The Participatory Administration of Camaragibe

Regular readers will know that I am enthusiastic about the practice of participatory budgeting.  Participatory budgeting is a municipal budgeting process in which citizens assemble and deliberate on the projects that they believe would improve their communities.  Participatory budgeting originated in Brazil, but has spread to the rest of the world, including New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

The typical process of participatory budgeting involves citizens meeting in assemblies in their city districts and discussing local needs.  Each assembly elects delegates to carry out tasks on its behalf.  Delegate responsibilities include training in municipal administration, deliberation, and even visiting sites throughout the city to get a sense of the city’s problems.  Delegates return to their assemblies with all of their findings and the assemblies finalize their budget proposals.  The assemblies then elect members to a Budget Council for the city.  The Budget Council is responsible for meeting with municipal administrators to put together a comprehensive plan and finalize its details.  There are many variations to the participatory budgeting model according to each city’s needs.  For example, some cities may add neighborhood “microdistrict” assemblies.  Other cities may not have a Budget Council.  Yet others may have city-wide “thematic” assemblies to discuss a general civic theme, such as health, education, etc.

The question arises: if city residents are capable of deciding on the public investments for their city, why not all aspects of municipal government?  The budget is one of the more technically demanding aspects of governance.  Surely the people are capable of participating in the management of all of their affairs.

This was the conclusion of Paulo Santana, who became mayor of Camaragibe and introduced “participatory administration” in 1997.  Santana had previously served in the health department and had been responsible for the establishment of a participatory Health Council in the early 90’s.  When he became mayor, his new administration extended the participatory principles of the Health Council to the rest of municipal affairs.

The Process of Participatory Administration

Camaragibe’s Participatory Administration

As is the case with participatory budgeting, participatory administration begins with the division of the city into districts.  Camaragibe was divided into five districts.  Each district holds an assembly.  Each assembly develops policy proposals and elects delegates.  Unlike in the case of participatory budgeting, the delegates elected in participatory administration hold their term for four years.  (The delegates in most participatory budgeting programs only hold their position for one or two years.)  The delegates form a Council of Delegates to be trained in administration and act as the connection between district assemblies and the municipal administration.

The district assemblies are the geographic component of participatory administration.  “Municipal Councils” provide “thematic” organization to the process.  Councils for education, for social assistance, or for public safety were added to the original Health Council.  Each council was composed of representatives of the municipal administration, the appropriate community and civil society organizations, and the relevant labor unions.  Each council was responsible for calling periodic conferences open to all city residents.  The conference and the council together develop policy for the corresponding city department.

Finally, councilors, delegates, and organizational representatives meet as the City Congress (or Forum).  The Congress is open to anyone to speak, but only the formal participants may vote.  The Congress creates a comprehensive Plan of Projects with the cooperation of the city administration.

Where participatory budgeting demonstrated the capacity of ordinary people to manage their public treasury, Camaragibe’s participatory administration has demonstrated the capacity of ordinary people to manage all public affairs.  This should have been a foregone conclusion, of course.  But the hostility of ruling classes to democracy has always cherry-picked evidence for people’s powerlessness.  The many are reduced to passive homebodies and then mocked for their manufactured ignorance.

However, specific parts of Camaragibe’s participatory institutions give cause for concern.  Come back soon for Democracy in Principle’s reflections in… Return to Camaragibe.


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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