouest have a budget of $350,000 this year to carry out projects that they have chosen together for their neighbourhood. For Mayor Pierre Lessard-Blais, it is urgent to fight the crisis of confidence that is undermining our society by giving real executive power to his fellow citizens.

Pierre Lessard-Blais (Mayor of Mercier—Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough)

Photo credit: Cindy Boyce

Raccords: How is the participatory budgeting process going so far?

Pierre Lessard-Blais: More than 150 proposals were submitted during the idea-gathering phase. These are mainly greening, security or food supply projects. Citizens could submit ideas online, but we found that the suggestions that were developed in a group during the creative thinking workshops were often more relevant and reflected the neighbourhood’s needs.

The entire process is overseen by a steering committee composed of citizens, members of the Table de quartier de Mercier-Ouest, elected officials and municipal officials. As of next month, the committee will lead the Forum de développement de projets, following which 30 ideas will be submitted to our municipal teams, which will evaluate their feasibility in more technical terms, including urban planning.

The vote, based on the honour system, will take place in October. It is an innovative process compared to the usual democratic practices, but it reflects the spirit of the project, because it will eliminate the administrative burden of a systematic verification of addresses and because it opens participation to minors. 

Residents will be able to vote online, but we plan to prioritize the voices of those who will come in person to the offices to be open for this purpose—to the library, the arena, and the offices of partner organizations—all will be venues for presentations of the projects, but also for discussions among members of the community, which is our ultimate goal. Online engagement, supported by social networks, facilitates participation, but sometimes serves individual interests more than the community. If we want to fight the cynicism and atomization of society, it will not happen by staying behind our screens, but by going out to meet our fellow citizens.

What were the guiding principles and good practices adopted by the committee?

We wanted to free ourselves from bureaucratic red tape and de-compartmentalize topics in order to free creativity and allow citizens to be bold. We want them to understand that a real executive power is given to them: our team is committed to unlocking the funds but does not participate otherwise in the process. We do not propose projects and do not campaign to support one over another.

Nevertheless, the projects must be able to be implemented without encroaching on the operational resources of the borough; it is one of the few constraints that we imposed. It takes into account our budget reality, and each participatory budget must above all reflect local colour. The funds will therefore come from the Three-Year Capital Works Plan. The envelope of this year represents 10% of this plan for the borough; it is an ambitious first attempt.

Proponents of participatory budgeting praise its capacity to fight the inequalities inherent in the representative system. What means have been put in place to engage the population of the neighbourhood as a whole, including minority groups?

We want participatory budgeting to be a tool for building community living and community development. So we sent invitations to all residents and bought a lot of advertising space. But Mercier-Ouest is an isolated neighbourhood, bordered by industries, a fragmented area where the feeling of belonging sometimes struggles to emerge. We had to be present everywhere, that’s why we conducted an in-depth reflection on the location of the different creative thinking workshops.

But beyond geographical divisions, we must absolutely talk with those who are outside the mainstream and whose voices are less heard. To do this, we have been careful to be hosted by organizations that can stimulate the participation of people less accustomed to the exercise of power. The best example is the collaboration with Projet Harmonie, an NPO that works at Habitations La Pépinière. The workshop held there attracted many people from neighbouring streets who did not know about it. People from different backgrounds could discuss the neighbourhood together.

Of course, we also want citizens with a certain cultural capital, whose reflexes of political participation are already developed, to become involved in participatory budgeting. They understand how the system works and their ideas are needed.

Is participatory budgeting in Mercier-Ouest a culmination or the beginning of something?

The Ville de Montréal has included participatory budgeting as one of the main issues of its pre-budget consultations, demonstrating its real interest in the issue. Our borough could therefore be an exciting laboratory for broader initiatives in the near future. Subsequently, we could alternate the exercise in the three neighbourhoods of the district or have participatory budgeting at the city-wide level in parallel with that at the neighbourhood level, as it is done in Paris.

But participation is the priority if we want to reiterate the experience: without the involvement of a minimum percentage of the population, participatory budgeting would be a financial windfall only available to the politically organized citizen groups. We will also need to demonstrate to our critics that people are able to overcome their self-interest and become aware of the priority needs of a community.

This experience is mainly a reflection of a global desire to bring municipal authorities closer to the population and to change the way we communicate. To combat the democratic crisis we are facing, we need measures that are less publicized than participatory budgeting, such as the development of our public consultation skills, or the creation of educational tools to decode municipal regulations. If we do not innovate, citizens will continue to move away from the executive, and we will lose control of the situation. To truly share power with them is the only way to regain their trust and to secure their adhesion.

Does citizen participation have the power to make deep changes?

It’s obvious! It is essential to support the action of elected officials in the face of the challenges that the current crisis, particularly the environmental crisis, raises. Only the support of our fellow citizens can give us the courage to undertake the necessary transformations.

In addition, with a population of 144,000 people in Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, I cannot know everything there is to know about my entire district. For this, I need the citizens. 

Municipal orientations have a direct and major influence on the lives of the inhabitants. But in reverse, elected officials are nothing without their approval. We have to get away from the romantic cynicism that “anyway, it’s never going to change,” because transforming society is not an easy task and it will not happen overnight. Only a true distribution of power can give democracy its full potential.

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