Tag Archives: participatory budgeting

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.

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Saturday in the Park: People Learning to Be Citizens

(Please excuse the long absence, as Democracy in Principle has been having technical difficulties.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled democracy.)

Participation does make better citizens. I believe it, but I can’t prove it. And neither can anyone else. The kinds of subtle changes in character that come about, slowly, from active, powerful participation in democratic decisions cannot easily be measured with the blunt instruments of social science. Those who have actively participated in democratic governance, however, often feel that the experience has changed them. And those who observe the active participation of others often believe that they see its longrun effects on the citizens’ character.

Jane Mansbridge, “Does Participation Make Better Citizens?

The presentations at the Participatory Budgeting Conference all seemed to be timed so close together.  Surely I wouldn’t make it across even Loyola’s small Chicago campus in time for the session I had planned to attend.  And with my heavy bag, I didn’t really feel like trying too much.  This one, about “citizenship learning”, sounded interesting, and it’s right next door.

This turned out to be my favorite session of the conference; these little bits of serendipity are what life is all about.  The presentations on “Citizenship Learning” asked, “what do citizens learn from democratic practice?”  As we’ll see, I think we can express what we want to know in a way that is more testable.

Both Daniel Shugurensky and Jose Melendez are researchers in the effects of participation in democratic forums, particularly participatory budgeting, on the education and development of the participants.  Shugurensky conducts in-depth interviews and surveys to determine what the participants themselves believe that they learn from the experience.  Melendez records every participatory session and analyzes the change in language and behavior of the participants.

Daniel Shugurensky introduced the Mansbridge Challenge, which is captured in the first sentences at the opening of this article.  “Participation does make better citizens.  I believe it, but I can’t prove it.  And neither can anyone else.”  Both Shugurensky and Melendez offer evidence in favor of Mansbridge’s hypothesis.  Shugurensky recounted the story of a middle-class woman whose budget assembly was mostly in the slums.  She said that she was glad that the vote was by secret ballot, because she voted for the projects of the poor, and not those of her own class.  Once she had been afraid of the poor in the slums of her city, but now she empathized.  Likewise, both researchers see more confidence in the behaviors of the participants.  Both researchers see a change in the use of pronouns, as participants begin to use “I” less and “we” more.  And different classes of people learn different things – while the lower classes learn how the government works, the middle class learns to shut up and listen.

There are two main problems with the line of research pursued.  The first is that there are a lot of confounding variables that should make us uncertain about the relationship between democratic participation and education, learning, or personal development.  After all, most people form group bonds and identities if they work with others, and, in turn, they might feel more confident.  But this has nothing to do with democratic participation in particular; it is just as true of authoritarian groups.

The second problem is the formulation of the issue.  Education, learning, and development all point to the improvement and acquisition of knowledge or practical skills.  But people already have, say, empathy.  We just tend to have trouble using it until we’re staring someone in the face.  Perhaps the woman in the story above simply found new objects for her empathy, but did not expand her empathy in general.  But the central problem here is the framing of the issue as one of improvement, which is a value-laden concept.  How do we know when someone has improved or grown, without first defining what is to be learned?

I propose that a better question is: how does someone’s thinking change as a result of democratic practices?  Psychology has well-established ways of testing changes in cognition.  Suppose we want to test whether a participant’s empathy has expanded more generally than simply towards the other participants  The sign of increased empathy would be the greater incidence of helping behaviors towards strangers.

The experiment would then introduce helping tests between experimental groups and control groups.  The experimental group would be persons having attended democratic assemblies (popular assemblies, not representative or other bodies).  For this, we can use the assemblies of participatory budgeting, but there are also other popular democratic bodies to engage.  The control group would be ordinary persons, or persons leaving other groupings of people.

The intervention would take advantage of an experimental confederate in distress.  The confederate would have to be placed just so, so that distance from the observed subject is removed as a confounding factor.  (Distance is a known factor in whether or not someone helps another.)  The confederate makes plain their fake distress and the subject either goes to see what’s wrong or does not.  This experimental method might be familiar, as it has been used to demonstrate that irrelevant factors, like finding a dime, will increase the likelihood of helping a stranger in distress.  Hopefully for democratic theory, participating in a popular assembly will have the same effect.

As an experiment in the field, such an experiment would also have challenging confounding variables to control.  For one thing, participants in participatory budgeting may be already more altruistic.  Meanwhile, the control groups will have their own psychological changes depending on the context of the administered test.  If we were to take our controls from persons leaving a sporting event, for example, the competitive nature of sport might cause its participants to be significantly less helpful.

The benefit of such an experiment is that we introduce an intervention that has the potential to determine causation, if the bugs can be worked out.  The pure observation that Shugurensky and Melendez undertake, while limited, provides us with a rich source of hypotheses.  They also have the benefit of tracking the development, real or perceived, of democratic participants over time.  My suggested experiment does not track the long-term effects of democratic participation.

In truth though, I actually doubt that such changes would be permanent.  Without the repeated exposure of participants to democratic conditions, any cognitive changes would atrophy.  If we are altered by our systems of institutional practices, as Mansbridge rightly claimed, then democracy must be a permanent feature of social life for our character to be transformed.

The remainder of the day was uneventful.  In the midst of final panel, I left, whispering my farewells to now familiar faces.  I walked along the streets forever trying to catch a taxi – how can Chicago call itself a great city if you can’t grab a taxi off the street?  But finally I found a cab to take to the nightmare that is the O’Hare airport.  Eventually… eventually, the plane arrived to take weary night-travellers back to Richmond.

(I took a Jet to leave Chicago)


Saturday in the Park: Spreading Out and Scaling Up

Sunday was the last day of the Participatory Budgeting Conference, so I checked out as I left the motel that morning.  I quickly discovered that walking to Loyola University, while previously a pleasant walk, was less so with my luggage.  So I took advantage of a passing bus to take me down the street.  The bus system of my own Richmond rates as one of the worst, so a convenient bus seemed like science fiction.

(That’s why it’s “Saturday in the Park”… cause I was in Chicago… never mind.)

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Saturday in the Park: Ping-Pong versus Potholes

It was indeed an early morning in Chicago as the terrible gray light of morning dragged me from my brief sleep.  The night before I had joined a fellow democracy-enthusiast for drinks.  After a night navigating Chicago, we settled in a bar that hovered between beards-and-denim on the hand and collared shirts on the other.  Sleep didn’t settle into my bones until mid-morning, so I knew Saturday was going to be tough.  At some point that afternoon, I sat in a big comfy chair and fell asleep, right there in the middle of the university campus.

(This music plays in Chicago all the time… in my head)

I had come to Chicago’s Loyola University for the Participatory Budgeting Conference, to engage other people in the field of citizens governing themselves, or at least their city’s capital budgets.  The day’s conference began with an opening plenary that included Joe Moore, the city councilor who brought participatory budgeting to the United States, and the academics, organizers, and activists behind PB Chicago. read more »

Saturday in the Park: The Participatory Budgeting International Conference

May 4th, 2013

I knew it would be a rough day when I dropped my pants at the airport.  Well, my pants fell down, at the security checkpoint.  The young TSA agent yelled, “I’ve never seen that before!”  I found that surprising, because the TSA forces people to remove their shoes and belts when they pass through the checkpoint.  Then you hold your hands up to have a weird naked picture taken.  I guess the TSA gets used to half-naked, shoeless people scrambling for their belongings tumbling out of a conveyor belt.  A pantsless guy must be a novelty almost as fun as giving a cavity search.  I was early for my flight, but I needn’t have bothered: the flight was delayed for four hours.  My fellow passengers and I finally crammed ourselves into our winged shoebox in the early afternoon and headed off for Chicago!

Chicago is the home to the United States’ first experiments in participatory budgeting, and this past May 3rd through 5th was host to the Participatory Budgeting International Conference.  Regular readers will know about my enthusiasm for participatory budgeting, and similar democratic projects, as the hope of recovering the original idea of democracy.  Participatory budgeting is a process in which local assemblies of citizens suggest projects and elect delegates to negotiate the feasibility of these projects with city administration.  The assemblies vote for a slate of final projects, and a citizen council oversees the implementation of the winning projects.  The participatory cycle begins the next year.  Participatory budgeting has spread across the world, and has an impact on various socio-economic indicators, including reducing infant mortality and including more marginalized communities. read more »

Return to Camaragibe!

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.

News from the Agora: Movement Edition

In the depressing regular news, Obama and Congress are planning to cut federal spending to avoid a “fiscal cliff”, and, if history is any guide, and it is, spending cuts will result in significant economic contraction.  This makes the American worker easier prey for the foreign companies like Foxconn, Volkswagen, and, in Virginia, Ikea, all of which are using Americans as their cheap labor.  Oh, also those spending cuts will partly come out of “entitlements” that you’ve already paid for.  Oh!  Also, Israel is mercilessly destroying Gaza again, for no real reason.

Wow, that’s all really depressing news for a Thanksgiving.  Nothing to do but curse the darkness – wait, what’s that light over there?

Occupy Sandy and Rolling Jubilee

Occupy Wall Street has taken some unexpected turns and transformed into some interesting and vital projects.  First, there is Occupy Sandy, organized in response to Hurricane Sandy and the slow and uneven responses of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross.  Many residents of the areas struck by flooding and other destruction have been dissatisfied with the response of the established emergency response organizations (especially FEMA), and Occupy Sandy has been able to fill in the gaps.  Occupy Sandy and the People’s Relief has been effective in mobilizing and organizing mutual aid, distributing emergency goods, cleaning homes, clearing out damaged buildings, and other services.  The leaderless organization has become an unofficial partner of FEMA, the Red Cross, and the National Guard, and volunteers in these groups often look to Occupiers for instruction. read more »

Developing a Model of Participatory Democracy

How about those debates?  Yeeeesh.  Presidential democracy is the worst.  Let’s figure out how a real democracy might work, one that isn’t watching monsters and idiots on television.

The following are notes in my ongoing project to understand how a genuine democracy can be constructed in a modern nation.  A genuine democracy involves the participation of the people in public reasoning beyond the mere representation that generates parasitic political and bureaucratic classes.  To win the battle for democracy, we must find the institutional forms that represent the most thorough-going democracy. read more »

This is What Democracy Looks Like: Participatory Budgeting

I’ve been promising discussions on genuine and innovative democratic institutions since the beginning of this blog.  I don’t want this blog to be just a litany of the world’s alterable problems, and then say, “We’ve got to start thinking of solutions.”  Too many people do that.  Here there are solutions.  They are solutions that address the root of problems, the structure of society and institutions. read more »