Participatory Budgeting: Democracy in Action

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Participatory budgeting is the process by which citizens deliberate and negotiate the distribution of public resources. This approach to budget decision making was initiated in 1989 by the city of Porto Alegre in South Brazil. The practice spread rapidly from Brazil to other Latin American and European cities in the nineties and remains popular today, primarily at the local and municipal level.

The Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) recently hosted an event titled Empowering Citizens Through Participatory Budgeting and Innovation in Civic Technology. GPSA’s aim was to share information on the growth of participatory budgeting in North America and beyond, including new opportunities for employing civic technology, engaging youths, and scaling up local participation.

The seminar was led by Josh Lerner, co-founder and executive director of the Participatory Budget Project (PBP), an organization that creates and supports participatory budgeting processes in order to deepen democracy, build stronger communities, and make public budgets more equitable and effective. Founded in 2009, PBP operates primarily in the U.S. and Canada and provides: 1) technical assistance to cities implementing participatory budgeting; 2) participatory labs; and 3) network building among partners and within communities. After sharing some of PBP’s recent projects engaging at the city and local level, the World Bank’s Nicolas Perrin and Nicola Smithers offered their own perspectives on the benefits and challenges of participatory budgeting.

The discussion among the panel highlighted three key takeaways:

Participatory budgeting addresses challenges in fostering citizen participation in the government.

Fiscal transparency has long been regarded as an important component to curtailing corruption and building equitable and fair democratic systems in the public finance management (PFM) world. But, the importance of governments providing opportunities for the public to participate in fiscal processes has been increasingly recognized in recent years. Participation can be a frustrating endeavor for citizens. Community meetings require leadership who are willing to organize and advocate for people to attend. Historically disadvantaged groups are often excluded, resulting in community meetings failing to truly reflect all community voices. There is also the pervasive feeling of powerlessness shared by citizens who attend public meetings. Is their voice being heard? Will the discussion lead to substantive change?

Participatory budgeting can give citizens direct influence and power. It can mitigate feelings of being powerless to influence or change government, and it works as a tool to center democracy on the needs and priorities of individual citizens, rather than special interests. PBP’s strategy dictates that governments design the participatory budgeting process to be as inclusive as possible, emphasizing participation from those who have historically been excluded from electoral and democratic processes. Projects begin with the appointment of a steering committee made up of members of the local community; the committee acts as leadership, guiding the project toward implementation.

Several challenges remain in effectively implementing participatory budget processes at multiple levels of government.

Panel participants highlighted some of the specific issues in using participatory budgeting as a strategy. Perrin emphasized that participatory budgeting is labor. The process requires dedicated community members willing to give time and labor to facilitating the process. It depends on widespread participation in order to be truly effective. Perrin also pointed out that some community members might find some of the technical aspects of budgets difficult to understand and engage. He pointed to the “long game” of engaging with the budget: in order to be most effective, citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs) must engage throughout the entire budget process, from formulation to oversight of how the budget is implemented.

Another challenge is the necessity of cooperation with government leaders. In order for participatory budgeting to be implemented at any level, there must be a dedicated allocation from the budget. In a white paper looking at why public officials would implement participatory budgeting in their district, PBP emphasized the importance of fostering more fair and effective government, and delivering results that will please constituents.

Finally, participatory budgeting is designed to encourage broader, deeper participation; stronger communities; and more responsive government. However, since the process is implemented on a case-by-case basis, it can be difficult to determine how impact should be measured and communicated. PBP is in the process of developing key metrics in evaluating participatory budgeting in North America.

Many opportunities exist to evolve and improve practices of participatory budgeting.

While it’s clear that opportunities for growth in the implementation of participatory budgeting practices exist at all levels of government, the practice has thus far proven most valuable at the local and municipal levels. There has been little implementation at the national level of government. The following are some of the opportunities explored.

  • Innovative engagement technology. Online engagement platforms are important tools in allowing citizens to easily access information concerning budgets and can reduce the costs and facilitate the participatory budgeting process. They can also act as a resource for all documentation related to a city-specific participatory budgeting effort. For example, EU-funded Empatia is piloting a platform that offers integrated solutions for the most common participatory budgeting processes and also gives users the ability to design custom solutions to better respond to local contexts.
  • Improving decisions through data. An increasing amount of data is being made available by a growing number of actors across the globe, predominantly through online registries and open platforms. How are we using that data to shape more effective, accountable government? Participatory budgeting offers a key opportunity to put open data to good use; access to data concerning the availability of public resources can help communities in prioritizing which projects need funding.
  • Learning through partnerships. Participatory budgeting is a democratic innovation from the global south spreading around the world. Though the context of participatory budgeting projects may differ from city to city, much can be gained from shared experiences between practitioners. Community members from projects in different cities and municipalities can benefit from sharing strategies and lessons learned throughout the process. Partnership between groups with similar goals can help make their engagement more efficient and effective.

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