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This piece aims to introduce the concept of participatory budgeting, as well as provide an overview of the opportunities and challenges that the implementation of such a model can bring. This document also presents examples of governments that have conducted participatory budgeting processes successfully, and includes examples of tools and platforms that they have used.
The first modern participatory budgeting experience took place in Brazil’s Porto Alegre in 1989. It was driven by The Workers’ Party, a progressive political party, which drove a campaign based on democratic participation and inverting spending priorities. The new administration experimented with different mechanisms for two years before landing on participatory budgeting. Although fewer than 1,000 citizens participated in the first year, annual participation grew to over 8,000 after three years, and continued past 20,000 shortly thereafter. Porto Alegre currently distributes 20% of its budget through participatory budgeting. Today, versions of this participatory budgeting process have been implemented in over 1500 municipalities around the world.
Most participatory budgeting projects follow the Porto Alegre model fairly closely:
Pros and Cons
Why would a government want to conduct a participatory budgeting process? Below are listed the pros and cons of implementing a participatory budgeting model.
Who chooses to, or is able to, participate?
How can technology augment, but not dilute, the process?
Technology can lower access barriers, but some of those barriers (sorting through proposals, asking questions, negotiating outcomes) are what make the act of participation meaningful. How can municipalities use technology to expand access to the more immediate actions without eliminating the indirect benefits?
How to institutionalize a successful grassroots movement?
Motivated by the success stories, many regional and national governments have created legal mandates for local municipalities to conduct participatory budgeting. Many aid organisations also make participatory budgeting a requirement to receive funding. Because many local variables affect the success of participatory budgeting, these imposed participatory budgeting processes are generally less effective than ones that grow organically from fertile environments.
A successful participatory budgeting process requires these essential pre-conditions.
A project can expect a more successful outcome if any of the following conditions exist:
A project can expect difficulty if any of the following conditions exist:
The first participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre in 1989 was robust and technical, but did not rely heavily on technology. As computing power has become smaller, faster, and cheaper, it has infiltrated the participatory budgeting process along each step of the process.
Each section below highlights examples of tools with specialised features relevant to that portion of the participatory budgeting process.
Collecting project proposals
Example: Up until recently Hilden, Germany collected project proposals in a very old-fashioned way: citizens described projects on notecards and tossed them into a box during a meeting.
This specific portion of the participatory budgeting process is often augmented with technology, and generally involves a website of some kind. Example: Many cities, including Pune, India, accept submissions through both a website and physical government offices.
How do governments tell their citizens about the participatory budgeting process?
Example: The government of South Kivu, Congo sends out SMS alerts about their participatory budgeting process to every mobile phone in the municipality. Messages go out before deliberation meetings to invite participation and after votes to share results. Though only 14% of citizens have mobile phones, the local culture of sharing mobile devices among family members and neighbors expands reach.
Example: Vallejo, US actively engages several forms of social media to inform its citizens of the participatory budgeting process and recruit their participation. The city created a video explaining the participatory budgeting process and posted it to YouTube. Vallejo operates a monthly electronic newsletter, and archives past issues on the city’s website. The city also makes prolific use of Twitter, Facebook, and Nextdoor (a neighborhood-based social network website).
Example: Even when the majority or entirety of the participatory budgeting process will be conducted online, cities still find value in designing, printing, and distributing printed flyers, such as was the case in Chicago, US.
Some of the key breakthroughs of participatory budgeting are its focus on bringing information from bureaucrats to the people. Better-informed citizens raise the quality of debate, grounding the budget in facts and research.
Example: Planners in South Kivu, Congo painted “data murals” of budget visualisations on walls throughout the cities.
Example: Hamburg, Germany created a virtual financial calculation tool. The website displayed each part of the city’s budget as three-dimensional pie charts, and invited people to propose their own budget proposal using interactive ‘sliders’ to adjust spending on specific items up or down. Promoted for four weeks, the site attracted 50,000 unique visitors who started 2,138 budgets proposals. Of those, 38 were finalised and reviewed by the community. Hamburg citizens also created wikis to collaboratively describe projects.
Example: Seville, Spain, like many cities, hosts its discussions in person. Seville’s assemblies are lively, as citizens deliberate with one another how funds should be spent. Many cities choose to either supplement or replace these assemblies with virtual discussion.
In addition to traditional paper ballots or voting by show of hands, traditional town hall-style meetings can augment in-person voting with electronic voting tools, such as Personal Response Systems. Facilitators can use these systems for more than just the final vote, such as gauging understanding of specific topics, demographics and other surveys, indicating readiness to move on, or amplifying a silent majority to diffuse minority protests.
Example: Belo Horizonte, Brazil first used electronic voting in 2006. Anticipating equity issues around Internet access, the municipality provided mobile “Digital Inclusion Centers” throughout the region. The project was very successful in expanding participation, receiving over a half million votes. Following its success with online voting in 2006, Belo Horizonte included a toll-free number for voting by phone in 2008.
Example: The cities of Malaga (Spain) and South Kivu (Congo) allow citizens to register for SMS project implementation updates.
Many companies have developed tools that specialise in participatory budgeting and support multiple municipalities. These include:
Since the Porto Alegre government first engaged in participatory budgeting in 1989, the process and its worldwide popularity have grown. As participatory budgeting continues to evolve, we must consider if it is growing in a way that increases the breadth or depth of systemic impacts. As cities continue to experiment with participatory budgeting as a process, we look forward to seeing its values of an informed citizenry, the equitable redistribution of resources, and greater government efficiency and transparency become further entrenched in society.
News and comment
New Report Highlights Fast Growth of Participatory Budgeting, Sep 20 
Citizens data initiative
Since its emergence in Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting has spread to hundreds of Latin American cities, and dozens of cities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. More than 1500 municipalities are estimated to have initiated participatory budgeting. W
Real Money, Real Power: Participatory Budgeting on vimeo
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Wikipedia: Participatory budgeting