Models of Participatory Budgeting


The following was written as a research document for Rebecca K.W. Keelwho is running for 2nd District City Council of Richmond, Virginia. Please support all soldiers for democracy!

Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which the general public is organized and mobilized to enact its own collective priorities regarding public funds. While governments retain the right to levy taxes and produce a fixed operating budget for each year, participatory budgeting empower citizens to allocate public resources according to their needs.

The Network on Participatory Budgeting and Municipal Governance divides the history of participatory budgeting into three stages. First are the years from its inception in 1989 until 1997, during which participatory budgeting was confined to a few, adventurous Brazilian cities. This was the ‘experimentation’ stage, during which the model was exported from its origin city of Porto Alegre and tweaked according to local conditions. This was followed by the ‘Brazilian spread’ to 130 of Brazil’s municipalities through to 2003. After that year, participatory budgeting leapt to the world stage (‘expansion’) in a diversity of forms (‘diversification’) (Cabannes, 2015). For simplicity, let us confine our historical discussion to its origin in Porto Alegre and the transformational effects the process had on that city. Then we will jump to the past five years, during the third stage of global expansion and diversification, particularly as participatory budgeting entered the United States.

Evaluating Models of Participatory Budgeting

Different Models for Different Problems

The brief history of participatory budgeting has produced numerous models with different implications for the benefits they provide, both in terms of material benefits, their perceived legitimacy, and their actual democratic legitimacy. Yves Cabannes has generated the following 17 criteria (Cabannes, 2015, p. 6) for the analysis of participatory budgeting that encompass several general factors: the degree to which democracy is achieved in the process, or the degree to which the people, rather than the government, controls the process; the proportion of public funds controlled by the participatory process; the legal status of the process; and the distributive justice of its outcomes (see Table 1, reproduced from Cabannes, 2015, p. 6). Cabannes’ criteria are an effective frame through which to judge the two models of participatory budgeting we will be examining.

Cabannes table

The Porto Alegre Model

The Origin of Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre

Participatory budgeting originated as part of various experiments in participatory democracy in Brazil following the fall of its military dictatorship in 1985. Popular organizations had formed during the dictatorship to satisfy the unmet needs of communities, and once the military turned over power to civilian government, democratic experimentation expanded. Participatory experimentation was especially vibrant in politically active cities, such as the southern city of Porto Alegre, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. While the city had been dominated by the Democratic Labor Party through the 1980’s, dissatisfaction with the pace of participatory reforms won the new Workers’ Party the mayoralty in 1989, on a platform of opening the city budget to the public (Baiocchi, 2005, p. 34).

The Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) was especially concerned to foster a new democratic politics to promote the self-governance of civil society. It conceived of itself as a coalition of social movements, and came to victory on its broad base of marginalized community organizations. Following the Workers’ Party victory in city elections in Porto Alegre, the new mayor, Olivio Dutra, began mobilizing the public for allocating a portion of the capital budget. The Porto Alegre model went through several modifications, most of them initiated by the participants themselves, before taking on its current form.

Over the course of the 1990’s, the Workers Party gained momentum throughout Brazil. Given that its electoral success was centered on introducing participatory budgeting, it made that the centerpiece of its platform, and rival parties also adopted it into theirs. However, the model from Porto Alegre could not be simply imposed on the different social structures of other cities. Each process was tailored to the needs of the political culture of the municipality. While Porto Alegre was a politically active city, the city of Gravatai was largely devoid of an active civil society, which led its participatory budgeting process to be altered (Baiocchi, 2011, p. 178).

The Participatory Process

The Porto Alegre participatory process began with the organization of the city into sixteen distinct districts (sometimes called ‘regions’), and those districts into neighborhoods. The administration identifies the relative socio-economic conditions of the districts, according to a variety of socio-economic indicators (race, income, education, etc.), and then weight them accordingly. Districts with worse socio-economic conditions will receive a greater proportion of public resources than those districts with better socio-economic conditions.

The process is as follows:

  1. The community is mobilized, in the initial years, by community associations cooperating with the municipal administration, but later by the delegates and councilors of the participatory budgeting process itself.
  2. A first round of assemblies is held in each district, open to anyone, but with only residents having the right to vote. In this first round, municipal officials present the investment plan of the previous year and the new plan for the current year, after which citizens evaluate the implementation of the plan by vote. In addition to popular assemblies in each district, the Porto Alegre government also added city-wide popular assemblies organized by theme (‘thematic’ assemblies) in 1994. The themes include transportation and circulation, education and leisure, culture, health and social welfare, economic development and taxation, and city organization, urban, and environmental development. Each assembly nominates delegates.
  3. Preparatory meetings are then held in each of the sub-district neighborhoods to propose projects and rank the collective priorities of the neighborhood. Such meetings are dominated by well-established community organizations. Delegates are elected, with each neighborhood receiving one delegate for every so many attendees. By basing the number of delegates on attendance, participation is increased. From March through to June, delegates act as intermediaries between their assemblies and the administration. Delegates engage in training in city budgetary affairs, understand the limitations of the legal rights of the budgeting process, visit one another’s neighborhoods, and communicate this information back to their own neighborhoods (De Souza Santos, 1998, p. 471).
  4. The rankings are then sent to the municipal administration for compilation. The administration presents the compiled rankings and authorized funds to the second round of district and thematic assemblies. In these assemblies, citizens elect budget councilors to the Budget Council (technically, the “Council of the Participatory Budget”).
  5. The Budget Councilors receive advanced training in budgetary affairs. Meanwhile, the delegates form “Budget Fora” for their districts and themes. The delegates continue to serve as conduits from their neighborhoods, districts, and themes to their corresponding Budget Councilors.
  6. The administration produces project proposals and a coherent budget from the approved community priorities of the assemblies. The budget is submitted to the Budget Council. The Council reviews the document to ensure the inclusion of the ranked and weighted priorities. The Council approves or returns the budget for amendment.
  7. The completed budget is submitted to the municipal legislature for approval.
  8. Once the budget is approved, the Budget Council is responsible for overseeing its implementation. The Council also reviews the participatory budgeting process for democratic participation, inclusion, and efficiency. After a January recess, the Council returns to produce the report reviewed at the beginning of the budgeting cycle, and the process begins again (p. 472).

The process of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre shows its age – it has accumulated numerous tweaks as problems were solved over the course of its 27 years. For example, limiting assemblies and delegates to specific districts reduced the perspective of participants to their own local needs. Delegate visits to other neighborhoods and districts were added so that socio-economically advantaged participants could witness the poverty of many neighborhoods. Another solution was to add the city-wide thematic assemblies in 1994. Yet this added a new wrinkle – these became dominated by the professional classes who had the resources to attend a central city location.

The Effects of Participatory Budgeting

The effects of participatory budgeting in Brazil as a whole became clear by the turn of the century. The most important would be its effect on sanitation. Brazilian cities that have adopted participatory budgeting have shown a significant increase in spending on health and sanitation, especially the expansion of water, sewage, and drainage connections and quality, and waste collection. Municipalities with participatory budgeting increased spending in these areas by as much as 25% above cities with traditional, bureaucratic budgeting processes. This has been the case, regardless of the relative size of the public funds available, or the dominance of the Workers Party and their social-expenditure programs. As a result of this change in budgetary priorities, cities with participatory budgeting saw a decrease in infant mortality by 1 to 3 infants per 1000 living persons (Goncalves, 2009, p. 31).

Beyond the material effects of participatory budgeting, there were also social transformations as well. The budgeting process is one of the most inclusive of Brazil’s democratic experiments. By 2000, in Porto Alegre women, who comprised 55% of the city’s population on average, also made up 55% of the assembly participants and elected delegates. The budgeting institutions were also disproportionately black and lower income. While 11% of the city earned less than twice the minimum wage, and 15% of the city was black, 30% of budgeting participants were low income, and 28% were black. The budgeting assemblies were overwhelming composed of persons who had no more than an eighth-grade background. While only 16% of the city had a similar education, low education citizens comprised 60% of all participants (Baiocchi, 2005, p. 15).

Academics have tried to determine whether the participatory experience had any developmental effects on the participants themselves. Many have concluded that participation helps develop the initiative and skills needed for self-government. Baiocchi notes that there was a rapid increase in the number of civic associations following the implementation of participatory budgeting. The number of neighborhood associations doubled, and the formation of Popular Councils (self-governing political associations) increased from only two districts to three-quarters of all districts (Baiocchi, 2005, p. 42). Citizens typically seem to have difficulty shifting from the position of bitter supplicants to authors of public power, but eventually come to feel a sense of their own potential.

The Porto Alegre Model would be ‘intermediate’ to ‘maximum’ by the scale developed by Cabannes. Its institutions are both intensively and extensively popular. They are intensively popular in the sense that participants have the opportunity of deep commitment to the process, from being a participant, to becoming a delegate, to overseeing the budget implementation itself as a Budget Councilor. The process is also extensively popular in the range of means of citizen involvement – district and thematic assemblies, developing projects, acting as a delegate, and altering the process itself. In terms of participation, Porto Alegre is certainly a ‘maximum arrangement,’ in Cabannes’ terms. However, the participatory process never controlled more than 25% of the capital budget, nor has it been institutionalized as a fixed, legal process.

This last element was once considered one of the Porto Alegre process’ strengths. If the process was not defined by law, then it had the flexibility to be altered in the interests of its participants. Recent events in Brazil have put the lie to that proposition. Although partisans and social actors hostile to participatory budgeting have tolerated it, the expulsion of Dilma Rousseff in the past year is emboldening Brazil’s ruling classes to expunge its democratic forms. Just as the 20th century’s other social advances have been swept away, no matter how deeply entrenched in the culture, so participatory budgeting may be too, despite the will of the people.

Participatory Budgeting International

The Porto Alegre experiment in participatory budgeting came to national and international notice during the 1990’s, earning the approval of the United Nations and the World Bank for its positive effects and democratic foundation. Participatory budgeting has now spread throughout the world, through means both top-down and bottom-up. While this means the spread of democratic practices, it has meant that the process is open to cooptation by centers of power.

Cabannes identifies three competing political values that motivate adoption of participatory budgeting across the nations. First are technocratic reasons for adopting participatory budgeting. The motivation for this is to improve the management of the public budget through transparency and public consultation (Cabannes, 2015, p. 10). Such implementations will likely involve minimal participation and popular initiative but may include the entire municipal budget. This is the case of many German cities. In Germany, for example, participatory budgeting is instituted as a process of popular consultation on the budget, instead of a binding mandate (p. 17). German participatory budgeting is primarily focused on improved management of the public budget (p. 12).

Another motivation for adopting participatory budgeting is the restoration of trust in existing government and social structure. This is the ‘good governance’ model, that will emphasize connecting traditional representative government with its constituents (p. 11). Participation may expand within the limits of existing representative and bureaucratic government. The Peruvian Congress passed a Participatory Budget Law in 2003, instituting civil society input at every level of government for capital investments. However, the model is also explicitly bureaucratic. Rather than open meetings for residents, “Civil Society Organizations” must register to be included, and, while these organizations can recommend projects, the list of projects are determined by government-appointed “technical teams” according to ministry guidelines. The ministry felt that this was necessary to prevent corruption of the process from holdovers of the Fujimori regime, deposed in 2000. However, most observers call Peru’s participatory budgeting process a success. Also, unlike the Porto Alegre model, it has been institutionalized in law (McNulty, 2012, p. 3). Peruvian participatory budgeting has ‘good governance’ as its goal.

Participatory budgeting still has the potential to be revolutionary, or used for ‘political’ motives (Cabannes, 2015, p. 11). The largest experiment in participatory budgeting occurred in the Chinese city of Chengdu, where 17 million peasants and workers were mobilized to participate in long-term investment planning. Surprisingly, the Chengdu process had the right to take on medium-term loans to finance projects, unusual for participatory budgeting, especially so in the context of a one-party state (p. 15).

The United States Model

Participatory Budgeting Comes to the United States

Participatory budgeting came to the United States as a result of the hard work of the Participatory Budgeting Project out of New York City. The first participatory budgeting project was launched in 2012, in Chicago’s 49th ward. As in many US cities, individual city councilors and aldermen have discretionary funds for public investment in their own wards. The alderman for Chicago’s 49th ward, Joe Moore, sought assistance from the Participatory Budgeting Project for applying participatory budgeting to the expenditure of these funds. The 22nd and 45th districts have also adopted the process. In the past 4 years (or 3 cycles of budgeting), Chicagoans have allocated $10 million (Participatory Budgeting in Chicago, n.d.). Participatory budgeting in these districts has persisted despite the hostility and austerity of the Emanuel mayoralty.

The district-by-district model has now been repeated in district 3 in San Francisco, one district in St. Louis, and nine districts in New York City (Peixoto, 2016). The New York City process is the largest in the United States, in terms of population participating and dollars spent, with an emphasis on education (New York City Council, 2016). As yet, only the city of Vallejo, in the Bay Area of California, has implemented participatory budgeting on a city-wide scale. When the city went bankrupt in 2012, it was forced to raise money by an additional 10-year, 1% sales tax. With the additional $3.2 million raised by the tax, the city council decided to submit its expenditure to a participatory budgeting process (Participatory Budgeting Vallejo, 2014).

The Participatory Process

The model of participatory budgeting practiced in the United States is greatly simplified as a result of its limitations to small sums of public money and individual aldermen’s districts. I will illustrate the US Model with that used in the three wards in Chicago.

  1. The Chicago process begins in September with neighborhood assemblies in the given districts. The aldermen or their representatives (members of the Ward Leadership Committee) present basic information on the city budget and the funds available to the district through the alderman’s funds. Community members offer project ideas and volunteer to act as representatives.
  2. The volunteer representatives receive orientation and training and then meet over the next several months (through to March or April of the next year) to elaborate the project ideas into finished proposals. As March approaches, the ward begins an outreach campaign for attendance to the ‘project expos’ held at locations around the ward.
  3. During March and April, expos of project proposals are held, during which attending community members offer feedback.
  4. In May, the final projects are presented to a public ballot. Ward residents vote on which projects deserve to be funded. In Chicago’s first budgeting process, 21 projects were selected, totaling $4 million. Most of these had to do with street repair and safety.
  5. The representatives and the Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee oversee implementation and recommend reforms to the process. The Steering Committee is composed of appointees of the alderman (Participatory Budgeting in Chicago, n.d.).

Vallejo, California, is so far the only city to adopt participatory budgeting on a city-wide scale. Few changes were made to the model. Special committees were added for the sake of Spanish-only speakers and for persons under the age of eighteen (Participatory Budgeting Vallejo, 2016). Institutions important to the Porto Alegre Model are absent in the US Model, such as thematic assemblies that cross neighborhoods and a body elected by the participants for governing implementation and evaluation of the budget.

So far, the US Model has all of the elements of a ‘minimum arrangement’ on Cabannes’ table. Project ideas flow from community assemblies to delegates, and developed projects are put to a public vote. Despite its simplicity, the basic process has all the hallmarks of citizen participation. Yet the model continues to face obstacles. First is the lack of public funds that participants have to work with. Most participatory budgeting applications use the discretionary funds of individual city councilors or aldermen. Although the $1.32 million received by each ward sounds impressive, it is a fraction of a fraction of the over $9 billion the city appropriates.

Dependence on well-intentioned city councilors means that not only are participants spending a great deal of time to allocate very little money, the process could disappear when the councilor loses their seat, or changes their mind. Chicago’s 5th ward participated in the initial cycle of budgeting in 2012, but the alderman was not impressed enough with the results for it to continue.

A General Model for Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting can be reduced to a group of participatory institutions and mechanisms applied to the traditional five-step policymaking process.

Policymaking Steps

Each of the following steps can be assigned to either a government office or a participatory body, which we can define as a commission or council elected by assemblies of participants for short periods and with a specific function (such as oversight, intermediation, etc).

  1. Agenda-Setting: setting the background constraints on policy is a difficult case for any democratic process. In order to deliberate, a democracy body must have an agenda that organizes discussion. But to set an agenda, the democratic body would have to deliberate. As yet, the agenda is set by government officials, though the Porto Alegre Model does include materials from the elected Budget Council in its agenda-setting role.
  2. Policy Formulation: developing the budget through the development of projects and the ranking of budgetary priorities is almost always in the hands of the people through their participatory platforms. However, in some cases, this may only be pretense, with the real planning taking place among government technocrats. There are elements of this in the ‘managerial’ and ‘good governance’ styles of participatory budgeting, where the administration takes a leading role.
  3. Policy Legitimation: again, this is almost always a participatory function. A process that only gives this function to the public would be meet the minimal criterion for participation.
  4. Policy Implementation: implementing the budget, as yet, is entirely an administrative function (only in the sense that the government organizes its workforce to put the budget into practice). Yet there have been cases, outside of participatory budgeting, in which the municipal employees organized and managed themselves for the public benefit (for just one account, see Wainwright, 2009).
  5. Policy Monitoring and Evaluation: models are split as to whether the public is competent to evaluate the quality of the budget and its implementation. For a comparison between the Porto Alegre Model and the US Model, see below.

Institutions of Participatory Budgeting

First one must identify where participatory budgeting will be applied. While most discussions of participatory budgeting concern municipal government, participatory budgeting has also been employed to individual organizations (including the Participatory Budgeting Project itself). In fact, the Workers Party adapted the process from the bottom-up policymaking process of its affiliated union. While participatory budgeting is most frequently employed in ‘territorial’ organizations (municipalities, etc), it can also be applied ‘thematically’ (a specific domain, like the environment or infrastructure) and for specific social actors (participatory budgeting for youth, as in Boston (Participatory Budgeting Boston, 2016). For the purposes of concrete discussion, we will continue to assume application to municipal budgets.

The fundamental institution of participatory budgeting is the vehicle for popular participation. There are two dimensions that determine the means of public involvement. First, the fundamental organ of participation might be open to individuals to attend as they see fit. Both the Porto Alegre and the US model hold open geographic assemblies for any resident to visit, and Porto Alegre adds to that open city-wide thematic assemblies. Yet the initial vision of the Porto Alegre government was for the public to participate through civic associations, and only created open district assemblies as a result of the intransigence of the established associations. Peru would eventually pursue this form of participation, as discussed above. To participate in the Peruvian budgeting process, one must be a member of a registered ‘civil society organization’. This is a corporate model of public participation.

The corporate model has the benefit of working with a public already organized by civic associations. However, the open model allows marginalized members of society excluded from the usual channels of social power to find a place where their voice and numbers can be used to upend the distribution of power and resources. Established civic associations will already have a power structure in place that most likely reproduces the social hierarchy of the larger society. This was the case in Porto Alegre, so we will assume that the basic institution of participatory budgeting is an open popular assembly convening the participating members of a subset (a city district) of a whole (a city).

Next, the process requires intermediaries between the popular assemblies and the public administration. The election of delegates by the popular assemblies is invariant among participatory budgeting models. The only difference is the extent of their role and differentiation. In the US Model, the initial community representatives maintain their role throughout the process. In Porto Alegre, a distinction is made between the initial delegates and the Budget Councilors, who become more seriously involved in the second half of the cycle. Delegates remain in the process, but now serve as a conduit between the Budget Council and their assemblies.

Delegates and other participatory agents vary across models as to the length of their term. The length and limit of the number of terms alter the distribution of skills developed. Longer and more terms lead to a small number of experienced and more capable participants, while shorter and fewer terms lead to a larger number of less capable participants.

Most models have a body for oversight of not only the implementation of the budget but also the budgeting process itself.  The Porto Alegre Model is interesting in that it is self-regulating. The Budget Council itself judges the performance of the process, even though they are also the beneficiaries of it. A major democratic deficit in the US Model is that this body is appointed by the administration. In Vallejo, the city manager appoints the Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee from civic associations. In Chicago, the alderman’s office creates a Ward Leadership Committee. If this deficit is to be corrected, a participatory commission elected by participants from participants should be established after the first or second cycle of a new process.

Conclusion: Taking the Radical Leap to Participatory Administration

While participatory budgeting continues to expand, we have seen the challenges that it faces in the battle for democracy. Participatory budgeting processes are buffeted by the starved public budgets of neoliberal austerity, bureaucratic cooptation, and the hostile machinations of anti-democratic forces. The proper response to such obstacles is to increase the demands for democracy and the intensity of struggle.

Simply attempting to defend the original limitations of participatory budgeting would be an error. If we manage to parry an attack, we should not miss the opportunity to push the opponent back. When anti-democratic forces attempt to coopt and derail participatory budgeting, the democratic movement should increase the scope of its demands. Instead of merely protecting participatory budgeting as it stands, the democratic movements should insist on complete participatory administration, beginning with municipalities.

Participatory administration is a rare mutation of participatory experimentation that took place in the city of Camaragibe, Brazil. Participatory experiments in Brazil often started with health care policy, and participatory administration spread from the institution of the city’s Health Council. The Health Council is a policymaking body composed of representatives of health-oriented community organizations. Every year, the Health Council would convene an open conference to consult the citizens and produce binding health policy for the city government.

In 1997, the new mayor, Paulo Santana, expanded the same process to all other public services, creating policymaking councils that consult the public through open, annual conferences. A final Plan of Projects is produced at a City Congress of all councilors and any (non-voting) observers that care to attend. The Plan of Projects is then passed to the government to implement. According to Baocchi (2011), the municipal administration applies the policy guidelines of the participatory conferences and councils (though organized along a corporate model of civic association representatives).

These and similar revolutionary democratic transformations of the state are essential to a future of freedom, equality, and justice. Participatory budgeting has demonstrated that people as a whole have the capacity to govern and manage their collective lives. There is no longer any need to doubt our public capacities for self-management. There is no reason to stop until the state is subsumed by a universal participatory and popular democracy.


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