Participatory budgeting processes: beyond box ticking

Highlighted at the recent Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit were the central themes of participation, inclusion, and impact. These elements of open and equitable governance can – and must – go together. Providing opportunities for all citizens to engage in public budgeting processes is one way to make this happen. But only if the processes are truly participatory, meaningfully include underrepresented groups, and effectively impact resource allocation and implementation, will they have the potential to make a positive difference on peoples’ lives. The concept of participatory budgeting, where “ordinary” citizens are invited to participate in discussions around budget allocations, has gained momentum over the past decade and has spread to thousands of localities (as well as to some big cities and even to some national-level budget processes).

To better understand the possibilities and challenges of participatory budgeting, we hosted a session at the OGP Summit to learn how these processes have been rolled out in practice and whether they have been aligned to well-defined principles around citizen engagement in fiscal issues, such as those outlined by the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency. We called our session “Participatory Budgeting Beyond Box Ticking: Inclusive and Meaningful Participatory Budgeting in an Age of Inequality.”

Why ‘beyond box ticking’?

Without the support of well-designed strategies and governance, participatory exercises can run into bureaucratic and political challenges. In too many cases of citizen engagement, individuals provide their input, but little is known about how decision makers absorb or respond to these contributions. Similarly, without efforts to ensure that less privileged groups can fully participate and influence outcomes, participation can serve to reinforce existing patterns of exclusion, allowing those who are already able to access and engage government to dominate at the expense of those the exercise was meant to empower.

Furthermore, the expansion of participatory budgeting and other means of engaging citizens in budgets is happening at the same time that inequality is increasing, and while public resources and services are still hollowed out by some combination of low revenue collection, austerity, corruption, and a neoliberal vision of the limited role of the state. Thus, even an inclusive and participatory exercise could result in decisions – prioritizing a health center or hiring more teachers – that reinforce the status quo of limited services, particularly for marginalized communities. To ensure that citizen participation in budgets moves closer to democratizing public resources for the greater public good, we need to be mindful that our efforts are:

  • Inclusive – Often participation involves the “usual suspects”: organizations and individuals with information, interest, resources, and opportunity to engage. Those who do not participate are often less educated, from physically disconnected locations, poorer, and minorities in their societies. If we want participation to be inclusive, then we need to think about the barriers these groups face and how to meaningfully address them.
  • Democratic and informative – Some participatory practices involve a single input— for example, a comment or a vote. Such exercises do not help citizens understand the issues, the government processes, tradeoffs among competing priorities, or, crucially, each other. Thus, they miss the opportunity to deepen citizen skills, their understanding, and attitudes towards civic engagement and collective decision making. And, conversely, do not better inform public servants on the realities behind citizen preferences.
  • Meaningful – Too frequently, participatory exercises result in citizen input that goes into a decision making “black box.” We do not know whether or how citizen participation has influenced outcomes (actual decisions and impact on public services). Clarifying, and deepening, the links between citizen input and final decisions and outcomes will strengthen citizen trust and ensure more concrete impacts on their lives.

Underlying all of this is power. Power determines who can participate, who can engage meaningfully, and who can influence outcomes. The effects of power do not go away just because we call a process “participatory”; rather, the processes can end up simply replicating existing power imbalances and asymmetries. Therefore, participation must be understood in the context of the broader political economy of fiscal governance that often favors inequitable collection and distribution of public resources.

On the other hand, however, participation by citizens in public budget processes can be an effective way to strengthen democratic norms and institutions, build citizen civic capacities, and ensure that public resources are dedicated appropriately to public services. We just need to see participatory budgeting as a long-term shift in the way governments and citizens engage around public resource decision making – and is not a quick fix.

In our OGP session, we asked participants to reflect on the causes of the problem(s) they hoped to tackle through participatory budgeting. The obvious point is that these challenges do not stem simply from a lack of participation, but also from poorly managed public funds, weak incentives by public officials to prioritize citizen needs, and/or governments unwilling to collect sufficient resources to provide accessible and quality public services. All of these and other challenges are even more pressing among marginalized communities and groups.

A participatory process or mechanism will not solve these issues by itself. But these three recommendations can help to steer participation toward meaningful results:

  1. Design for inclusion and effectiveness – Mandating inclusiveness can better ensure that there are sufficient resources for the process and the outcomes, provide relevant information in ways citizens can understand, facilitate dialogue and deliberation, ensure that citizen decisions are linked directly to outcomes, bake progressiveness and equity in resource decision making, etc. The design of participatory budgeting can help ensure that these processes are as inclusive, democratic, and meaningful as possible.
  2. Strengthen the enabling environment – Even when well designed, participatory budgeting is almost never a magic bullet on its own. It needs to mature within a broader context of effective accountability and oversight of spending, freedom and space for citizen organizing and expression, democratic institutions and practices, political leadership, etc. Obviously, this is a longer-term proposition, but examples from the Philippines and elsewhere demonstrate that citizen voice with no accountability “teeth” will not do much to change the status quo. At a minimum, participatory budgeting should also involve participatory oversight during implementation. A more ambitious agenda for participatory budgeting would be to learn more about conditions that enable the achievement of the larger objectives of fostering equity and inclusion in budgeting.
  3. Organize citizens – Beyond participatory budgeting, citizens (particularly those from marginalized groups) need collective organization to engage effectively with budgeting processes that affect them. They need their own spaces to align their priorities and strategize means of engagement, both within and outside of official participatory mechanisms. This requires resources and support. Broader citizen organizing and engagement are required to influence governments to make sure that public resources are adequate to address citizen needs and that spending of public resources is progressive.

Governments, donors, and civic groups that promote participatory budgeting should consider these dimensions. At the same time that they explore how to design and implement inclusive and meaningful participatory processes, they should start working on citizen organizing and strengthening the enabling environment.

Democratizing budgets is essential if we are to realize inclusive prosperity. Indeed, as citizens wonder whether electoral democracy can really “deliver the goods,” they may well look to alternatives such as populists who make big promises or strongmen who think there is too much democracy. Countries across the globe are facing a critical juncture, and the time to make real changes to deepen democracy and achieve equitable development may be short. Engaging citizens in budgets should be part of our broader strategies for change, but we must proceed carefully or risk failing to realize our aspirations and further undermine citizen trust.


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