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. 

THE CASE OF PORTO ALEGRE

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 what participatory co-governance can achieve. The program allowed citizens to work on issues and projects, such as public housing and schools that affected their neighborhoods directly, rather than waiting for reflexive, top-down policies that might not even be suited for the communities that they were designed to help. Additionally, PB created opportunities for citizens to learn more about how governance worked within their city—Porto Alegre’s citizens were given the opportunity to work alongside policy experts to generate budget proposals, expanding the role of the public in setting legislative and financial objectives.

Porto Alegre saw PB participation rise steadily throughout the 1990s. By 1999, the process had roughly 18,000 citizens engaged in the process every year with significant turnaround. Roughly a fifth of the 1.5 million people residing in Porto Alegre had participated in PB at some point in their lives, with a large number of women and low-income groups having higher than average representation within the model. In recent years, PB processes have successfully engaged with youths and professionals—groups formally underrepresented in years past—by opening up online spaces of discussion. Since 2012, state-level PB processes in Rio Grande do Sul boast the highest participation rates in Brazil, with over 1.3 million participants, of which around 200,000 participate online. This new addition to the PB process provides fertile ground for exploring the Internet’s burgeoning role in democratic deliberation, with a proven track record of early success that could foretell promising developments in future years.

The sustained participation in Brazilian PB processes demonstrates that citizens enjoy having direct control over how and why tax money gets spent, especially if their involvement can be customized to fit their needs. Some successful models in Brazil emphasize citizen interaction, others on crowd-sourced funding ideas. Many advocate for new forms of governance that better include marginalized citizens. In other words, Brazilian PB has done more than provide citizens with a civics lesson; it has created real, tangible opportunities for everyday people to influence the way their tax money is spent within their community. Within cities and localities that adopt PB, citizens are able to identify spending priorities in their own backyard. Projects that might not seem like obvious recipients of state money—such as those relating to sports and leisure—have the same opportunity as more standard projects such as water systems. The community determines which initiatives are most worthy of pursuing before being implemented by city government. These efforts allow citizens to become more connected not only with each other but also with the mechanics and functions of democracy. PB’s flexibility and openness provides marginalized groups with some opportunities to influence government spending while granting lawmakers the ability to try out new tools for civic engagement, such as online voting and Web-based forums.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Democratic innovations such as PB go further than routine governance changes, and generate results that champions of older democratic reform models would envy. To date, PB initiatives have been enacted more than 1,500 municipalities worldwide: the Dominican Republic, Peru, Poland, and the Indian state of Kerala have laws that mandate the implementation of PB in all local government branches. Towns throughout all European countries have initiated participatory budgeting processes. Australia, China, Japan, and Korea are all working on PB pilot processes. In Africa, a growing number of PB initiatives allow the possibility of voting via SMS. In the United States, both Chicago and Brooklyn have taken small steps toward including PB practices in city government, allowing citizens to have further domain over how their tax money is spent.

Although there is not yet conclusive data on the global success of PB, and some scholars believe that PB processes are window dressing, Brazil’s efforts have been felt far and wide since 1989. Academics and researchers are working to compile robust data on democratic innovations, such as the online repository Participedia.net, to categorize best practices. Sensing a need for broader citizen engagement, Brazilian leaders tried PB and created a more robust and communicative model of democratic deliberation. Public trust in government may be plummeting, but Brazil’s efforts might provide a way for officials to redeem themselves. Improving governance will not happen overnight, but incorporating lessons from Brazil can help strengthen the democratic institutions we need in order to tackle global public problems. 

 

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  • PAOLO SPADA is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia.
  • HOLLIE RUSSON GILMAN is Civic Innovation Fellow at New America and Fellow in Technology and Public Policy at Columbia’s School of Public Affairs.
  • More By Paolo Spada
  • More By Hollie Russon Gilman