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.

Mapping Participatory Budgeting and e-Participatory Budgeting

This is still work in progress. I have been trying to map  participatory budgeting and e-participatory budgeting initiatives across the world.There are many more e-participatory budgeting initiatives to be inserted, as well as offline initiatives. The e-PB initiatives included so far are highlighted in red color.

If anyone here at can think of any cases to be included or would like to collaborate in this effort, please let me know.

Any suggestions on how I could make this map more useful are very welcome.


Open Knowledge Festival

I will soon be in Helsinki for the Open Knowledge Festival to give a keynote lecture. The subjects will be citizen engagement, participatory budgeting and technology. This talk will be on  the topic stream “Open Democracy and Citizen Movements”.

Here’s a summary of the session:

The Open Democracy and Citizen Movements stream explores the recent moves towards a more open and participatory democracy and society. Online tools allow people to speak, be heard, find each other and take collective action in new ways. The stream will showcase and debate the topic starting with the formal means of the new democracy as for instance, the crowdsourced Icelandic constitutional reform, participatory budgeting and European citizens’ initiatives. The theme carries on to to the informal, non-mandated citizen movements that are shaping our societies from the bottom up.

Looking forward to it!

Participatory Budgeting & Technology: Innovation in Open Government

(NB: overly descriptive post with links to initiatives websites / case studies)

Participatory budgeting has been a source of innovation in itself with regards to the use of technologies.

Over two decades ago the city of Porto Alegre started to use the Internet as a means to facilitate citizen monitoring of its budget execution. In 1997, the medium-sized city of Ipatinga [pdf] started to provide online geo-referenced information about its budgetary allocation and status of public works. Noteworthy, both initiatives anticipated practices that years later would become so popular: the use of Internet to foster budget transparency and the mapping of government spending.

In 2001 the use of ICT in participatory budgeting towards increasing citizen participation is put forward, with the municipalities of Ipatinga and Porto Alegre enabling their citizens to submit their demands for budget allocation via the Internet. Although embryonic, these initiatives can be situated at the origin of an entire new field of ICT mediated participation. Since then, the use of ICT to facilitate participatory budgeting processes has gone beyond the Brazilian context, offering a wealth of innovative practices to be explored.

In Europe, for instance, the issue has gained significant traction in the recent years. In Germany, since 2005 Berlin-Lichtenberg combines face-to-face citizen assemblies with online participation. An online platform enables citizens to discuss and elaborate budgetary proposals to, subsequently, prioritize them. In 2008 the city of Freiburg combined online deliberation with the use of a budget simulator, enabling citizens to better assess the impacts of their choices. The results of this deliberative process were then collaboratively aggregated in a wiki and edited by the participants of the process themselves. Similar initiatives have been also conducted in the cities of Bergheim, Cologne, Hamburg and Leipzig.

In Italy, developing upon the combination of online and offline methods adopted earlier on in Brazil, in 2006 the city of Modena allowed its citizens to send by e-mail proposals to be discussed by the PB assemblies. Modena citizens could also watch live video streaming of the PB meetings and be updated about the process via SMS. The use of SMS as a means to reach a broader and younger audience, pioneered by the Brazilian city of Ipatinga in 2004, has also been identified in other Italian PB processes, such as those of Rome, Bergamo and Reggio Emilia. The ability to vote via the Internet for the public works in Italy can be illustrated by the experience of the cities of Vimercate and Parma. For example, through the Parmesan website votes can be case once ID number is provided, allowing the system to identify the eligible participants, that is, Parma residents. Finally, the website provides geo-referenced information, allowing citizens to visualize the location of the projects and to access further information about each of them.

In Spain, I have identified the use of the Internet to support citizens’ participation in the cities of Albacete, Cordoba, Getafe, Jun, Petrer, Malaga and Jerez. For instance, in the city of Getafe in 2008, in one of the districts of the city, citizens were allowed to watch live video streaming of the PB meeting and to cast their vote online. Through the Getafe’s PB website citizens are able to submit individually or collectively proposals for the PB process. In the municipality of Malaga citizens can submit proposals online and subscribe to SMS updates that inform them on the status of public works selected in the. In Lisbon, Portugal, through the Internet citizens can submit proposals for public works online. Once the municipal services analyze the technical feasibility of the public works and estimate their costs, eligible public works are resubmitted online to be voted for by the public. 

The use of ICT in PB processes has not been confined to Brazil and Europe however. In Africa, more precisely in the South-Kivu region in the Democratic Republic of Congo, mobile phones have been used to mobilize citizens to attend PB meetings, to vote on budgetary priorities and to update citizens on the status of public works selected.

The website of the municipality of Miraflores, Peru, apart from providing citizens with in-depth information about the process (e.g. training modules, meeting minutes), also enables citizen to remotely cast their votes for the prioritization of public works.

In the district of Buk-Gu, Korea, citizens provide feedback on the PB process through the Internet since 2004. In 2006, the district launched the “e-Budget Portal”, to provide citizens with detailed budget information and enabling enhanced interactivity amongst the participants in the process.

In Pune, India, citizens submit their priorities for the allocation of budget through the e-Budgeting application, available on the municipality’s website. In Solo, Indonesia, with the support of geographic information systems, an online platform provides residents with interactive and downloadable maps for each of the neighborhoods in the city. The resulting maps and visualizations, geo-referencing and highlighting relevant issues to the population (e.g. health, poverty), are printed and used to inform the PB’s deliberative process.

Needless to say, the cases described above vary amongst themselves in terms of objectives, impacts, prospects and limits. Nevertheless, they are illustrative of the richness of initiatives that are currently taking place in which ICTs are used to support citizens’ participation in the budget allocation process. You can find more about it here

Just released: Open Budget Index

(Originally posted here)

The International Budget Partnership released today the Open Budget Index (OBI). The UK scores first on the provision of budget information to its public, followed by South Africa, France, New Zealand and the United States. On the other hand, 80% of the surveyed governments fail to provide sufficient information on the budget to its public.

The study takes into account an important aspect which is the release of a simplified and accessible version of the budget (citizen’s budget). In this case, only 17 countries provided such budget information in a format accessible to the broader population.

A major finding of the survey is the fact that, even though most governments produce budget information that would be crucial to public involvement in the budget process, these same governments fail enormously when it comes to releasing the information: 51 out of 85 governments surveyed produce at least one major document that is not released to the public.

This is particularly striking given that governments could easily – and with low costs – improve their transparency by releasing this information through the Internet. As the report shows, even though most governments (68) disclose their enacted budget on the Internet, the majority fails to provide other relevant information such as a pre-budget statement. In fact, as has been pertinently underlined, much of the information considered to be “publicly available” (criteria of the study) can be obtained only upon request or the payment of a fee.

An interesting remark concerns how civil society organizations specialized in budget issues can enhance the performance of legislatures in the budgeting process. The OBI report also provides examples of good practices in the processes of budget formulation, approval, execution and audit.

Given the magnitude of the report, the study has its limits: the OBI index evaluates publicly available information on the budget issued by central governments only, leaving aside the subnational level where, in many cases, much of the action takes place.

Nonetheless, it is still a monumental work of the International Budget Partnership.

To access the full report and other relevant information click here.

Multi-channel citizen engagement: the Ipatinga PB experience (PB part 3)

(Originally posted here.)

Following this series of posts about Participatory Budgeting (PB), I would like to describe an experiment in the coordination of which I had the pleasure to participate, which took place in the framework of the e-Agora Project (co-financed by the EC) in the city ofIpatinga, Brazil.

Prior to 2001, community leaders of the city of Ipatinga collected written proposals for public works from citizens during neighbourhood meetings which were then submitted for deliberation in PB in loco meetings. Since 2001, the city of Ipatinga has pioneered in using the Internet as a supplementary means for citizens to indicate public works that they wish to see submitted to vote at PB (offline) meetings, where the use of the Internet is correlated with an increase in the level of attendance of women and younger citizens at these face-to-face meetings.

In 2005, supported by an intense media campaign (e.g. TV, radio, newspapers), the city administration in partnership with ourselves from the e-AGORA project, launched a pioneering experiment in four of its nine districts using telephony in its PB as a supplementary information and consultation tool.  In the participant districts, our experiment consisted of:

  • A free phone number was provided which citizens could call in order to specify their preferences regarding the allocation of the local budget
  • SMS messages were sent to citizens who registered on the PB website and provided their phone numbers, encouraging them to participate in the process by indicating their preferences and by attending the deliberative PB meetings
  • An automated system of phone calls was deployed, with calls to citizens’ landlines with a recorded voice message from the mayor inviting citizens to the PB meetings, followed by an indication of the date and location (specific to each district) of the assembly.

In this respect, we sent 2.950 SMS to the citizens living in the districts participating in the experiment. Also, out of 30,817 calls effectuated by the system to the landlines of those residing in the experiment’s districts, 29,811 were fully accepted: that is, 96.8% of citizens who picked up the phone waited until the end of the mayor’s message before hanging up.

During this experiment, we counted on an external evaluation led by the Electronic Democracy Center. Below I present the main findings of the evaluation.

  • Compared to the previous year, in the districts where the experiment did not take place, a decline in participation of 16.1% was identified, whereas in the districts where the experiment took place participation increased by 14.7%.
  • Nearly half (48.2%) of those who attended the meetings and who had previously indicated public works to be submitted to vote had done so either via the Internet or the free phone number.
  • Over 50% of those who attended the meetings declared that the telephone calls they received with a voice message from the mayor were the means of communication that most motivated them to attend the meetings.

The case of Ipatinga is interesting not only due to the rather successful results of a multi-channel approach per se, but also because of the complementarities between the onlineand offline approaches that culminated in a deliberative, face-to-face meeting where the final votes were cast.

This online/offline combination is important because, in many cases, one of the aims of implementing PB is to strengthen community ties and to generate a civic event that would be difficult to reproduce in an online environment. For instance, having talked to some PB stakeholders in the UK this seems to be their approach, where they tend to be rather skeptical – and rightly so – about the benefits of fully replacing these face-to-face meetings with virtual online environments. In fact, the e-PB of Belo Horizonte, the boldest experience in the domain so far – which I have mentioned in a previous post – when implementing its fully online PB, did not extinguish its traditional PB (offline), and neither intends to do so in the future.

Nonetheless, it would be interesting to research to what extent the use of the Internet, phones, or any other electronic means for indicating proposals, creates an extra incentive for citizens to subsequently participate in a more costly activity – e.g. a face-to-face meeting – in which they would not have participated if they had not previously engaged in an online activity. In other words, it might be that online participation leads to further offline participation.

Even if this is not the case at all, more proactive uses of ICTs as a means to increase offline engagement can be proven to be extremely valid, as the case of Ipatinga has shown. The use of ICTs in PB are not limited to providing information, supporting deliberation or e-voting as one might consider at a first glance: ICTs can also be used as a means to coordinate and support mobilization that goes way beyond citizens’ computer screens. The case of Ipatinga might have been just the beginning.

Participatory Budgeting and e-Democracy (part 2): the Belo Horizonte case

(Originally posted over 3 years ago here)

This post is based on a paper of mine published by the Electronic Democracy Centre (Zurich University) about the experience of the e-Participatory Budgeting of the city of Belo Horizonte. In part 1 of this post I use extracts from a short article by Dan Jellinek (Headstar) and myself that aimed to present a summary of the published paper. At the end, I will add some information contained in the paper about the votes that was not included in the summary article.

1)     The e-Participatory Budgeting of Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte is the capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, with a population of just under 2.5 million, of whom 1.7 million are electors. Following the introduction of district PB in 1993, a further Housing Participatory Budgeting (HPB) project was also launched in 1996 to help address an increasing demand for housing in the city. In both the district and housing PB processes, a series of assemblies are held enabling citizens to allocate budgetary resources and scrutinise public spending.

Every two years, the city administration and community leaders invite citizens to the official opening of the PB and to the district rounds in each of the city’s nine districts.

During this first round, the administration distributes a form to neighbourhood representatives to be filled in with citizens’ requests for public works. The representatives in turn call community meetings to establish what the priority public work is for their area. The feasibility of each demand is then technically assessed by the administration.

The administration presents the budget available to each sub-district, which is proportional to a sub-district’s population size and inversely proportional to its quality of life index. The sub-district forums pre-select a maximum of 25 public works for each district, and tours are organised during which the sub-district delegates visit the sites of these works to gain a better understanding of them.

The District Forum is the last deliberative stage of the PB, where the city administration indicates the estimated costs of each of the 25 pre-selected works. Based on these indications and on what the sub-district delegates consider to be priorities, they choose a maximum of 14 works. During this forum the sub-district delegates also elect the district delegates that will follow-up and oversee the execution of the public works. The final stage is the Municipal Meeting of Budgetary Priorities, where the elected delegates present to the mayor the public works selected by the PB to be executed by the administration.

In 2006, alongside the regular PB process explained above, the city administration launched a system of Digital Participatory Budgeting (e-PB). Independent of the budget of US$43 million allocated for the traditional PB, a fund of US$11 million was allocated to the new initiative.

The e-PB consists of a scheme where citizens registered as electors in Belo Horizonte, independent of their place of residency in the city, vote exclusively online for one out of four public works for each of the nine districts of the city. The initiative had three main goals: to modernise the participatory budgeting process through the use of ICTs; to increase citizens’ participation in the process; and to broaden the scope of public works that are submitted to voting (for a Brazilian language site on the project see ).

Traditionally, the level of public participation in PB processes had been very low, composed in general of citizens of an advanced age and of lower socio-economic background; in the previous four years only 1.46% of the population participated in the second round of the process. The internet was seen as a way of making it easier for citizens to take part, reducing the time and cost of participation; the traditional PB required citizens to attend meetings at a certain time and place, whereas with the e-PB citizens were free to vote online within a period of 42 days.

For the e-PB, four public works per district were subject to online voting with the aim of selecting one work per district. Citizens over 16 years old were able to vote through an e-voting platform on the city’s website.

In general, the works selected for online voting were much larger than the public works put forward by the traditional PB process. As an example, in the medium-sized district of Barreiro, four choices were offered to voters: to build a new public sports complex; to build a new library; to renew one of the area’s main streets; or to regenerate the district’s commercial centre. Each project was priced at 1.2 million US Dollars and the sports complex won the vote. This is not a process to be taken lightly, since the other three projects did not go ahead.

The e-PB was heavily promoted and the website provided detailed information on the proposed works that were to be selected. Further information could be obtained by email and a designated address was set up to respond to queries. The online platform of the e-PB offered possibilities for multilateral interactivity and, consequently, facilitated deliberative action.

Participation was opened to all citizens, with a discussion forum including nine different threads, one for each district. Even though  active participation in the forum was low, reaching a total of 1,210 posts, all posts could be seen without logging in by all of those who accessed the link to the forums, and the number of readers was significantly higher than the number of posts.

The total number of votes was 503,266 with a total number of 172,938 voters. The difference between the number of voters and number of votes is accounted for by the fact that voters were allowed to vote nine times as long as they voted for only one work per district. These numbers therefore correspond to a participation level of around 10 per cent of electors, nearly seven times more participants than the traditional participatory budgeting (and using a budget nearly seven times smaller).”

2) Analysis of the votes

Now, I would like to add some relevant information that was in the paper and that was not contained in the previous article concerning the votes.

a) Local does seem to matter: As mentioned before, electors were allowed to cast nine votes each (one for each of the 9 districts). Nevertheless, more than half of the voters (52.1%) chose to vote for only one district and nearly two thirds of voters (73.61%) choose to vote for between one and three districts only. Also, qualitative data seems to confirm that citizens preferred to cast for their vote in an informed manner, rather than behaving as free riders that would randomly cast their votes.

b) Absence of socio-economic bias: At least at the aggregate level, no socio-economic bias was found. In this respect, there is no evidence that richer neighbourhoods produced higher levels of participation. Nonetheless, due to the absence of individual level data such analysis should be taken into consideration prudently.

c) Remote voting was essential: The available data shows that at least 30% of the votes were cast from registered electors in Belo Horizonte that, at the moment their vote was cast, were not physically in the city. In other words, it is probable that nearly 1/3 of the voters would not have participated if it hadn’t been for the possibility of casting their votes through the Internet. 

I would like to write much more about the discussion contained in the paper and on the feedback that I have received from practitioners and scholars since the publication of the paper, but this post is already too long. What I can say is that, to me, the convergence of PB and ICTs might be one of the most promising and exciting venues for e-Democracy for the years to come: experiences similar to the one of Belo Horizonte are starting to emerge everywhere, and I am convinced that much innovation towards citizen participation will be achieved along this path.