Participatory Budgeting: Does Evidence Match Enthusiasm?

Brian Wampler, Stephanie McNulty, and Michael Touchton at Open Government Partnership: “Participatory budgeting (PB) empowers citizens to allocate portions of public budgets in a way that best fits the needs of the people. In turn, proponents expect PB to improve citizens’ lives in important ways, by expanding their participation in politics, providing better public services such as in healthcare, sanitation, or education, and giving them a sense of efficacy.

Below we outline several potential outcomes that emerge from PB. Of course, assessing PB’s potential impact is difficult, because reliable data is rare and PB is often one of several programs that could generate similar improvements at the same time. Impact evaluations for PB are thus at a very early stage. Nevertheless, considerable case study evidence and some broader, comparative studies point to outcomes in the following areas:

Citizens’ attitudes: Early research focused on the attitudes of citizens who participate in PB, and found that PB participants feel empowered, support democracy, view the government as more effective, and better understand budget and government processes after participating (Wampler and Avritzer 2004; Baiocchi 2005; Wampler 2007).

Participants’ behavior: Case-study evidence shows that PB participants increase their political participation beyond PB and join civil society groups. Many scholars also expect PB to strengthen civil society by increasing its density (number of groups), expanding its range of activities, and brokering new partnerships with government and other CSOs. There is some case study evidence that this occurs (Baiocchi 2005; McNulty 2011; Baiocchi, Heller and Silva 2011; Van Cott 2008) as well as evidence from over 100 PB programs across Brazil’s larger municipalities (Touchton and Wampler 2014). Proponents also expect PB to educate government officials surrounding community needs, to increase their support for participatory processes, and to potentially expand participatory processes in complementary areas. Early reports from five counties in Kenya suggest that PB ther is producing at least some of these impacts.

Electoral politics and governance: PB can also promote social change, which may alter local political calculations and the ways that governments operate. PB may deliver votes to the elected officials that sponsor it, improve budget transparency and resource allocation, decrease waste and fraud, and generally improve accountability. However, there is very little evidence in this area because few studies have been able to measure these impacts in any direct way.

Social well-being: Finally, PB is designed to improve residents’ well-being. Implemented PB projects include funding for healthcare centers, sewage lines, schools, wells, and other areas that contribute directly to well-being. These effects may take years to appear, but recent studies attribute improvements in infant mortality in Brazil to PB (Touchton and Wampler 2014; Gonçalves 2014). Beyond infant mortality, the range of potential impacts extends to other health areas, sanitation, education, and poverty in general. We are cautious here because results from Brazil might not appear elsewhere: what works in urban Brazil might not in rural Indonesia….(More)”.