At a glance

Policy stage: 
Level of involvement: 
Cost: 
Medium - High
Length of process: 
1 + days
Number of participants: 
unlimited
Participant selection: 
Self selected participants attending as individuals (open access process)
Online / Offline: 
Online and Offline

Participatory budgeting is an umbrella term which covers a variety of mechanisms that delegate power or influence over local budgets, investment priorities and economic spending to citizens.

Description

Participatory budgeting involves citizens directly in making decisions about budget issues. This can take place on a small scale at the service or neighbourhood level, or it can be done at the city or state level. 

In practice, the power delegated to the citizens in the decision processes varies, from providing decision-makers with information about citizen preferences to processes that place parts of the budget under direct citizen control. Generally,  the amount of power devolved has tended to be larger in Latin America where participatory budgeting was developed compared to in Europe and North America.

Discussions are often limited to new investment rather than discussing spending as a whole. It can be run as a one off process, but long-term benefits such as social capital and ownership, require a reoccurring, cyclical process. Participatory budgeting can deliver increased transparency and re-establish the legitimacy of government budget decisions. It has also been shown to build the skills and awareness of participants through the process of deliberation.

The 'classic' participatory budgeting model as developed in Brazil makes use of area meetings where all citizens can attend and determine the spending of local budgets (set based on population and poverty levels). Citizens also elect representatives to attend larger city  wide meetings where wider ranging priorities are determined.

Peer grant giving has also been carried out under the banner of participatory budgeting. This allows a group of citizens the power to assign grants for community projects and other spending.

Participants

  • The total number of participants in all meetings in city wide processes can be tens of thousands. In the UK the numbers have tended to be more modest, in the hundreds at most.
  • The scale of citizen participation has ranged from single neighbourhoods to an entire state (with populations of millions).
  • Participatory budgeting can be done with direct participation of citizens or through directly elected citizen representatives. The larger, city wide processes often combine the two with direct participation at neighbourhood level where representatives are elected for city wide forums.

Costs

High:

  • The process of citizen involvement in budgets in itself is costly.
  • Participatory budgeting is often undertaken to increase efficiency in the budget and thus save money.
  • Setting up a city wide infrastructure of forums and meetings requires a large investment of money and staff time (potentially running into millions of pounds). Processes run at the local level around a particular service or neighbourhood can be cheaper but still require substantial commitment to work.

Approximate time expense

Various:

  • It is possible to run a participatory budgeting exercise as a one day, one off event. However, the main benefits of participatory budgeting in terms of increased trust and citizen empowerment only develop over time.
  • Ideally participatory budgeting should form a continuous part of the budget cycle, ensuring that citizens feel assured that their efforts will not be wasted.

Strengths

  • Involves decisions about spending and devolving real power.
  • Can be a very public process, which conveys legitimacy beyond the immediate participants.
  • By being exposed to the tradeoffs surrounding financial decisions, participants can acquire a deeper understanding of the work of government.
  • The fact that Participatory Budgeting often involves control over actual resources can be a catalyst for civic mobilisation, especially in poorer areas. In Porto Alegre, Brazil (the city with the longest running participatory budgeting process) there has been a significant reallocation of resources towards spending in poorer areas as well as increased efficiency and reduced corruption as a result of participatory budgeting.

Weaknesses

  • Can create unrealistic expectations amongst participants if managed badly.
  • Works best where there are high levels of community activism to begin with.
  • Doesn't work well where central targets and restricted budgets limit the amount of power that can be given to citizens.
  • In most processes meetings are open to all, creating the risk of certain groups dominating the proceedings. However, research into participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre shows that the poorest neighbourhoods have actually been the more active participants. This can probably be linked to the fact that poorer neighbourhoods feel a more pressing need for improved services.

Origin

Local Government:

Participatory budgeting was developed in Brazil in the late 1980s. Since then, participatory budgeting concepts and mechanisms have spread in Latin America and the rest of the world, and by 2003, more than 200 municipalities across Brazil were experimenting with participatory budgeting. Independently similar methods have been developed in other areas, such as with Kerala, in South India.

 

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