Paradise Lost? The crisis of participatory budgeting in its own birthplace

Thirty years have passed since Olívio Dutra, the newly elected mayor of the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, worked with community groups to introduce an innovation in the city’s budget process: allowing citizens to directly propose and vote on local investment projects to be funded by the municipality. Participatory budgeting – often referred to as PB – was born. Many other Brazilian cities were quick to follow suit. Since then, PB has spread across the globe, winning various innovation awards and being lauded by international organizations as a “best practice” to be replicated. The recently published “Participatory Budgeting World Atlas” claims that more than 11,000 cases of participatory budgeting exist throughout the world!

But how is PB faring in its own birthplace, Brazil? Unfortunately, not so well; however, few seem to notice despite overall enthusiasm for PB’s global growth and recognition. It is important to look at what is happening and why, as the situation in Brazil may hold important lessons for other PB programs as well as for democratic innovations more generally.

First, we need to get a clear handle on the data, as there are lots of conflicting figures out there. The World Atlas, despite recognizing that PB in Brazil is in “huge crisis”, still gives a figure of 436 existing cases in Brazil (see page 21). In 2016, the Brazilian Network for Participatory Budgeting cited in a presentation that 482 cities in Brazil had PB processes in place. These figures, however, likely overstate the number of well-functioning PB processes, possibly using a very broad definition of what counts as a PB process, or being based on self-reported rather than independently-checked cases.

The only attempt at consistently following the growth (and decline) in PB in Brazil since its inception has been carried out over the years by a group of scholars including some of the authors of this blog. The figures below have been produced using a consistent survey instrument that documents PB processes in Brazilian cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants. Most importantly, the survey methodology requires that PB programs run for at least 2 consecutive budget cycles, which allows us to differentiate between ongoing processes and one-off participatory exercises.

1989-92 1993-96 1997-00 2001-04 2005-08 2009-12 2013-16
 No. of cities with PB processes 11 33 66 133 124 101 58

Source: Paolo Spada (updated dataset not yet released. Previous version with 1989-2012 data available here).

What the data show is a steep increase until about 2004-05 and a subsequent substantial decline, which saw the number of cities with a functioning PB process fall by more than half in about a decade. Even in the city of Porto Alegre, where PB has survived for the longest period, its future seems to be uncertain.

What could lie behind such decline? In our view, three sets of possible factors are worth mentioning, related to political, fiscal and technical issues:

  • From its inception, PB was perceived in Brazil as an invention of Lula’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT) and as representing the PT’s approach to local governance (“o modo petista de governar”, or the PT way of governing). PT mayors promoted it across the country while the party was in the opposition at the federal level. But when Lula finally won the presidential elections in 2002, the PT shifted its focus to more powerful policy instruments it could use to address big issues like poverty and inequality, and to national-level participatory channels like policy councils and national conferences, which grew a lot after Lula came to power. Thus, PB grew as the PT gained in electoral strength, but the close association between PB and PT meant that centrist and center-right parties were less likely to adopt it.
  • During the 1990s, municipalities in Brazil had access to more flexible funding that could be used to finance PB projects. From 2000 onwards, fiscal policy was re-centralized and transfers to municipalities gradually became more rigid, limiting the flexibility that local governments had to allocate resources to PB projects.
  • By their very nature, PB processes suffer from important technical and institutional limitations. They work best in the initial years, when scale is still limited and citizens are galvanized by its novel approach. Over the longer term, expectations may exceed what PB can actually deliver, and ‘participation fatigue’ may set in. Over the longer term, successful PB processes engage more people that propose more ideas that require more resources, eventually hitting a sort of ‘glass ceiling’, a situation in which ideas processing slows down, more and more proposals are not implemented, and the positive reinforcing feedback loop typical of the first years of a PB process breaks down. This has been seen repeatedly, with many cities unable to keep PB processes alive for more than a few years.

Based on this assessment, what are some of the lessons that proponents and supporters of PB around the world should keep in mind?

First, the “politicization” of PB has both negative and positive aspects. Having strong political backing can strengthen commitment and ensure adequate resources, but it also creates critical vulnerabilities that can affect long-term sustainability. Finding the right balance between these contradictory aspects might just be a key success factor for PB processes everywhere. Budgets are both political and technical documents, which is why political support from both governments and community organizations is so important for PB’s success. In increasingly polarized political environments, this requires creativity and political skills.

Second, local governments need to have access to flexible, “additional” resources to fund PB projects, otherwise the PB process might lose significance and impact, or subtract resources from other priority areas. Part of PB’s appeal is that citizen participation will lead to direct action by governments, through the implementation of projects proposed and chosen by citizens themselves. If governments lack the necessary resources, PB becomes more of a consultative and information-sharing process, without empowering communities and therefore undermining one of its main objectives.

And third, it is important to carefully manage expectations to ensure that PB processes don’t grow beyond an acceptable and sustainable scale. Or other, complementary mechanisms need to be designed to allow participation to break through PB’s ‘glass ceiling’.

As PB continues to grow and expand to new places across the world, it is important to look back and learn from what is happening in the country that invented it first. The real extent of PB’s crisis in Brazil may not yet be completely apparent. The PT had a dismal performance in the 2016 municipal elections, losing about 60% of the 630 municipalities that it governed in the aftermath of the Car Wash scandals and of Dilma’s impeachment. Recent years have seen a clear decline in popular participation as a government priority or as a governance mode. Interestingly, policy councils and conferences are suffering a similar fate as PB.

In 2020, we are planning a follow-up PB census, and we will then be able to write the next chapter of this story, in the hope that by looking at the fragilities of some of the most important democratic innovations of our time, we may be able to design even better ones for the years to come.

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