Participatory Budgeting: Seven Defining Characteristics

I am often asked for definitions of participatory budgeting. Normally, I use the following definition in my texts:

“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.”

Nevertheless, while easy to understand, this definition opens the door to a big (and annoying) interpretation problem: some might think that simple budget consultations are the same as participatory budgeting, and they are not.

In my opinion, there are no perfect definitions, with different authors stressing different points. Based on the literature that I have read, I think that participatory budgeting – at least ideally – should present the following seven characteristics:

1) Public budgets are the object of the process, or at least part of it (it is not urban planning)

2) Citizen participation has a direct impact on the budget (it is not a consultation)

3) Citizens decide on the rules governing the process

4) The process has a deliberative element (it is not like the Swiss fiscal referendum for example)

5) A redistributive logic is embedded in the design of the process (e.g. poorest districts / areas get more money and vice-versa)

6) The process is institutionally designed to ensure that citizens can monitor public spending

7) The process is repeated periodically (e.g. on a yearly basis)

Of course, I am probably missing and adding elements that many scholars would point out. Some might fairly consider my interpretation as too orthodox: a number of initiatives that we call PB rarely combine all seven elements.

Just in case, a few other definitions / descriptions of the process:

Here’s a practical definition, based on five criteria:

“(1) The financial and/or budgetary dimension must be discussed; participatory budgeting is dealing with scarce resources.

(2) The city level has to be involved, or a (decentralised) district with an elected body and some power over administration (the neighbourhood level is not enough).

(3) It has to be a repeated process (one meeting or one referendum on financial issues are not examples of participatory budgeting).

(4) The process must include some form of public deliberation within the framework of specific meetings/ forums (the opening of administrative meetings or classical representative instances to normal citizens is not participatory budgeting).

(5) Some accountability on the output is required.”

Source: Sintomer, Y., C. Herzberg and G. Allegretti, 2011. Learning from the South: Participatory Budgeting Worldwide – an Invitation to Global Cooperation. Dialog Global, No. 25  [PDF]

Another one is from a seminal article by Boaventura de Souza, based on guiding principles. An important element in this definition: citizens are the ones who decide the internal rules that govern the participatory process.

“The participatory budgeting is a structure and a process of community participation based on three major principles and on a set of institutions that function as mechanisms or channels of sustained popular participation in the decision-making process of the municipal government. The three principles are:

a) All citizens are entitled to participate, community organizations having no special status or prerogative in this regard;

b) Participation is governed by a combination of direct and representative democracy rules and takes place through regularly functioning institutions whose internal rules are decided upon by the participants;

c) Investment resources are allocated according to an objective method based on a combination of “general criteria” – substantial criteria established by the participatory institutions to define priorities – and “technical criteria” – criteria of technical or economic viability as defined by the executive and federal, state, or city legal norms – that are up to the executive to implement.”

Source: Santos, Boaventura de Souza. 1998. “Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre: Toward a Redistributive Democracy.” Politics & Society [PDF]

Another definition, by the PB veteran Brian Wampler, stresses a major element often forgotten by scholars and advocates: the monitoring of public spending. Another important element refers to the redistributive nature of PB (e.g. poorest neighborhoods get more money).

“Participatory Budgeting (PB) programs are innovative policymaking processes. Citizens are directly involved in making policy decisions. Forums are held throughout the year so that citizens have the opportunity to allocate resources, prioritize broad social policies, and monitor public spending. These programs are designed incorporate citizens into the policymaking process, spur administrative reform, and distribute public resources to low-income neighborhoods. Social and political exclusion is challenged as lowincome and traditionally excluded political actors are given the opportunity to make policy decisions. Governments and citizens initiate these programs to (i) promote public learning and active citizenship, (ii) achieve social justice through improved policies and resources allocation, and (iii) reform the administrative apparatus.”

Source: Wampler, B. 2000. “A Guide to Participatory Budgeting.” Paper presented at the Conference on the Participatory Budget, Porto Alegre, Brazil. [PDF]

A couple of other, shorter definitions:

• One often used by advocates in the US:

“Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. […]”


• Another one used by the PB Unit in the UK (and the Department of Communities and Local Government – DCLG UK Govt.):

“Participatory budgeting directly involves local people in making decisions on the spending and priorities for a defined public budget. PB processes can be defined by geographical area (whether that’s neighbourhood or larger) or by theme. This means engaging residents and community groups representative of all parts of the community to discuss and vote on spending priorities, make spending proposals, and vote on them, as well giving local people a role in the scrutiny and monitoring of the process and results to inform subsequent PB decisions on an annual or repeatable basis.”

I hope that helps.

2 thoughts on “Participatory Budgeting: Seven Defining Characteristics

  1. Pingback: What Is Participatory Budgeting?

  2. Pingback: Documentary: Participatory Budgeting in Belo Horizonte | DemocracySpot

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