Budgets for the People

Brazil's Democratic Innovations

A worker prepares an electronic voting machine at the electoral tribune in Brasilia September 24, 2014. Ueslei Marcelino / Courtesy Reuters

At a time of record low trust in public institutions, thousands of new channels for citizen involvement in government are opening across the world. They go further than electoral participation; they increase citizens’ ability to monitor, regulate, and, in some cases, directly affect political decision-making.

Labeled by scholars as democratic innovations, these efforts strengthen existing democratic institutions and promote participation in politics that exceeds infrequent voting. Participatory budgeting (PB) is a standout within the realm of democratic innovations, allowing citizens direct control over portions of government spending. Thirteen Brazilian cities introduced PB programs in 1989. By 2001, there were more than 100 cities implementing PB in Brazil, and in 2015, there are thousands of cities adopting variants of the process worldwide.

Brazilian best practices were instrumental in showcasing the potential of PB to the world. A 2008 World Bank study showed that implementing the process for ten years reduced poverty and improved access to clean water. Recent research has also shown that municipal governments that adopt PB receive an increase in public spending for services such as sanitation and health care. Scholars have also found that PB leads to an eight percent increase in the number of civil society organizations within a given Brazilian municipality, highlighting how this democratic innovation promotes citizen engagement, efficacy, voice, transparency, accountability, and lower levels of corruption. On a global scale, the spread of PB could help build trust among a citizenry that craves more participatory, transparent, and accountable institutions. 


One of the most famous Brazilian participatory budgeting success stories is found in Porto Alegre, the capital of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. PB was introduced in in 1989 by a coalition of parties at a time where a third of the city’s population lived in slums. Few had consistent access to clean water, medical clinics, or schools, and standard attempts to rectify these issues fell short. Despite these challenges, Porto Alegre’s PB program became the most successful implementation of this democratic innovation and a symbol of

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