Last Friday the final report of the Black Brilliance Research Project was delivered to the Seattle City Council. As with the preliminary report delivered a few weeks ago (from which there are only a few substantive changes), it contains some interesting insights and has several shortcomings. It does, however, fill out more details in the project organizers’ recommendations for launching the next phase: a $30 million “participatory budgeting” program for the city.
We must, of course, start by calling out the elephant standing in the middle of the room: the nontraditional, often eyebrow-raising, path this effort has taken since its inception last summer. The questionable contracting procedure, now being investigated by the State Auditor’s office. The unusual research methods employed. The public split between King County Equity Now and both its researchers and its fiscal agent (Freedom Project). Culminating with last Friday’s presentation of the final report, delivered by the two volunteer research leads — with the conspicuous absence of King County Equity Now, the organization actually contracted by the City Council (through Freedom Project) to do the work. Most of the parties involved are unwilling to discuss what transpired on the record or voluntarily produce records related to the project. Several reporters, including myself, have filed public document requests with the city to uncover the details. Between those records requests and the work of the State Auditor, the story of what happened will eventually be told. It will not, however, be told today.
The 1300-page final research report is the proverbial half a glass: at the same time both half-full, and half-empty. On the positive side, it provides important context and insights from several constituencies that are often invisible and who tend to suffer from under-investment and at the hands of the criminal justice system. That includes people of color in the LGBTQ community, immigrants from East Africa, and the formerly incarcerated who have paid their debt to society and yet are denied housing and job opportunities. It lists several areas of under-investment for communities of color. SCC Insight’s highlights from coverage of the earlier preliminary report all carry over to the final report and are worth reviewing.
The report’s authors have synthesized the common themes from the research projects into five priority areas for government investment: housing and physical spaces, mental health, youth and children, economic development, and crises and wellness.
In an interview late last week, Councilmember Tammy Morales praised the report. “I think it’s really important that through the kind of research they did, we’re really hearing from folks that are not often included in this work. Trans people, young people, multiple languages. It reflects the diversity in the city. It’s not necessarily new information. The investments we need are healthcare, housing, food security. All the things they listed are important things to change.”
On the negative side, the report spills over from research into political advocacy too often and too easily — though admittedly it can be challenging to draw a line between them at times. Also, many of the “research reports” are poorly-disguised advertisements/pitches for the organizations conducting the research. Further, some of the projects are not yet complete, most notably a film being produced by the Philadelphia home base of Black Trans Prayer Book that isn’t expected to be released until 2022; that project raises several questions, including why a Philadelphia-based group was funded and why it was given funding for a nationwide project that would deliver its results so long after the delivery of the final report.
A centerpiece of the Black Brilliance Research Project is its community survey. Unfortunately, according to the final report the survey respondents don’t represent the demographics of the community, and largely seem to be self-selected from individuals already invested in issues and advocacy around community safety. The respondents heavily skew young and female, almost a third don’t live in Seattle, and over half are connected to community-based organizations (most of which work on community health and safety). That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to learn from the survey, but it severely limits our ability to generalize the results to an understanding of what the community as a whole believes it needs.
The net take-away of the “research results” portion of the report is some interesting and valuable insights into some under-served and overlooked sub-communities, and a clear statement of five themes for community investments — including through a participatory budgeting exercise.
The final report kicks off the next phase in this effort: organizing a new participatory budgeting program for the city. This isn’t the first one; the city has run several before, including the Your Voice Your Choice program run by the Department of Neighborhoods. But at $30 million (currently – the City Council may add more if it moves forward on further cuts to SPD’s budget) this is by far the largest PB program Seattle has ever attempted.
The final report provides a set of recommendations for the city’s PB process that includes:
- a timeline;
- an organizational structure;
- who should be involved in organizing it;
- who can submit projects;
- who can vote on projects.
Some of their recommendations are derived and customized from templates created by the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), a national organization that advocates for and supports PB projects in many cities. They follow the high-level outline that PBP suggests for participatory budgeting:
Under the recommendations, the process would begin with the creation of a steering committee to oversee the entire process. The Black Brilliance researchers, wary of committees appointed by elected officials that may serve other interests, proposed a unique approach to populating a 7-person steering committee: put out an application process with criteria for the positions, score each candidate, then randomly select a subset of the qualified candidates to be a “jury” that then selects six members of the actual steering committee from the remainder of the candidate pool (the seventh would be selected by the Duwamish Tribe).
In addition to the Steering Committee, the report proposes five other workgroups, with various responsibilities:
It would be up to the Steering Committee to decide how members of the other workgroups are selected, though the report suggests selection criteria for each.
To redress the frequent situation where community members are expected to give their time, labor and expertise for free while working alongside paid city employees, the report recommends that the seven Steering Committee members (presumably plus the four alternates it also recommends), and five members of each of the other five workgroups, be paid full-time wages for their service to the PB program, at the equivalent wage of a City “Strategic Advisor 2” employee. According to the city’s pay schedule, a Strategic Advisor 2 makes between $41.50 and $62.27 per hour, or annually between $86,652 and $130,020.
While community members will lead the process, city departments would play an important but limited support role. The recommendations take pains to emphasize that city staff must follow the leadership of the community members on the committees and workgroups. There is also a strong, repeated recommendation against allowing the Department of Neighborhoods to play a leading role, asserting that the community trusts other departments more.
After the Steering Committee and workgroups are formed and have set out the rules for the participatory budgeting process, the budget delegates get busy developing proposals for programs for potential funding. Anyone age 10 or older who lives, works, worships, owns a business, attends school or receives services in the city, or who is the parent of a child who attends school in the city, can apply to be a budget delegate.
Once the project proposals have been submitted, community members vote on their preferred projects. The criteria for who is eligible to vote is the same as for budget delegates above: anyone age 10 or older who lives, works, worships, owns a business, attends school or receives services in the city, or who is the parent of a child who attends school in the city. The report makes several recommendations for available voting methods:
After voting has occurred and projects have been selected, the city would run RFP processes to award project grants. Recognizing that many community-based organizations from under-served neighborhoods have never received government funding before and are unfamiliar with arcane government RFP processes, the report makes recommendations on how the city can level the playing field:
And finally, the report’s PB recommendations advocate for additional cuts to SPD’s budget, with commensurate increases in the PB pot of money; for a 20% contingency fund; and for additional overhead expenses to lower barriers to community members participating in the PB process.
The report lays out a timeline for this process that begins this coming week, with project development this spring, voting mid-summer, and grants distributed in the fall.
There are obviously many issues with the recommendations for the participatory budgeting process. It’s important to keep in mind that these were recommendations coming from local community members who don’t have direct experience with participatory budgeting at this scale, because no one in Seattle — including city staff — has experience with PB at this scale. Everyone is learning what this will take. From that perspective, it was inevitable that this report would be a starting point with a lot of rough edges and issues to be sorted out. Here are some of the big issues:
Staffing. The recommendations, if read literally, include 36 paid full-time community members (7 steering committee members plus four alternates, 5 members of each of five committees) plus three additional city staff. That is an enormous amount of overhead for this process. The report doesn’t specify the terms of any of the positions — one could imagine that many of the workgroup positions could be “seasonal” when needed to support particular phases of the PB process — but it does suggest that at the very least the Steering Committee positions are intended to be multi-year in connection with an annual PB cycle.
At the same time, the report recommends that community members’ lived experiences be prioritized above other qualifications in filling these positions, to the point of stating flatly that “there should be no requirements for specific professional or educational experience (e.g. college degrees) – since these requirements tend to screen out otherwise qualified applicants.” But the “sample job responsibilities” listed in the report suggest a set of activities that would be very difficult without certain educational and professional qualifications:
When asked about this conflict, Morales gave a nod to the well-established ways in which mandatory educational and professional requirements for jobs, when placed higher than necessary, become gatekeepers to prevent entry of people who historically have been denied those opportunities, while also hinting that there might be room for flexibility. “Well I think, there is one the one hand the expectation that people who are, if we’re talking about people living in communities that are dis-invested, that means they won’t have the opportunity for education. I don’t think there is a recommendation that no one with qualifications will be involved.”
Logistics. While the report recommends limiting the involvement of the Department of Neighborhoods, they are the most experienced at running this type of program (though at a smaller scale). In fact, according to Morales, the city is indeed putting the Department of Neighborhoods in the lead role as the city department driving the effort.
It’s also unclear how voting would work in practice. No list currently exists of the people who match the recommended eligibility to vote, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to create one. But with $30 million in funding on the line, the stakes are very high to ensure that no one can game the system. The city has never built or licensed a voting system that would work at this scale with the necessary assurances (it outsources elections to King County). The report points to the open-source Decidim system as a starting place to pull together a solution, but that is indeed only a starting place. If other city IT infrastructure projects are a guide, it could easily take a year or more to build out, test and deploy a system to handle PB voting that would meet the participation and inclusion goals.
How to divide up the pot. This is a big, challenging question that people involved in this effort dance around, but it eventually needs to be answered: will the $30 million go toward community safety investments in the Black community, in BIPOC communities, or in all Seattle communities? The report alternates focus between Black communities and BIPOC communities, an ongoing source of tension. There is no doubt that Seattle’s Black community has suffered mightily from over-policing by SPD, from the failures of the criminal justice system, from gentrification, and from under-investment in infrastructure and economic programs. But other BIPOC communities have as well.
But there are other considerations too: the money funding the $30 million funding pot is coming from taxpayers city-wide, and the commensurate cuts to SPD are not limited to the regions of the city that host BIPOC communities. SPD is being cut across the city, and if the recovered money is funneled into alternative forms of community safety, then alternatives will need to be available across the city. It may not be the same alternatives in every part of the city, but there has to be something for everyone — especially if elected officials want Seattle taxpayers to support continued divestment from SPD.
Morales said that she is enthusiastic about an idea that has been implemented in other cities: sub-allocate the funds by Council district, though not necessarily evenly. Every district would get some funding for programs, but districts where there is greater need would get larger shares. Of course, how to measure “need” and translate that into an apportionment would be challenging.
The budget. Currently there is $30 million set aside for a participatory budgeting program, though the Council may add more to that pot if it moves forward with an additional proposed cut of $5.4 million from SPD’s budget. The Black Brilliance researchers have also apparently asked the Mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative task force to move their $30 million into the PB pot, but received little enthusiasm for that idea.
All grant funding systems have overhead. One would hope that a grant organization that mostly passed money through to other organizations rather than administering programs itself would have lower overhead, and sometimes that’s the case. But the reduction in overhead is dependent on many factors: the complexity of the solicitation and grant-making process; paperwork requirements; the necessity of tracking, reporting and accountability measures; the size and quantity of grant made, and the timeline for the grants.
Concurrent with the delivery of the final report, the Black Brilliance researchers submitted a draft proposed budget for the PB program, and they are actively discussing it with Councilmember Morales and her staff, the Mayor’s Office, and staff from city departments. However, they have all resisted requests to share that proposal with the public (more on that in an upcoming article). Morales did admit that the initial proposal included over $8 million in spending on paid positions, infrastructure, investments to increase public participation, and other overhead — over a quarter of the $30 million budgeted for the PB program this year. Morales said that spending that much to run the program was too high. “My hope is that no more than 10-12% of the money is spent on implementation. My guess is there is some middle position we will land on.” An overhead spend of 10-12% would be much more in the typical range for a grant program.
The proposed 32 paid community positions are a big chunk of that overhead. The wages alone (ignoring the cost of benefits and other employer costs) would be a minimum of $2.75 million on an annual basis. While it’s difficult to understand the full cost breakdown without the proposed budget in-hand, the final report does name a few figures: it recommends spending at least $3.2 million on “participant costs” including the above-mentioned Steering Committee and workgroup positions, consultation fees for the Participatory Budgeting Project, and “relational health facilitators.” It also suggests that the city plan to spend about $1.3 million on digital equity solutions to aid community participation in the PB process.
The $30 million was set aside by the Council under a proviso that must be lifted before any of the funds may be spent. Morales said that she had hoped to address lifting the proviso at her next committee meeting on March 16th, but now considers that unlikely given the amount of work that still needs to be done on the program — including sorting out the budget. “In terms of the technical pieces that need to happen, we’ll see. Lifting the proviso, getting the money out the door to compensate steering committee members might take a bit longer, but other pieces are happening.”
The timeline. The report recommends a timeline that would begin project idea collection immediately while the Steering Committee, workgroups, and rules are still being put together — which seems to be putting the cart before the horse without guidance from the Steering Committee on the parameters of an acceptable proposal. Nevertheless, it also proposes that voting would begin in mid-July and wrap up a month later, with the city offering RFPs in the fall to award grants for the winning project proposals, and funding out the door in “late 2021.”
Morales admitted that this was ambitious, though she expressed optimism the PB program could still be completed this year. “We might be pushing it to actually get money out the door in the fall, but I still have faith that we’ll be able to get money out the door before the end of the year.”
With the final report now in the Council’s hands, the city’s focus is squarely on the next step: designing, planning, and implementing the $30 million Participatory Budgeting program this year. The Mayor’s Office and the Department of Neighborhoods appear to be leading the effort, with assistance from Councilmember Morales’ office, the City Budget Office, the Office of Civil Rights, and the Office of Planning and Community Development.
“The folks who were the researchers,” Morales said, “that’s who we’re working with just to make sure we understand the nuances of the recommendations. We’re also working with the Participatory Budgeting Project. But honestly right now a lot of the work is turning internally to get a lot of the pieces set up, the spend plan and implementation. That’s where we’re focused right now… Now with implementation it turns to the city, working with Deputy Mayor Washington and the city departments.”
The first step is to cobble together a reasonable plan and budget to justify lifting the Council’s proviso on the $30 million of funding so the effort can start spending money to put the pieces in place. We are likely to learn more about the status on that effort at Councilmember Morales’ next committee meeting on March 16th.
“I’m excited to get this moving,” said Morales, “to get us through the implementation so that we can start talking to community and hearing from them what they think community safety looks like… We have to stop talking about stopping community violence and start doing the things that will get us what we want. We just have to put our money where our mouth is.”
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