The Guardian on Participatory Budgeting

The Guardian has come up with an interesting piece on Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting, highlighting some of the benefits (well-known to some) of the process:

The effects have been overwhelmingly positive. Within seven years, the percentage of locals with access to sewers doubled from 46 to 95. The rate of roadbuilding, particularly in the favelas, rose five-fold. Tax evasion fell, as people saw what their money was being spent on.

Read the full article here.


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.

Mapping Social & Environmental Risks in Rio de Janeiro

From the InSTEDD iLab Latin America blog

The main idea behind this project was to create a simple, low cost way to allow the youth living in the favelas to digitally map the socio-environmental risk factors that threatened their communities. We needed to do it in a way that would be publicly visIble so that the government and the public could be aware and respond.

Below a video on the first stage of the initiative

Definitely something to follow up on. It would be interesting to find out more about how they are planning to asses the impact of the initiative. In my very limited experience, most mapping initiatives are exciting to see but fail to show a link between outputs (e.g. maps) and tangible outcomes (i.e. impact). Let’s hope this initiative is one of the exceptions.

Trust and Political Information: Attitudinal Change in Participants in the Youth Parliament in Brazil


This article analyses the impact of socializing experiences on the political attitudes of youngsters. More specifically, our goal is to evaluate the impact of the Youth Parliament program on youngsters’ confidence levels in the Minas Gerais State Assembly (MGSA). The analysis focuses on the cognitive foundations of attitudes and results show a substantial increase in confidence levels in MGSA, an increase associated with the acquisition of information on the institution. It is asserted that the increase in confidence in MGSA represents and attitudinal “gain”. The study design involves quasi-experimental research on a non-random sample. We conducted two rounds of interviews in 2008, prior and subsequent to the program, with 335 participants (167 in the treatment group; and 168 in the control group).

By Mario Fuks, Gabriel Avila Casalecchi, Brazilian Political Science Review, Vol 6, No 1 (2012)

Who is willing to participate, and how?

This paper [PDF] draws on a new survey of British citizens to test the hypothesis that there are two quite distinctive types of attitude prevalent among those who are ‘disaffected’ with politics, the ‘dissatisfied democratic’ and ‘stealth democratic’ orientations, the former being more widespread in the UK. While neither manifests a high level of trust for the political elite, the dissatisfied democratic citizen is politically interested, efficacious and desires greater political participation, while the contrary is generally true of the stealth democrat. However, although stealth democrats are unwilling to engage in most forms of participation or deliberation, they are ambiguous about direct democracy, which can be attributed to the populist nature of stealth democratic attitudes.

By Paul Webb, University of Sussex, 2012.

Technology and Politicians’ Promises

Increasingly popular, promise-tracking platforms are software solutions designed to track the extent to which elected officials fulfil their promises made during electoral campaigning. David Sasaki has written an interesting post about these “promise meters”. Given that we are still in the early stages of development of these innovations, a few considerations might be noteworthy.While the cases that David lists focus on candidates for the Executive (e.g. gubernatorial elections), for illustrative purposes I focus primarily – but not solely – on cases in the field of parliamentary informatics. That is, existing or potential solutions for tracking politicians’ promises in parliament.
As David mentions, promises are not always the best metric. This may become even more evident when we consider the issues of collective intelligence and deliberation. To clarify, let us think of parliaments in their simplest form. As the etymology itself indicates, parliaments are in their origin conceived as spaces of dialogue. Such a deliberative component, some might argue, is precisely the epistemic basis that justifies the existence of parliaments as such. From this perspective, the mechanism that leverages the knowledge dispersed amongst the different parliamentarians relies on i) exposure to diverging points of view, ii) the justification of arguments on a rational basis, and ii) the willingness of parliamentarians to change their positions and preferences. From this perspective, a parliament in which its members do not change their preferences may in fact be counterproductive. The same applies to actors from the Executive as they interact with actors from other branches (e.g. Legislative) and levels (e.g. sub-national) of government and society as a whole.
Another question refers to the object of promise-tracking software. Some examples may fall prey to focusing on politicians as opposed to political parties, neglecting the role played by electoral parties in politicians’ behavior. Such oversight is particularly undesirable in the context of electoral systems that tend to foster strong party organizations (e.g. proportional representation), where parties’ directives tend to guide political action more than any individual agenda. This is perhaps one of the reasons for which voting advice applications (VAAs) developed by political scientists, such as theEUProfiler, have structured their design around political parties.
Finally, one could argue that promise-tracking platforms are built under a normative assumption that privileges a “delegate model of representation” over a “party delegate model” or a “trustee model” of representation.  Unintentionally, the discussion surrounding promise-tracking software enters a lively – and still unsettled – debate in the field of political representation theory. Edmund Burke would have loved to be a part of it.
(originally posted on the World Bank’s IC4D Blog)

Democracy, Redistribution and Equality

Via ABCDemocracy I came across this great article in the Brazilian Political Science Review by Adam Przeworski, one of the most important political scientists in the field of democracy and political economy. Here is the abstract of Przeworski’s paper Democracy, Redistribution and Equality: 

The article argues that economic inequality inevitably generates political inequality, which in turn reproduces economic inequality. Basic concepts are introduced first along with strong caveats concerning the quality of the cross- national data on income distributions; historical patterns of income inequality are summarized next, and with these preliminaries, a distinction is made between redistribution of consumption at a particular time and equalization of income earning capacities over time. Following this economic considerations, the article discussion moves to political factors that may block redistributions.

And for those working in the field of open government, money and politics; here are some interesting thoughts:

The impact of money on politics cannot be reduced to “corruption.” True, corruption scandals abound: suitcases filled in cash are found in the prime minister’s office, government contracts are awarded to firms co-owned by government ministers, public officials exit politics to cushy jobs in private companies they favored, insider trades are rampant, political parties are found to have bank accounts in Switzerland, local governments operate systematic bribe schedules on contractors, the list goes on and on. Moreover, such scandals are by no means limited to less developed countries or to young democracies: these examples are drawn from Germany, Spain, France, Italy, United States, and Belgium. But reducing the political role of money to instances of “corruption” is deeply misleading. Conceptualized as “corruption,” the influence of money becomes something anomalous, out-of-ordinary. We are told that when special interests bribe legislators or bureaucrats, democracy is corrupted. And then nothing needs to be said when special interests make legal political contributions. In order to exist and to participate in elections, political parties need money. Because election results matter for the private interests, they understandably seek to befriend parties and influence results of elections. The logic of political competition is inexorable. That the same acts are legal in some countries and illegal in other systems – some U.S. political financing practices would constitute corruption in several democracies – is in the end of secondary importance. The influence of money on politics is a structural feature of democracy in economically unequal societies.


The relation between money and politics can be to some extent mitigated so that the impact of economic inequality on political inequality varies across countries. Various regulatory schemes have been proposed and various are in use but we have no systematic knowledge of their effects. Perhaps instead of legal regulation, more effective are mechanisms by which poor people can pool their resources in order to counterbalance the influence of the rich. Unions provided this mechanism in the past and still do in some countries: income inequality is lower in countries which continue to have encompassing unions (Scheve and Stasavage 2009)22 Non-governmental organizations now play some of this role and, as the 2008 Obama campaign has shown, perhaps the internet will provide an alternative mechanism. But perfect political equality is impossible in economically unequal societies. Something is wrong when a plurality of citizens in a democracy answer the question about which institutions have most power in their country with “banks.23 Perhaps the most plausible explanation of the persistence of inequality is the feedback from political to economic inequality. High economic inequality generates high political inequality, disproportionate political influence of the rich perpetuates the inequality.

Definitely worth reading.