Ask citizens where public money should go: the results might surprise you

picture by MyTudut on flickr

(NB: article originally published in Capital Finance International)

As citizen engagement gains traction in the development agenda, identifying the extent to which it produces tangible results is essential. Participatory budgeting, a process in which citizens decide upon and monitor budget allocation, offers promising results, including increased local government revenues and reduced infant mortality.

Promoting citizen engagement in the development community: a quest for evidence

In recent years there has been a growing interest in citizen engagement as a means to promote better development outcomes. The Open Government Partnership (OGP), for instance, is a multilateral platform where governments from 66 countries commit, among other things, to promote governments that are more open, participatory and accountable to their citizens. Similarly, Making all Voices Count is an international initiative supported by private donors and development agencies that provides funding to projects that promote “citizen engagement and open, responsive government.”

The rationale behind this renewed enthusiasm for civic engagement is seemingly simple: citizens know best what their needs are and how to address them. Or, as spelled out in the OGP declaration, public engagement “increases the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight.” Yet, the evidence on the benefits of citizen engagement often seems fuzzy, scattered and – sometimes – contradictory. However, a clearer picture emerges when we examine some particular practices that fall under the general “citizen engagement” umbrella, of which participatory budgeting is one. Originating from the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989, participatory budgeting (PB) can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of budget allocation and in the monitoring of public spending. Experts estimate that up to 2,500 local governments around the world have implemented PB, from major cities such as New York, Paris, Seville, and Lima, to small and medium cities in countries as diverse as Poland, South-Korea, India, Bangladesh, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Over the years, PB has attracted significant attention from scholars and development professionals. As it reaches over a quarter-century of existence, it is generating a substantial amount of evidence of the benefits of involving citizens in budgeting decisions. Here, we briefly examine some of this evidence.

Some argue – and there is growing evidence – that citizen participation increases government tax revenues

At the beginning of the 2000s, researchers studying participatory budgeting began to see an unexpected result, with some municipalities reporting substantive increases in their tax revenues. In 2004, for instance, a comparative study [PDF] of 25 municipalities in Latin America and Europe found a significant reduction in levels of tax delinquency after the adoption of participatory budgeting. But, in reality, how surprising were these findings?

Mostly unknown even among seasoned public engagement advocates, a growing body of evidence in the field of “tax morale” suggests a relationship between citizen participation and tax compliance. The argument, in an oversimplified manner, is as follows: citizens are more willing to pay taxes when they perceive that their preferences are properly taken into account by public institutions. This argument finds ever-growing empirical support. For instance, a number of studies in Switzerland – notably those by the economists Bruno Frey and Benno Torgler – show that Swiss cantons with higher levels of democratic participation present lower tax evasion rates, even when controlling for other factors. Suggesting that this is not simply a Swiss exception, a cross-national study by Friedrich Schneider and Désirée Teobaldelli found that “the effect of direct democratic institutions on the shadow economy is negative and quantitatively important.” These observational findings are increasingly supported by a growing number of controlled experiments across a variety of cultural settings. At odds with conventional economic reasoning, some evidence in the field of “tax morale” suggests that participation may be even more effective at curbing tax evasion than traditional and commonly adopted deterrence measures, such as fines and controls.

In the specific case of participatory budgeting, more robust data is also emerging. For example, a recent working paper by the Inter-American Development Bank presents similar effects of participatory budgeting on revenues in a randomized controlled trial in Russia. As noted by the authors, Diether Beuermann and Maria Amelina, these results are by no means negligible:

Implementing the planning cycle of participatory budgeting increased local revenues per capita by US$30.22 in regions without previous decentralized experience and by US$37.34 in regions with previous decentralized experience […] These are sizeable effects as they represent differences of around 70 percent with respect to the control group mean.

So participatory budgeting is good for tax revenues, but how good is it for citizens themselves?

Participatory budgeting promotes pro-poor spending, better access to services and may even reduce infant mortality

The available evidence suggests that participatory budgeting leads to significant shifts in priorities and policies, towards expenditures that directly benefit the poor. A 2008 World Bank report demonstrated that participatory budgeting has a statistically significant impact on a number of social indicators. Among others, the report highlights that PB is positively and strongly associated with improvements in poverty rates and access to water services.

Despite producing evidence of its effectiveness on a number of fronts over the years, only 25 years after its initial implementation in Brazil do we start to see systematic evidence of sound development outcomes. This is mainly due to two recently released, major studies of participatory budgeting in Brazil. The first, published by Sonia Gonçalves in World Development, finds that municipalities that adopted participatory budgeting in Brazil “favoured an allocation of public expenditures that closely matched the popular preferences and channeled a larger fraction of their total budget to key investments in sanitation and health services.” As a consequence, the author also finds that this change in the allocation of public expenditures “is associated with a pronounced reduction in the infant mortality rates for municipalities which adopted participatory budgeting.” Barely a year later, a study by Michael Touchton and Brian Wampler in Comparative Political Studies generated similar findings, demonstrating that the adoption of participatory budgeting in Brazil is strongly associated with increases in health care spending and decreases in infant mortality rates.

These studies also highlight another important takeaway for those working with development and public sector reform: the need to consider the fact that participatory institutions may take time to produce noticeable effects. As shown by Touchton and Wampler, for instance, the effects of PB adoption become significantly more visible after the fourth year of implementation.

As citizen engagement draws increasing interest in the development agenda, staying focused on which types of processes work and which do not will become particularly relevant. Participatory budgeting offers some promising evidence for policy reformers who want to see tangible impact on the ground, but it might take more than enthusiasm to get there. Determination, and a certain amount of patience, remain essential ingredients when it comes to delivering results.

Unusual suspects? Effects of technology on citizen engagement

(Originally posted on the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog)

What is the effect of technology on citizen engagement? On the one hand, enthusiasts praise the prospects offered by technology: from real-time beneficiary feedback to collaborative policymaking, the possibilities for listening at scale seem endless. Skeptics, on the other, fear that unequal access to technologies will do nothing but favor the “usual suspects”, empowering the already empowered and reinforcing existing inequalities. While the debate sometimes gets heated, a common feature unites both sides: there is limited evidence to support both views.

Providing evidence to better inform practice at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement is one of the core goals of the Bank’s Digital Engagement Evaluation Team (DEET). And, to contribute empirical data to the debate on the effects of technology on participatory processes, the team has been carrying out a number of studies, some of them covering as many as 132 countries.

The results of one of these studies have just been published, looking at the effects of Internet voting on the world’s largest participatory budgeting exercise, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Every year, over one million people participate in the state-wide process, where citizens can vote either online or offline for projects that are to be included in the public budget. In this study we present the results of a unique survey of over 22,000 Internet voters, focusing on three key research questions:

1) Does an opportunity to vote online increase participation?
2) If so, what is the socioeconomic profile of new voters?
3) And finally, what is the level of pre-existing engagement of these online voters?

Anticipating some of our results here, nearly two-thirds of respondents answer the first question affirmatively, saying they would not have taken part in the vote if online voting (i-voting) was not available. This evidence supports the view that technology increases participation among individuals who would not have voted otherwise. In parallel to this, our study shows that introducing i-voting does not lead to a substitution effect, meaning that for the most part, those who vote offline will continue to do so, despite the introduction of i-voting.

On the second question, a picture of the “usual suspects” of online engagement emerges: all else equal, i-voting seems more likely to engage individuals who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. However, from a civic engagement perspective i-voting seems to engage rather unusual suspects, boosting inclusiveness and engaging individuals who were previously uninspired by traditional politics and community activities.

In short, i-voting increases participation among previously non-engaged strata of the population, promoting the inclusiveness of the process as a whole. However, these new participants – the online-only voters – are likely to be socio-economically more privileged: a compelling reason for combining multiple avenues (online and offline) for participation.

In the study we analyze these findings in light of the literature on convenience voting, participatory governance and collective intelligence. We conclude with the implications of the findings for future practice and research.

You can download the paper here

New Evidence that Citizen Engagement Increases Tax Revenues

pic by Tax Credits on flickr

Quite a while ago, drawing mainly from the literature on tax morale, I posted about the evidence on the relationship between citizen engagement and tax revenues, in which participatory processes lead to increased tax compliance (as a side note, I’m still surprised how those working with citizen engagement are unaware of this evidence).

Until very recently this evidence was based on observational studies, both qualitative and quantitative. Now we have – to my knowledge – the first experimental evidence that links citizen participation and tax compliance. A new working paper published by Diether Beuermann and Maria Amelina present the results of a randomized experiment in Russia, described in the abstract below:

This paper provides the first experimental evaluation of the participatory budgeting model showing that it increased public participation in the process of public decision making, increased local tax revenues collection, channeled larger fractions of public budgets to services stated as top priorities by citizens, and increased satisfaction levels with public services. These effects, however, were found only when the model was implemented in already-mature administratively and politically decentralized local governments. The findings highlight the importance of initial conditions with respect to the decentralization context for the success of participatory governance.

In my opinion, this paper is important for a number of reasons, some of which are worth highlighting here. First, it adds substantive support to the evidence on the positive relationship between citizen engagement and tax revenues. Second, in contrast to studies suggesting that participatory innovations are most likely to work when they are “organic”, or “bottom-up”, this paper shows how external actors can induce the implementation of successful participatory experiences. Third, I could not help but notice that two commonplace explanations for the success of citizen engagement initiatives, “strong civil society” and “political will”, do not feature in the study as prominent success factors.  Last, but not least, the paper draws attention to how institutional settings matter (i.e. decentralization). Here, the jack-of-all-trades (yet not very useful) “context matters”, could easily be replaced by “institutions matter”.

You can read the full paper here [PDF].

DemocracySpot’s Most Read Posts in 2014

Glasses for reading (1936) – Nationaal Archief

(I should have posted this on the 31st, but better late than never)

Below are some of the most read posts in 2014. While I’m at it, I’ll take the opportunity to explain the reduced number of posts in the last few months. Since mid-2014 I have been working with a small team of political and data scientists on a number of research questions at the intersection of technology and citizen engagement (I presented a few preliminary findings here). Following the period of field work, data collection and experiments, we have now started the drafting and peer-review stage of our research. This has been an extremely time-consuming process, which has taken up most of my weekends, when I generally write for this blog.

Still, one of my new year’s resolutions is precisely to better discipline myself to post more regularly. And I am hopeful that the publication of our upcoming research will make up for the recent reduction in posts. We will start to disseminate our results soon, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s a selection of the five most read posts in 2014.

The Problem with Theory of Change

Technology and Citizen Engagement: Friend or Foe? 

A Brilliant Story of Participation, Technology and Development Outcomes

When Citizen Engagement Saves Lives (and what we can learn from it) 

Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?

New Book on 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting

Screenshot 2014-06-09 17.17.40

A little while ago I mentioned the launch of the Portuguese version of the book organized by Nelson Dias, “Hope for Democracy: 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide”.

The good news is that the English version is finally out. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

This book represents the effort  of more than forty authors and many other direct and indirect contributions that spread across different continents seek to provide an overview on the Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the World. They do so from different backgrounds. Some are researchers, others are consultants, and others are activists connected to several groups and social movements. The texts reflect this diversity of approaches and perspectives well, and we do not try to influence that.


The pages that follow are an invitation to a fascinating journey on the path of democratic innovation in very diverse cultural, political, social and administrative settings. From North America to Asia, Oceania to Europe, from Latin America to Africa, the reader will find many reasons to closely follow the proposals of the different authors.

The book  can be downloaded here [PDF]. I had the pleasure of being one of the book’s contributors, co-authoring an article with Rafael Sampaio on the use of ICT in PB processes: “Electronic Participatory Budgeting: False Dilemmas and True Complexities” [PDF].

While my perception may be biased, I believe this book will be a major contribution for researchers and practitioners in the field of participatory budgeting and citizen engagement in general. Congratulations to Nelson Dias and all the others who contributed their time and energy.

When Citizen Engagement Saves Lives (and what we can learn from it)

When it comes to the relationship between participatory institutions and development outcomes, participatory budgeting stands out as one of the best examples out there. For instance, in a paper recently published in World Development,  Sonia Gonçalves finds that municipalities that adopted participatory budgeting in Brazil “favoured an allocation of public expenditures that closely matched the popular preferences and channeled a larger fraction of their total budget to key investments in sanitation and health services.”  As a consequence, the author also finds that this change in the allocation of public expenditures “is associated with a pronounced reduction in the infant mortality rates for municipalities which adopted participatory budgeting.”

Evolution of Expenditure Share in Health and Sanitation compared between adopters and non-adopters of PB (Goncalves 2013).

Evolution of  the share of expenditures in health and sanitation compared between adopters and non-adopters of participatory budgeting (Goncalves 2013).

Now, in an excellent new article published in Comparative Political Studies, the authors Michael Touchton and Brian Wampler come up with similar findings (abstract):

We evaluate the role of a new type of democratic institution, participatory budgeting (PB), for improving citizens’ well-being. Participatory institutions are said to enhance governance, citizens’ empowerment, and the quality of democracy, creating a virtuous cycle to improve the poor’s well-being. Drawing from an original database of Brazil’s largest cities over the last 20 years, we assess whether adopting PB programs influences several indicators of well-being inputs, processes, and outcomes. We find PB programs are strongly associated with increases in health care spending, increases in civil society organizations, and decreases in infant mortality rates. This connection strengthens dramatically as PB programs remain in place over longer time frames. Furthermore, PB’s connection to well-being strengthens in the hand of mayors from the nationally powerful, ideologically and electorally motivated Workers’ Party. Our argument directly addresses debates on democracy and well-being and has powerful implications for participation, governance, and economic development.

When put together, these findings provide compelling evidence for those who – often unfamiliar with the literature – question the effectiveness of participatory governance institutions. Surely, more research is needed, and different citizen engagement initiatives (and contexts) may lead to different results.

But these articles also bring another important takeaway for those working with development and public sector reform. And that is the need to consider the fact that participatory institutions (as most institutional reforms) may take time to produce desirable/noticeable effects. As noted by Touchton and Wampler:

 The relationships we describe between PB and health and sanitation spending, PB and CSOs, and PB and health care outcomes in this section are greater in magnitude and stronger in statistical significance for municipalities that have used PB for a longer period of time. Municipalities using PB for less than 4 years do exhibit lower infant mortality rates than municipalities that never adopted PB. However, there is no statistically significant difference in spending on health care and sanitation between municipalities using PB for less than 4 years and municipalities that never adopted the program. This demonstrates the benefits from adopting PB are not related to low-hanging fruit, but built over a great number of years. Our results imply PB is associated with long-term institutional and political change—not just short-term shifts in funding priorities .

If throughout the years participatory budgeting has produced  evidence of its effectiveness on a number of fronts (e.g. pro-poor spending), it is only 25 years after its first implementation in Brazil that we start to see systematic evidence of sound development outcomes such as reduction in infant mortality. In other words, rushing to draw conclusions at early stages of participatory governance interventions may result in misleading assessments. Even worse, it may lead to discontinuing efforts that are yet to bear fruit in the medium and longer terms.

Documentary: Participatory Budgeting in Belo Horizonte

Through the Facebook Participatory Budgeting group I came across a documentary about Belo Horizonte’s PB. The documentary, by Joao Ramos de Almeida, provides a unique view of the functioning of one of the oldest PBs in Brazil.

Among other things, the documentary shows how the process leads to a degree of civic empowerment and activism rarely seen in traditional governing models. It is particularly interesting to see how citizens contest, for instance, the cost estimates of public works made by the city administration. The documentary also shows how PB manages to engage citizens in an extremely time consuming process. It is also interesting to see that, while there is some degree of deliberation in the PB process, much of it is also about negotiation between the different communities involved.

Among other things, it shows that Belo Horizonte’s PB is far from perfect, and the suspicion of some degree of co-optation of some PB participants by the administration highlights difficulties that are inherent to many participatory processes. To some, it might come across as a sobering message. Yet, when looking at participatory initiatives, we should not only compare their functioning to an ideal vision of democracy. In this case, we should also compare it to the status quo, that is, how public budgeting takes place in the absence of public participation.

For those interested in citizen engagement this documentary (English subtitles, 55 mins) is worth watching.


Also read

Participatory Budgeting and Digital Democracy: the Belo Horizonte Case

The Effects of Participatory Budgeting on Infant Mortality in Brazil

Participatory Budgeting: Seven Defining Characteristics

Participatory Budgeting and Technology: Innovations in Open Government

The Participatory Turn: Participatory Budgeting Comes to America