Participatory budgeting

16. September, 2014

We can be quick to judge our fellow citizens’ apathy when it comes to politics. Especially when we have reasonable grounds for being disappointed.

It is fair to find fault with someone who never reads the news, never bothers to read up on the politicians for whom she votes, or worse still does not bother to vote at all. It is our responsibility as citizens to check up on the government, to question their proposed policies, and to sack them when they fail to deliver. However, dwelling on our disappointment will do little to help. The constructive thing to do would be to give those who feel disenfranchised a fair chance to participate.

One way to do this is to try participatory budgeting, the phrase is a bit of a mouthful, yet the process itself is quite straightforward. The city sets aside a certain amount of cash for local improvements. Community members gather in an assembly and come up with ideas for improvements, and then the best of those are put to the vote. The winning projects are implemented.

Started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 the practice first reached Europe around the early 2000s and has become popular in the US in the last five years. The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) is a North American organisation that deserves extra credit for the organisational work it has done to bring participatory budgeting to North America, as well as for the resources and know-how it has accumulated on its website. Here is one of their videos doing more justice to the underlying ideas than I probably did:

To some it may seem irresponsible to allow residents to build lavish parks or water fountains when the city needs essential maintenance. For this reason, it should be stressed that participatory budgeting projects in most cases work with a portion of the budget that is intended for additional improvements. Also the project selection process and the vote itself is likely to do away with the more extravagant projects.

Skeptics may also doubt the content of such proposals – will the community really come up with ideas worth spending our common money on, shouldn’t this be better left to the experts? Participatory budgeting does not aim to get rid of experts, but add another layer to the way our democracy works. It creates the opportunity for locals to propose solutions to those issues that they encounter in their day-to-day lives, but which have been overlooked or underestimated by elected officials.

Moreover, the experience of those involved in participatory budgeting seems to indicate that the right circumstances can create very thoughtful project ideas. As stressed by James Fishkin, who works with deliberative polling, it’s bad institutional design that leads to people making bad decisions. If you stopped someone in the middle of the street after an eight hour work day and asked them what they thought of the latest campaign in their local youth centre, it is very likely that they their answer may not be the considerate one. Yet if you provide an organised event and a comfortable environment the very same people can come up with quite different responses.

Advocates of participatory budgeting usually see it as a means to building trust in state institutions, raising the perceived legitimacy of the state, as well as end in itself – participants get an education in the democratic process as well as a sense of empowerment. It would also be exciting if, in combination with other policies, participatory budgeting could encourage the disconnected citizens to start following the news or start voting again. All of the potential benefits shouldn’t be taken on faith, yet given that participatory budgeting has been around for two decades and, according to PBP estimates, has reached around 1000 cities worldwide, there is scope for testing these ideas.

If you are one of those with excess energy for current affairs, perhaps it’s worthwhile to consider campaigning for participatory budgeting in your city. Your budget might not end up as large as that of Chicago’s 49th Ward (around $1 million a year), but even on a smaller scale you might be able to reinvigorate local participation in democracy.


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

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