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The Participatory (R)evolution: Four Major PB Transformations over Time
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This is the second of a three-part blog series. These stories first appeared on the Open Government Partnership blog

Since its beginnings in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the late 1980s, participatory budgeting (PB) has come a long way, both literally and figuratively. Today’s PB looks quite different from the original PB, which was created by a local civil society organization and a small, opposition political party (Brazil’s Workers’ Party). A much broader range of advocates now promote PB.  Today, we see institutions as diverse as the World Bank, the United Nations, the European Union, and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) calling for the adoption of this democratic policymaking process.  A review of the OGP Action Plans demonstrates that dozens of countries include  participatory budgeting as part of their commitments, and 5 of 15 governments involved in the OGP subnational pilot program are currently implementing PB.

As it travels around the world, PB now takes place at different levels of government, follows different rules in a variety of local contexts, abides by different program designs, and incorporates technology in novel ways. This post explores these four major transformations in more depth.

  1. PB now takes place in all levels of government, including villages, neighborhoods, cities, districts, counties, and in federal agencies–a  far cry from the original, municipal-level process. National legal frameworks now require or encourage subnational governments to adopt PB or PB-like programs in some countries. This has occurred in Peru (2002), the Dominican Republic (2007), Kenya (2010), South Korea (2005), Indonesia (2000), and the Philippines (2012). PB has also been institutionalized at the state  level, such as when the Socialist Party initiated PB in Poitou-Charentes, France, in order to distribute high school funding in 2004 (Sintomer, Röcke and Talpin 2013). In 2016, Portugal’s national government allocated three million Euros (less than 1% of the national budget) for education, science, culture, and agricultural projects that are currently being debated and voted on by citizens. This spread means that millions of everyday citizens now have a voice in policy decisions that are made at every level of government. However, because the spread of PB has been so rapid, we do not yet understand the long-term implications of its use these contexts.
  2. Most PB programs no longer have explicit social justice components. The original PB experiment sought to transform Porto Alegre into a more equitable community by funding projects that focused on geographic areas that were underserved and under-resourced. Wampler and Touchton (n.d. working paper) have found that this requirement does, in fact, lead to improved social well being outcomes. However, as adoption of PB spreads,  this requirement has been diluted. The World Bank does not require pro-poor, social justice-type rules when funding PB processes in Asia and Africa. This is due, in part, to the World Bank’s efforts to adapt PB to meet different sociocultural and political contexts. The City of Paris is explicitly working through this issue as part of their OGP commitment by giving preference to proposals for projects in working class neighborhoods.While the loss of this requirement is not problematic per se, we still do not know if processes that do not stress equitable spending will benefit some communities more than others. Current research on the effect of the social justice component is conflicting. One study from Indonesia indicates that a PB program with no social justice component is not likely to allocate resources to poor neighborhoods (Grillos 2016). This is a substantially different finding from well-documented research in Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte (Marquetti 2003; Pires, 2008; Wampler 2015). In these two cases, PB programs spent more in low-income communities on a per capita basis.
  3. PB is moving toward consensus-based decision-making processes, and away from using ballots to vote on projects. Evidence from a Making All Voices Count project shows that PB programs in Kenya, Uganda, Indonesia, the Philippines, Senegal, and Mozambique primarily select projects through consensus decision-making. They only call a formal vote on a project when consensus cannot be reached. Under ideal deliberative conditions, this creates the possibility that the community will debate a wide range of ideas and develop coherent project plans. Advocates of this new voting system believe that the consensus-based model generates greater support for PB, because it includes all participants in a collective decision-making process. However, we also know that the most powerful local actors often dominate consensus-based processes, which suggests that the most politically vulnerable do not fully express their preferences. The relative importance of consensus-based decision-making versus voting is not well understood, although Olken’s (2010) research indicates that the most vulnerable members of the community are the most likely to change their preferences when they vote using secret ballots. Again, more work is needed to fully understand the various rule structures that currently exist.
  4. The introduction of technology has also transformed the way PB operates. Governments and civil society allies often adapt PB to take advantage of new IT innovations. This is especially true in wealthier regions, such as North America and Europe, and in wealthier areas in developing countries. Social media pages, texting, and email are now commonly used to recruit participants in areas where technology is easily available. Governments also administer online surveys to collect information on participants’ basic socio-demographic profile in many U.S. and European programs and even provide technical assistance through open portals.For example, the “Decide Madrid Portal” provides technical assistance and training to cities around the world implementing PB.  Furthermore, participants can use SMS and even ATMs to vote online in some places. However, internet access is still very limited in poor and rural areas of most developing countries, which means that digital PB has the potential to exacerbate a digital divide in some contexts and detract from its original poverty-reducing mission. For that reason, most PB sites that employ technological innovations also offer in-person recruitment, voting, and technical assistance.

In sum, PB is spreading rapidly, and, as a result, being transformed in interesting ways. In fact, the transformations are taking place so quickly that scholars and activists can not keep up with the pace of change. Thus, citizens in cities, states, and even countries around the world can now vote on public spending, but we do not know what the long-term impact of that spending is. As rules change and new technologies are adopted, we do not know how citizens in poorer areas are best served. We do know, however, that under the right conditions, these processes do have the potential to change participants and communities alike.

Given these changes, one of the most important remaining questions is about impact. To what extent does PB change aspects of participants attitudes and behavior? Can PB improve the socio-political context in which it occurs? These questions will be addressed in our third and final blog.

Part 1: Participatory Budgeting: Spreading Across the Globe