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Participatory Budgeting: Step to Building Active Citizenship or a Distraction from Democratic Backsliding?
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David Sasaki, a program officer for Hewlett Foundation’s Transparency, Participation, and Accountability team, describes how they are responding to two commissioned reports on the opportunities and challenges that face participatory budgeting.


Is there any there there? That’s what we wanted to uncover beneath the hype and skepticism surrounding participatory budgeting, an innovation in democracy that began in Brazil in 1989 and has quickly spread to nearly every corner of the world like a viral hashtag. There was good reason to be intrigued. By 2015, variations of participatory budgeting had been instituted in over 1,500 cities worldwide and the pace of diffusion has since continued to accelerate with major initiatives underway in Portugal, Indonesia, Sweden, Scotland, Kenya, Russia, Mexico and beyond. Why was PB expanding so quickly when we seemingly knew little about its impact? How do variations in implementation bring about different results? And how do similarities play out across different contexts? 

Laura Bacon of Omidyar Network and Hewlett Foundation’s Transparency, Participation, and Accountability team had a lot of questions about PB and limited experience. We primarily wanted to know whether participatory budgeting was a promising area for us to support in pursuit of our programs’ shared goals of improving public service delivery, promoting active citizenship, and increasing trust between citizens and their governments. What do we know about participatory budgeting’s impact thus far and what are the opportunities and challenges faced by its implementers? So, typical of foundations, we put out a request for proposals to identify some smart consultants who could help us think through where it would make the most sense for us to invest our resources, if at all. 

We ended up selecting two groups of consultants for two phases of work. The first phase was led by three academic researchers — Brian Wampler, Mike Touchton and Stephanie McNulty — to synthesize what we know broadly about PB’s impact and where there are gaps in the evidence. mySociety led the second phase, which originally intended to identify the opportunities and challenges faced by civil society organizations and public officials that implement participatory budgeting. However, a number of unforeseen circumstances, including contested elections in Kenya and a major earthquake in Mexico, shifted mySociety’s focus to take a global, field-wide perspective.

In the end, we were left with two reports that were similar in scope and differed in perspective. Together they make for compelling reading. And while they come from different perspectives, they settle on similar recommendations. I’ll focus on just three: 1) the need for better research, 2) the lack of global coordination, and 3) the emerging opportunity to link natural resource governance with participatory budgeting.

First, both groups point out that participatory budgeting initiatives are spreading around the globe faster than our knowledge about their effects or best practices. As a result, governments reinvent the wheel each time they experiment with giving residents more control over their budgets. Most research on participatory budgeting is in the form of case studies, and the field would benefit from more randomized experiments and comparative studies. Second, unlike the open data field, which has the Open Data Charter, or the cash transfer field, which has the Transfer Project, participatory budgeting lacks a global coordinating body for public officials, researchers, and civil society organizations. Finally, for all the superlative rhetoric about participatory budgeting’s transformative potential to give power to the powerless and transfer money to forgotten places and sectors, I’ve been disappointed by the paltry budgets of most programs. Citizens often vote on symbolic projects with money from modest, discretionary funds. Both reports point to social development funds tied to revenue from extractives as a frontier for participatory budgeting to deliver on its promise as a means to both deepen democracy and confront inequality. 

For example, an experiment is underway in Cananea, a small mining town in Northwestern Mexico close to the border with Arizona. For the past 250 years, the residents of the town haven’t benefitted from its rich mineral wealth. When Mexican miners organized a strike in 1906 for unfair pay and working conditions, American businessman William Cornell Greene called in mercenary soldiers from Arizona to quell the strike and arrest its leaders. Today Cananea is home to one of the world’s largest copper mines, where workers continue to protest unfair pay and violent intimidation by private security forces. It’s within this context, typical of mining towns throughout Mexico and much of the world, that the World Bank and Mexico’s Secretariat of Civil Service are experimenting with participatory budgeting. The initiative invites Cananea’s 30,000 residents to decide how the city will spend a significant increase in its public works budget from a 2014 reform that directs 7.5% of mining revenue back to Mexico’s 225 municipalities with mines. 

In response to the recommendations from both reports, we at Hewlett Foundation are considering a grant to test out models of global coordination between public officials, civil society organizations and researchers. We’re also considering a grant to support a preliminary evaluation of Cananea’s experience to inform other Mexican municipalities that are considering participatory budgeting as a way to allocate money from mining and oil funds.

As we consider some preliminary opportunities to advance participatory budgeting, we are clear-eyed about the risks and challenges. In the face of democratic backsliding and the concern that liberal democracy may not survive the 21st century, are these efforts to deepen local democracy merely a distraction from a larger threat, or is this a way to build active citizenship? Also, implementing PB is expensive — both in terms of money and time; is it worth the investment? Is PB just the latest checkbox for governments that want a reputation for supporting citizen participation without investing in the values and process it entails? Just like the proliferation of fake “consultation meetings,” fake PB could merely exacerbate our disappointment with democracy. What should we make of the rise of participatory budgeting in quasi-authoritarian contexts like China and Russia? Is PB a tool for undemocratic central governments to keep local governments in check while giving citizens a simulacrum of democratic participation? Crucially, without intentional efforts to be inclusive like we’ve seen in Boston, PB could merely direct public resources to those neighborhoods with the most outspoken and powerful residents.

On the other hand, we don’t want to dismiss the significant opportunities that come with PB’s rapid global expansion. For example, what happens when social movements lose their momentum between election cycles? Participatory budgeting could create a civic space for social movements to pursue concrete outcomes while engaging with neighbors and public officials. (In China, it has even helped address the urban-rural divide on perspectives toward development policy.) Meanwhile, social media have exacerbated our human tendency to complain, but participatory budgeting requires us to shift our perspective from complaints to engaging with others on solutions. It could even serve as a gateway to deeper forms of democratic participation and increased trust between governments, civil society organizations, and citizens. Perhaps participatory budgeting is the first step we need to rebuild our civic infrastructure and make space for more diverse voices to steer our complex public institutions.

Until we have more research and evidence, however, these possibilities remain speculative. 

My sincere thanks to Laura Bacon for co-designing the request for proposals. Thanks to Brian Wampler, Michael Touchton, and Stephanie McNulty for helping me ask better questions and always providing thoughtful responses. And thanks to Rebecca Rumbul, Alex Parsons, and Jen Bramley of mySociety for their perseverance and helpfully informed skepticism. Finally, thanks to my colleagues on the Transparency, Participation, and Accountability team at Hewlett Foundation for their helpful input and to the Transparency and Accountability Initiative for facilitating strategic dissemination. 

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