Hope for Democracy: 30 years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide

Book edited by Nelson Dias: “Hope for Democracy” is not only the title of this book, but also the translation of a state of mind infected by innovation and transformative action of many people who in different parts of the world, are engaged in the construction of more lasting and intense ways of living democracy.

The articles found within this publication are “scales” of a fascinating journey through the paths of participatory democracy, from North America to Asia, Oceania to Europe, and Latin America to Africa.

With no single directions, it is up to the readers to choose the route they want to travel, being however invited to reinforce this “democratizing wave”, encouraging the emergence of new and renewed spaces of participation in the territories where they live and work….(More)

Democracy doomsday prophets are missing this critical shift

Bruno Kaufmann and Joe Mathews in the Washington Post: “The new conventional wisdom seems to be that electoral democracy is in decline. But this ignores another widespread trend: direct democracy at the local and regional level is booming, even as disillusion with representative government at the national level grows.

Today, 113 of the world’s 117 democratic countries offer their citizens legally or constitutionally established rights to bring forward a citizens’ initiative, referendum or both. And since 1980, roughly 80 percent of countries worldwide have had at least one nationwide referendum or popular vote on a legislative or constitutional issue.

Of all the nationwide popular votes in the history of the world, more than half have taken place in the past 30 years. As of May 2018, almost 2,000 nationwide popular votes on substantive issues have taken place, with 1,059 in Europe, 191 in Africa, 189 in Asia, 181 in the Americas and 115 in Oceania, based on our research.

That is just at the national level. Other major democracies — Germany, the United States and India — do not permit popular votes on substantive issues nationally but support robust direct democracy at the local and regional levels. The number of local votes on issues has so far defied all attempts to count them — they run into the tens of thousands.

This robust democratization, at least when it comes to direct legislation, provides a context that’s generally missing when doomsday prophets suggest that democracy is dying by pointing to authoritarian-leaning leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Indeed, the two trends — the rise of populist authoritarianism in some nations and the rise of local and direct democracy in some areas — are related. Frustration is growing with democratic systems at national levels, and yes, some people become more attracted to populism. But some of that frustration is channeled into positive energy — into making local democracy more democratic and direct.

Cities from Seoul to San Francisco are hungry for new and innovative tools that bring citizens into processes of deliberation that allow the people themselves to make decisions and feel invested in government actions. We’ve seen local governments embrace participatory budgeting, participatory planning, citizens’ juries and a host of experimental digital tools in service of that desired mix of greater public deliberation and more direct public action….(More).”

Participatory Budgeting: Step to Building Active Citizenship or a Distraction from Democratic Backsliding?

David Sasaki: “Is there any there there? That’s what we wanted to uncover beneath the hype and skepticism surrounding participatory budgeting, an innovation in democracy that began in Brazil in 1989 and has quickly spread to nearly every corner of the world like a viral hashtag….We ended up selecting two groups of consultants for two phases of work. The first phase was led by three academic researchers — Brian WamplerMike Touchton and Stephanie McNulty — to synthesize what we know broadly about PB’s impact and where there are gaps in the evidence. mySociety led the second phase, which originally intended to identify the opportunities and challenges faced by civil society organizations and public officials that implement participatory budgeting. However, a number of unforeseen circumstances, including contested elections in Kenya and a major earthquake in Mexico, shifted mySociety’s focus to take a global, field-wide perspective.

In the end, we were left with two reports that were similar in scope and differed in perspective. Together they make for compelling reading. And while they come from different perspectives, they settle on similar recommendations. I’ll focus on just three: 1) the need for better research, 2) the lack of global coordination, and 3) the emerging opportunity to link natural resource governance with participatory budgeting….

As we consider some preliminary opportunities to advance participatory budgeting, we are clear-eyed about the risks and challenges. In the face of democratic backsliding and the concern that liberal democracy may not survive the 21st century, are these efforts to deepen local democracy merely a distraction from a larger threat, or is this a way to build active citizenship? Also, implementing PB is expensive — both in terms of money and time; is it worth the investment? Is PB just the latest checkbox for governments that want a reputation for supporting citizen participation without investing in the values and process it entails? Just like the proliferation of fake “consultation meetings,” fake PB could merely exacerbate our disappointment with democracy. What should we make of the rise of participatory budgeting in quasi-authoritarian contexts like China and Russia? Is PB a tool for undemocratic central governments to keep local governments in check while giving citizens a simulacrum of democratic participation? Crucially, without intentional efforts to be inclusive like we’ve seen in Boston, PB could merely direct public resources to those neighborhoods with the most outspoken and powerful residents.

On the other hand, we don’t want to dismiss the significant opportunities that come with PB’s rapid global expansion. For example, what happens when social movements lose their momentum between election cycles? Participatory budgeting could create a civic space for social movements to pursue concrete outcomes while engaging with neighbors and public officials. (In China, it has even helped address the urban-rural divide on perspectives toward development policy.) Meanwhile, social media have exacerbated our human tendency to complain, but participatory budgeting requires us to shift our perspective from complaints to engaging with others on solutions. It could even serve as a gateway to deeper forms of democratic participation and increased trust between governments, civil society organizations, and citizens. Perhaps participatory budgeting is the first step we need to rebuild our civic infrastructure and make space for more diverse voices to steer our complex public institutions.

Until we have more research and evidence, however, these possibilities remain speculative….(More)”.

When citizens set the budget: lessons from ancient Greece

 and  in The Conversation:Today elected representatives take the tough decisions about public finances behind closed doors. In doing so, democratic politicians rely on the advice of financial bureaucrats, who, often, cater to the political needs of the elected government. Politicians rarely ask voters what they think of budget options. They are no better at explaining the reasons for a budget. Explanations are usually no more than vacuous phrases, such as “jobs and growth” or “on the move”. They never explain the difficult trade-offs that go into a budget nor their overall financial reasoning.

This reluctance to explain public finances was all too evident during the global financial crisis.

In Australia, Britain and France, centre-left governments borrowed huge sums in order to maintain private demand and, in one case, to support private banks. In each country these policies helped a lot to minimise the crisis’s human costs.

Yet, in the elections that followed the centre-left politicians that had introduced these policies refused properly to justify them. They feared that voters would not tolerate robust discussion about public finances. Without a justification for their generally good policies each of these government was defeated by centre-right opponents.

In most democracies there is the same underlying problem: elected representatives do not believe that voters can tolerate the financial truth. They assume that democracy is not good at managing public finances. For them it can only balance the budget by leaving voters in the dark.

For decades, we, independently, have studied democracy today and in the ancient past. We have learned that this assumption is dead wrong. There are more and more examples of how involving ordinary voters results in better budgets.

In 1989, councils in poor Brazilian towns began to involve residents in setting budgets. This participatory budgeting soon spread throughout South America. It has now been successfully tried in Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, the United States, Poland and Australia, and some pilot projects were set up in France too. Participatory budgeting is based on the clear principle that those who will be most affected by a tough budget should be involved in setting it.

In spite of such successful democratic experiments, elected representatives still shy away from involving ordinary voters in setting budgets. This is very different from what happened in ancient Athens 2,500 years ago….

In Athenian democracy ordinary citizens actually set the budget. This ancient Greek state had a solid budget, in spite of, or, we would say, because of the involvement of the citizens in taking tough budget decisions….(More)”.

Increasing citizen voice and government responsiveness: what does success really look like, and who decides?

Paper by Vanessa Herringshaw: “Narratives in the field of information and communications technology (ICT) for governance are full of claims, of either enormous success or almost none. But understanding ‘success’ and ‘failure’ depends on how these are framed. Research supported by Making All Voices Count suggests that different actors can seek very different goals from the same ICT-enabled interventions – some stated, some not.

This programme learning report proposes two important dimensions for framing variations in visions of success for ICT-enabled governance interventions: (1) the kind of change in governance systems sought (‘functional’, ‘instrumental’, ‘transformative’ and ‘no change’); and (2) the vision of the ideal citizen–state relationship. It applies this framing to three areas where ICTs are being used, at least on paper, to encourage and channel citizen voice into governance processes, and to improve government responsiveness in return: participatory policy- and strategymaking; participatory budgeting; and citizen feedback to improve service delivery.

In terms of the kind of change in governance systems sought, much of the rhetoric touts the use of ICTs as inherently ‘transformative’. However, findings suggest that it has mostly been deployed in ‘functional’, ‘instrumental’ and ‘no change’ ways. That said, the possibility of ICT-enabled ‘transformative’ change appears somewhat higher when citizens have more direct control over outcomes, and more online and offline processes are mixed and used in ways that foster collective, rather than individualised, inputs, deliberation and answerability.

In terms of the vision of the state–citizen relationship, the findings show great variation in outcomes sought regarding the kinds and levels of participatory democracy, who this should benefit, the ideal size of the state, and the desired stability of actor groups and decision-making structures.

The evidence suggests that the use of ICTs may have the potential to support change, including transformative change, but only when the political goals of key actors are pre-structured to support this. The choice of ICTs does matter to the effectiveness of this support, as does the way in which they are used. But overall, ICTs do not appear to be inherently ‘generative’ of change. They are, rather, ‘reflective’, ‘enabling’ or ‘amplifying’ of existing political agendas and levels of commitment.

The recommendations of this report focus on the need to understand deeply and face the realities of these varying agendas and visions of success at the start of intervention planning, and throughout implementation as they evolve over time. This imperative should remain undiminished, regardless of any rhetoric of the inherently transformative or ‘democratising’ nature of ICTs, and of interventions to strengthen citizen voice and government responsiveness more broadly….(More).

How Helsinki uses a board game to promote public participatio

Bloomberg Cities: “When mayors talk about “citizen engagement,” two things usually seem clear: It’s a good thing and we need more of it. But defining exactly what citizen engagement means — and how city workers should do it — can be a lot harder than it sounds.

To make the concept real, the city of Helsinki has come up with a creative solution. City leaders made a board game that small teams of managers and front-line staff can play together. As they do so, they learn about dozens of methods for involving citizens in their work, from public meetings to focus groups to participatory budgeting.

It’s called the “Participation Game,” and over the past year, more than 2,000 Helsinki employees from all city departments have played it close to 250 times. Tommi Laitio, who heads the city’s Division of Culture and Leisure, said the game has been a surprise hit with employees because it helps cut through jargon and put public participation in concrete terms they can easily relate to.

“‘Citizen engagement’ is one of those buzzwords that gets thrown around a lot,” Laitio said. “But it means different things to different people. For some, it might mean involving citizens in a co-design process. For others, it might mean answering feedback by email. And there’s a huge difference in ambition between those approaches.”

The game’s rollout comes as Helsinki is overhauling local governance with a goal of making City Hall more responsive to the public. Starting last June, more power is vested in local political leaders, including the mayor, Jan Vapaavuori. More than 30 individual city departments are now consolidated into four. And there’s a deep new focus on involving citizens in decision making. That’s where the board game comes in.

Helsinki’s experiment is part of a wider movement both in and out of government to “gamify” workforce training, service delivery and more….(More)”.

The Participatory Democracy Turn

Book edited by Laurence BhererPascale Dufour, and Francoise Montambeault:”Since the 1960s, participatory discourses and techniques have been at the core of decision making processes in a variety of sectors around the world – a phenomenon often referred to as the participatory turn. Over the years, this participatory turn has given birth to a large array of heterogeneous participatory practices developed by a wide variety of organizations and groups, as well as by governments. Among the best-known practices of citizen participation are participatory budgeting, citizen councils, public consultations, etc. However, these experiences are sometimes far from the original 1960s’ radical conception of participatory democracy, which had a transformative dimension and aimed to overcome unequal relationships between the state and society and emancipate and empower citizens in their daily lives.

This book addresses four sets of questions: what do participatory practices mean today?; what does it mean to participate for participants, from the perspective of citizenship building?; how the processes created by the participatory turn have affected the way political representation functions?; and does the participatory turn also mean changing relationships and dynamics among civil servants, political representatives, and citizens?

Overall, the contributions in this book illustrate and grasp the complexity of the so-called participatory turn. It shows that the participatory turn now includes several participatory democracy projects, which have different effects on the overall system depending on the principles that they advocate. This book was originally published as a special issue of the Journal of Civil Society….(More)”

Participatory budgeting: adoption and transformation

Paper by Michael Touchton and Brian Wampler: “Participatory budgeting programmes are spreading rapidly across the world because they offer government officials and citizens the opportunity to engage each other in new ways as they combine democratic practices with the ‘nitty gritty’ of policy-making. The principles and ideas associated with participatory budgeting appeal to a broad spectrum of citizens, civil society activists, government officials and international agencies, which helps explain why it is so popular and has expanded so quickly.

In this research briefing, we focus on adoption and transformation of participatory budgeting in several low- and middle-income countries where international donors are active. We are particularly interested in better understanding how participatory budgeting is transforming in countries where international donors are active, where states struggle to provide public services, and where urban and rural communities are characterised by high levels of poverty… (More)”.

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)”.

Civic Creativity: Role-Playing Games in Deliberative Process

Eric Gordon, Jason Haas, and Becky Michelson at the International Journal of Communication: “This article analyzes the use of a role-playing game in a civic planning process. We focus on the qualities of interactions generated through gameplay, specifically the affordances of voluntary play within a “magic circle” of the game, that directly impact participants’ ability to generate new ideas about the community. We present the results of a quasi-experimental study where a role-playing game (RPG) called @Stake is incorporated into participatory budgeting meetings in New York City and compared with meetings that incorporated a trivia game. We provide evidence that the role-playing game, which encourages empathy, is more effective than a game that tests knowledge for generating what we call civic creativity, or an individual’s ability to come up with new ideas. Rapid ideation and social learning nurtured by the game point to a kind of group creativity that fosters social connection and understanding of consequence outside of the game. We conclude with thoughts on future research….(More)”.