Can participatory budgeting help create more democratic government processes?

Imogen Ebsworth Blog

By Imogen Ebsworth, Advocacy, Engagement and Campaigns, SARC

Thinking about democracy and participation

Welcome to the first of a series of posts examining citizen engagement.

Here at SARC a considerable amount of our work is based on the lived experience of Tasmanians. Through documentation and research, we provide evidence to validate their experiences and identify appropriate policy responses. We recognise that to create a just society, we must focus on giving voice to those usually heard last and facilitate their participation in decision-making.

Accordingly we are very interested in ways to better engage people in the decisions made by government. We may get to vote, but what about all the decisions made in the months and years in between that affect us, which can’t possibly be canvassed in the context of an election campaign? Given the complexity of modern life and running a government, how do we give people more say while recognising that we don’t all have time to become experts in particular fields?

There is nothing new about these questions, and around the world a number of innovative methods have tried to overcome these barriers and achieve a more participatory form of democracy, with varying degrees of success. It should be noted that no method is perfect and all need careful consideration for appropriateness to a particular community and circumstances. They are tools to use to think about increasing direct community participation and ownership of key decisions.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at participatory budgeting.

Introducing participatory budgeting

Participatory budgeting is a process that allows citizens to have a direct say in the allocation of government funding. At its core, the idea is that people undertake the task of deciding on infrastructure and services for their community and the funds to go towards them.

Participatory budgeting was first developed in Brazil by the Workers Party in 1989, as part of an explicit program of radically increasing citizen power in government decision-making, indeed to make them “permanent protagonist[s] of public administration”. It was developed and is used almost exclusively at local government level, reflecting the core tenet of empowering people in decisions directly relating to their lived community.

Just as communities and local government structures vary, there is no one set way of doing participatory budgeting. However like all authentic civic engagement processes, it requires dedicated time and resources to implement well, including information and education for the community and decision-makers about the process before it begins. The Participatory Budgeting Project provides this great introduction from a real example in the United States.

You can also find in table form an overview of who is doing participatory budgeting and how, across the world, on the same site.

So how does it work?

A key question is what process is used for citizens to directly choose or recommend budget priorities. Some examples from living participatory budgeting processes are:

  • Cascading meetings open to all starting at the neighborhood level to identify local priorities, then followed by rounds to winnow down the top issues.
  • A randomly selected number of citizens is invited to work as a group that prioritises and allocates the available funding through a process of community outreach, or simply as community representatives themselves.
    • Election of ‘citizen juries’ by the whole community to act on their behalf in the budget decision process.

The longest and most successful ongoing example is the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, a provincial capital of well over a million people, which allocates its annual USD $200 million budget through a participatory budgeting process typically involving 50,000 people. It also uses the most intensively participatory method, opening up the process at the neighbourhood level and slowly working through decisions on a list of agreed provincial priorities and related budget allocations.

Since its inception in Brazil nearly 30 years ago, participatory budgeting has been used in more than 1500 places around the world. It has been successful particularly in Europe and the Americas, but also parts of Africa and Asia. Participatory budgeting has also been championed by key international institutions, most notably the World Bank.

So is it worth it?

The Pros

  • It deepens and broadens democracy and citizen engagement in local decision-making.
  • It increases direct involvement of people in the decisions that affect their neighbourhoods.
  • Participatory budgeting encourages people to get to know their own communities and forges connections across traditional divides such as class and ethnicity.
  • It increases the legitimacy of government and strengthens consensus-building and social cohesion.

The Cons

  • Rather than a real offer of participation, it can be just another form of consultation foisted on communities already exhausted by government legitimisation exercises.
  • Many participatory budgeting processes are effectively imposed top down by councillors and staff.
  • Too many participatory budgeting processes involve trivial amounts of money and hence are rubber stamping exercises, not true participatory democracy.
  • The level of knowledge and skills required to genuinely participate prevents the most disadvantaged and marginalised in communities from being included.
  • It takes considerable resources and ongoing commitment to educate the community and council to run a legitimate participatory budgeting process.

Would it work for Tasmania?

Australia has seen very few examples of participatory budgeting, and none in Tasmania. Why is unclear. However Tasmania does have experience with broader participatory democratic processes, notably Tasmania Together. The community enthusiasm for this approach and its ability to foster greater participation and consensus proved that we have an appetite for participatory democracy.

While it’s hard to back with data, intuitively this makes sense. We all know (and often celebrate) that we live on a small island together at the bottom of the world, and while there are many factors that create pressure for internal competition and division, when given the chance we’d rather work together to identify and create common good.

This suggests that participatory budgeting could be effective in increasing citizen participation and ownership over local government decisions in Tasmania. Here our comparatively small local governments could be an advantage, making participatory budgeting processes readily accessible and allowing it to be trialled in different forms in different settings.

It could also help build bigger and more effective community campaigns for state and federal funding for local infrastructure priorities — — something sorely lacking in many parts of Tasmania that feel very overlooked.

The risk, as shown by Tasmania Together, lies in the longevity of commitment to the process, keeping the process from becoming politicised, and ensuring that community decisions are implemented. The success of participatory budgeting in a variety of settings overseas has in part come from long-term commitment to implementation of community decisions and ensuring that it has remained free of partisan politics.

Local government favours these conditions in Tasmania. Above all it would be great to see government and civil society at all levels bringing a spirit of inquiry to such possibilities with the aim of increasing democratic engagement in Tasmania. There is nothing to lose.

Further reading

The global Participatory Budget Project provides a one stop shop of information and resources.

UN Habitat has a terrific toolkit — “72 Frequently Asked Questions About Participatory Budgeting.”

The World Bank site on participatory budgeting has a more ‘nerdy’ overview and a wealth of links for further reading.