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Camaragibe’s Participatory Administration

Reflections on Participatory Administration

Previously we discussed the unique “participatory administration” of Camaragibe, Brazil.  Participatory administration is simply the extension of the participatory budgeting model to municipal administration generally.  Participatory administration involves all of the standard participatory social mechanisms, including open popular assemblies that determine needs, plumb ideas, and elect delegates.  The delegates work with the city’s administration to adapt popular plans for technical feasibility.  The whole process starts again with the popular assemblies evaluating the results of the process and making changes and new plans accordingly.

All cities have to adapt participatory processes to their own social circumstances, and Camaragibe in the 90’s was no different.  According to Baiocchi et al (2011), the northeast of Brazil in general was underdeveloped and local politics is in the grip of an electoral oligarchy of feuding families.  Social movements in the Brazilian northeast are dependent on the patronage and clientelism of political parties and personalities, and so were largely demobilized.  Camaragibe’s health movement was the exception, and its leader, Paulo Santana, snuck democracy in through the back door.  First, he was head of the city’s participatory Health Council, and then, in 1997, was elected mayor on the platform of instituting Participatory Administration.  Participatory administration, like participatory budgeting, is successful when compared to other Brazilian cities, but concerns about its democratic potential remain.  Baiocchi, Heller, and Silva in particular categorize Camaragibe as an “affirmative democracy” whose participatory organization is “institutionalized” but “dependent”.  That the process is institutionalized means that the City Council is required to obey the results of the participatory process.  However, the process, and the civic associations (“civil society”) involved, is dependent upon the city government for leadership.  The democratic hope is that the government becomes dependent upon civil society.

The causes of this dependency on the government can be traced to the organization of the participatory administration process.  Participatory administration is innovative and beneficial.  However, certain aspects of the process displace leadership from the people to the government.  These design flaws reduce the “democratic efficiency” of participatory administration.

Democratic Efficiency and the Chain of Sovereignty

Participatory processes are intended to improve the democratic efficiency of representative institutions.  By “efficiency”, we do not mean that the benefits exceed their cost, as we usually might.  Instead, “democratic efficiency” refers to the degree to which the results of the democratic process reflect the will of the people.  If we conceive of the state as a system, citizens’ preferences are “inputs” and state action is “output”.  The most efficient system would translate citizens’ preferences into an act that accurately reflects those preferences taken as a whole.

For example, in the United States, our institutions are democratically inefficient.  As I wrote long ago in that linked article, there are many intermediaries between my vote and my legislator’s or executive’s decisions.  Campaign funding, think tanks, lobbyists, class interest, gender biases, racial inequality all distort the transformation of the individual will into collective will.  Those intermediaries reduce the democratic efficiency of the state.

(The phrase “democratic efficiency” comes to us from David Kaib, at Notes on a Theory.  I recommend it!)

Democratic Efficiency versus Inefficiency

Baiocchi, Heller, and Silva invoke a similar notion they call the “chain of sovereignty”.  The chain of sovereignty is the path that preferences travel from system component to system component (perhaps ‘node’).  In the case of participatory budgeting and administration, preferences are voiced, aggregated, and transformed at popular assemblies, moved to delegated councils, and so on through the process.  The more components in the system, the longer the chain.

For participatory processes, we seek a chain of sovereignty that maximizes democratic efficiency.  Short chains do not necessarily result in democratic efficiency.  For example, popular referenda are very short chains of sovereignty, because they are simply an initiative that the people vote on and the government enforces.  However, the same intermediaries distort the formation of the collective will.  The media controls the debate, wealthy organizations use their resources to dominate the discourse, and the bureaucracy drafts a ballot that confuses the voter.  Thus, the chain of sovereignty for referenda is short, but the democratic efficiency can be low.

How long is the chain of sovereignty for Camaragibe’s participatory administration, and is it democratically efficient?  Let’s look at the bottlenecks.


A delegate is a specific type of representative.  Typically, delegates are representatives that can be given instructions on how to vote or otherwise conduct themselves in their decision-making roles.  This is unlike the role that our elected representatives play in Congress, for one example.  Congressional representatives have taken the role of “trustees”, whose vote and decision is their own (and the corporations who buy them).

The delegates in participatory budgeting are expected to act according to the wishes of the popular assembly, and to return with accurate information from their meetings with other delegates and city administration.  This is also the case with Camaragibe’s participatory administration.  In most models of participatory budgeting, delegates are elected for a two-year term.  But in Camaragibe, delegates are elected for a four-year term.  This is a bottleneck in the system!

These days, people have little concern over the length or number of terms.  Once, democratic revolutionaries demanded “annual” parliaments or assemblies.  That means that the public elected their representatives every year.  Democrats of the past also demanded term limits.  These past democrats knew that for democracy to persist, representative institutions had to avoid the professionalization of politics.  The two-year term of the US House of Representatives, shorter than most of the world’s legislatures, is an artifact of this time.

With long terms to which the representative could be elected over and over, there are two effects.  First, political experience becomes the province of the few, and we defer to those with experience.  Second, the repeated meeting of those few form social networks that become too cozy and incestuous.  These effects create private interests – satisfying allies, personal ideologies, and protecting social status – that become distinct from the public interest.

Long terms also result in a loss to the important functions of elections.  Elections are meant to provide some measurement of public opinion.  Granted, this is only true ideally, in a world where candidates for election express their intentions truthfully and the electorate has an adequate understanding of social problems.  In any case, elections are supposed to provide information about the various electorates, based on whom they elect.  Also, the prospect of reelection is meant to provide incentives to the representative for obeying the ostensible wishes of the electorate.  Short, limited terms increase the frequency of ‘measurements’ taken and thus timelier information on the public mood and will.  Furthermore, more frequent elections provide more frequent rewards and punishments to the representative.  A limited number of terms entail that the representative has a limited number of chances to get it right.

Camaragibe, like many contemporary political designers, ignored these general principles.  Delegates in the participatory administration process have four-year terms, much like many parliamentary representatives in the world today.  Delegates receive no pay, but nevertheless acquire empowering political experience and increased access to the professional administration.  These advantages need to circulate widely among a population to produce democratic efficiency.

Democracy requires the broad distribution of political experience, and the absence of strong social networks among the positions of power.  The former brings confidence and engagement, the latter prevents political collusion.  The traditional solution of “rotation in office” is still a good one, even if it’s largely scorned.  Rotation in office is especially required for participatory democracy, if it is to remain participatory.

Top-Down, Not Bottom-Up?

The election of delegates is one element in a more general problem.  The initiative in participatory administration comes from the top, and not the bottom.  Municipal Councils, while composed of civil society representatives, call and lead their citizens’ conferences.  Delegates call their district assemblies.  These functions reverse the flow of leadership that would be appropriate to a democratic process.

As with most participatory models, participatory administration is for sharing in the management of the city with the existing representative bodies.  Mayors and city councils were vital leaders at the beginning of these experiments.  Yet they become not only superfluous, but also dangerous to popular power.  On the one hand, they become unneeded when the city council begins rubberstamping the decisions of the participatory process.  On the other hand, the continued existence of participatory institutions relies on the discretion of the mayors and city councilors.  Only the great popularity of participatory budgeting or administration prevents the elected offices from altering them.  But the success of such participatory programs proves that the people can rule through them.  Traditional representative bodies are best replaced by popular ones.

The motivation for designing a top-down participatory administration is perhaps that, as said above, the civil society of the area is largely quiet.  Perhaps the initial designers believed that civil society required government leadership to mobilize.  However, the world has a good sample of cities with participatory budgeting.  We can be confident that instituting participatory processes will cause civil society to become more self-assured.  This assumes that the participatory process allows civic associations to take the lead.  Otherwise, as in Camaragibe, the public will be dependent on a new layer of administration.

Realizing the Promise of Participatory Administration

Participatory administration is leaps and bounds beyond what we experience in most putatively democratic states.  None of what I have said should take away from that.  But when we import the model to the cities of the United States, we must be sure not to repeat its mistakes.

Participatory Administration (Adjusted for Democratic Efficiency)

Adjusting the model of participatory administration is simple, beyond just shortening the terms of delegates.  We only need to take each component and flip it on its head.  The Municipal Councils no longer call citizens’ conferences and delegates no longer call assemblies.  Rather, the assemblies call them.  More specifically, city-wide departmental assemblies elect the Municipal Councils and the district assemblies elect delegates for one-year terms.  Furthermore, the annual congress takes control of the administration away from traditional office-holders.

Participatory democrats often assure their readers that participatory mechanisms do not replace representative institutions, only improve and repair them.  The radical democratic-republican has greater ambitions.  The local level holds the greatest promise of actual popular self-rule.  Elected city councils, mayors, and county commissions can be replaced by congresses and forums of responsible delegates with a limited number of short terms of office.  City councils may provide initial leadership to the participatory process, but become superfluous once the public has control.  The roadblocks to democratic efficiency are must be swept away, and the chain of sovereignty unbroken.

A program for democracy must include the popular conquest of power in cities and localities.  A minimal program ought to involve the implementation of participatory budgeting, with increasing control over larger amounts of municipal money.  Popular power expands through the application to the general administration of local government.  While I have not yet addressed the issue of the relationship of popular power to the public services, I promise to do so in the future.

This has been an exercise in evaluating an experiment in the potential for modern democracy.  Such exercises provide us with insight into the principles of democracy by the design of that experiment.  The design of participatory administration shows us these principles not only in its successes, but also in what it lacked.  From such evaluations, we should be optimistic about the future of democratic society.


David Kaib at Notes on a Theory

Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Patrick Heller, and Marcelo K. Silva.  Bootstrapping Democracy: Transforming Local Governance and Civil Society in Brazil.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

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