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

The Participatory Turn: Participatory Budgeting Comes to America


So here it is, finally, the much awaited PhD by Hollie Russon-Gilman (Ash Center – Harvard) on Participatory Budgeting in the United States.

Below is the abstract.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) has expanded to over 1,500 municipalities worldwide since
its inception in Porto Alege, Brazil in 1989 by the leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores
(Workers’ Party). While PB has been adopted throughout the world, it has yet to take
hold in the United States. This dissertation examines the introduction of PB to the United
States with the first project in Chicago in 2009, and proceeds with an in-depth case study
of the largest implementation of PB in the United States: Participatory Budgeting in New
York City. I assess the outputs of PB in the United States including deliberations,
governance, and participation.
I argue that PB produces better outcomes than the status quo budget process in New York
City, while also transforming how those who participate understand themselves as
citizens, constituents, Council members, civil society leaders and community
stakeholders. However, there are serious challenges to participation, including high costs
of engagement, process exhaustion, and perils of scalability. I devise a framework for
assessment called “citizenly politics,” focusing on: 1) designing participation 2)
deliberation 3) participation and 4) potential for institutionalization. I argue that while the
material results PB produces are relatively modest, including more innovative projects,
PB delivers more substantial non-material or existential results. Existential citizenly
rewards include: greater civic knowledge, strengthened relationships with elected
officials, and greater community inclusion. Overall, PB provides a viable and
informative democratic innovation for strengthening civic engagement within the United
States that can be streamlined and adopted to scale.

You can read the full dissertation here [PDF].

Like it?  You might also want to read this about who participates in NYC’s PB and this about the effects of PB on infant mortality in Brazil.

Civil Society and Participation in Brazil: A Literature Review

This literature review is divided into six sections. The first section briefly describes the  theoretical and empirical background of debates about civil society and participation: the democratization process of the 1980s. The second section examines the first and second generation of studies of the best-known participatory mechanism in Brazil – participatory budgeting (PB). Next, this review turns attention toward research on policy councils, which fuelled more theoretical advances than studies of PB. A short section presents the few available studies about participation in the Northeast region of Brazil – a still largely unchartered territory in the literature. The fifth section discusses normative debates about the meaning and purpose of participation. Although the debate is not as contentious as it was in the early-2000s, two distinct views about participation still mark this literature. The last and longest section analyzes studies that treat citizen participation as a constitutive part of the representative system, which can help to improve government accountability and increase the quality of democracy.

Read full paper here [PDF].

The Effects of Participatory Budgeting on Infant Mortality in Brazil

picture by Blog do Mílton Jung on Flickr

Adding pieces of evidence to the ROI of citizen participation. Highlights are mine:

Participatory budgeting, via which the common citizen is given the ability to interact with the elected politicians in the drafting of the local budget, became a popular political reform in Brazilian municipalities in the 1990s and attracted widespread attention across the world. This paper investigates whether the use of participatory budgeting in Brazilian municipalities in the period 1991-2004 has affected the pattern of municipal expenditures and had any measurable impact on living conditions. I show that the municipalities that made use of this participatory mechanism favoured an allocation of public expenditures that closely matched the ìpopular preferences and channeled a larger fraction of their total budget to key investments in sanitation and health services. I also found that this change in the composition of municipal expenditures is associated with a pronounced reduction in the infant mortality rates for municipalities which adopted participatory budgeting. This suggests that promoting a more direct interaction between service users and elected officials in budgetary design and implementation can affect both how local resources are spent and associated living standard outcomes.

You can read the full paper here [PDF].

Update:  The paper has been published in the World Development Journal. You can read the final version here [PDF].