A recent CBS News/New York Times poll confirmed what most of us already know: Trust in government is at an all-time low. According to the survey, nearly seven in 10 Americans feel they don’t have much say in what government does, and nearly four in five think our government is run by a few powerful interests. Just 18 percent think it is run for the benefit of all Americans.

This public mistrust affects all levels of government.

From city hall to the halls of Congress, important policy and spending decisions have been made for far too long by a handful of politicians behind closed doors, working in concert with corporations and special interests. This old way of doing the public’s business has bred anger and mistrust of all levels of government.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that only one out of five Americans trust government to do what’s right most of the time. They don’t believe their government listens to them and they don’t believe they have any power to affect public policy.

This public anger and mistrust isn’t healthy for our democracy. We need a new governance model that empowers people to make real decisions about important policy and spending.

As a member of Chicago’s City Council, I have embarked on an innovative alternative to the old style of decision-making. In an experiment in democracy, transparent governance, and economic reform, I’m letting the residents of my ward decide directly how to spend my entire discretionary capital budget of more than $1.3 million.

Known as “participatory budgeting,” this particular form of democracy is being used worldwide, from Brazil to the United Kingdom and Canada. It lets community members decide how to spend part of a government budget, through a series of community meetings and ultimately a final, binding vote.

While I’m the first elected official in the U.S. to implement participatory budgeting, it’s not a whole lot different than the old New England town meetings in which residents would gather to vote directly on the spending decisions of their town.

Community residents in my ward have met for the past year–developing a rule book for the process, gathering project ideas from local meetings, researching and budgeting projects. These range from public art to street resurfacing, and police cameras to bike paths. Then, residents get to pitch these project proposals to their neighbors at a series of “neighborhood assemblies” held throughout the ward.

The process will culminate in a ward-wide election on April 10, in which all residents age 16 and over, regardless of citizenship or voter registration status, will be invited to gather at a local high school to vote for up to eight projects, one vote per project. This process is binding. The projects that win the most votes will be funded up to $1.3 million.

While the process isn’t yet complete, it’s already yielding very positive results. Hundreds of community residents in my ward, many of whom had never before been involved in a civic activity, have become fully engaged in the participatory budgeting process. Rather than being passive observers of government, they’ve become active participants in governing. They’ve learned firsthand the tough decisions that elected officials are called upon to make during these tough economic times.

More importantly, they know they have the power to make real decisions, and that their government is not just hearing them but actually following their mandate.

Empowering people to make real decisions openly and transparently is the first step to restoring public trust in government.

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Joe Moore

Joe Moore is the Alderman for Chicago’s 49th Ward.

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