Participatory Budgeting and e-Democracy (Part 1)

(note: originally posted at

Participatory Budgeting (PB) can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of budget allocation and monitoring public spending. Participation may take various forms, from effective decision-making power in the allocation of resources to more modest initiatives that confer voice during the development of the budget.

Added to the normative claim that PB gives citizens the opportunity to participate in decisions that directly affect them, it is expected that citizens as end-users of public services are the most suited ones to identify public demands. In this perspective, citizen participation in PB should naturally lead to a better allocation of budgetary resources and there is some evidence that, when implemented properly, this may be the case.

The first PB was implemented in 1989 in Porto Alegre in Brazil, and in 1993 the number of initiatives had reached 140. Currently in Brazil the estimated number is between 300 and 350 PBs. Such increasing trend is also identified in Europe, where the numbers of PBs jumped from 6 in the year 2000 to 55 in 2005. I have been making some estimates on this growth and my estimate agrees with those from other experts in PBs in Europe that claim that there should be around 150 cases in Europe right now. This number still tends to grow, particularly owing to the initiative of the UK government that expects to have PBs implemented at all administrations at the local level by 2012. In regions like Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe numbers are also growing, especially due to the efforts deployed by the World Bank and the UN. In 2006, the estimated total number of PBs in the world was around 1.200, and these numbers are expected to be higher today.

In terms of sustainability, there is significant evidence that once administrations implement PB there is a general trend of continuity of the experience due to, among other factors, the political costs that are associated with the extinction of PBs. Adding to that, there are a number of countries that are inserting PB in their juridical framework, making PB a compulsory practice for local governments, such as Peru, Bolivia and Dominican Republic.

Concerning results, I believe that Participatory Budgeting has a great virtue that lacks in most e-democracy initiatives implemented so far: it is directly linked to the delivery of visible and quantifiable public services that have direct impact in citizens lives, such as the renewal of a school or the building of a health center. Also, there is strong evidence that participatory budgeting may lead to citizens’ empowerment by acquiring skills and competencies (e.g. budget literacy, networking). Such type of empowerment we cannot expect at the same degree from, for instance, signing a petition.

Nonetheless, despite all these virtues, most PB experiences reach a very low level of participation, with most initiatives reaching participation levels between 0.5 and 2 percent of the population. Such a fact is not inherent to PB: surveys in democratic countries have repeatedly shown that very few citizens are willing to participate in political life in ways other than voting. Thus, for those who are looking for means to increase citizen participation, we should start looking (among other things) for solutions with low costs of participation (e.g. time, transport). If variance in costs is not the sole explanatory factor for level of participation, by holding all other factors constant one should expect that citizens’ participation would be inversely proportional to the costs of participation.

In this respect, ICTs may play an important role by decreasing the costs incurred by citizens when taking part in PB processes. For instance, instead of having to attend a face-to-face meeting at a certain place and a certain time, ICTs may enable citizens to participate from virtually anywhere at any time in the process by deliberating and casting their votes in the allocation of budgetary resources. Nonetheless, most of the use of ICTs concerning PB practices so far has been restricted to the provision of information about the process to the citizens. At the same time, it is easy to identify an increasing trend in the use of ICTs in PB practices as means to increase participation (e.g. Internet voting) and to enhance online deliberation. In the next post I shall look at the e-Participatory Budgeting of the city of Belo Horizonte (Brazil), which is without any doubt one of the most significant e-democracy exercises ever conducted.

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