How Participatory Budgeting Travels the Globe



The Power of Ambiguity: How Participatory Budgeting Travels the Globe
Journal of Public Deliberation


From its beginnings in Porte Allegro, Brazil in the late 1980s, participatory budgeting (PB) has become one of the world's best known and most widely adopted citizen participatory programs. It has spread to over 1,500 cities across five continents, been the subject of hundreds of conferences, had training manuals developed in dozens of languages, and there are numerous NGOs dedicated to promoting and implementing it.

The authors (Ernesto Ganuza, Instituto de Estudios Sociales Avanzados and Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Brown University) examine how PB has changed as it has been adopted throughout the world. They identify two distinct phases, with the dividing line in the late 1990s.

In the first phase, PB traveled throughout the rest of Brazil and some areas of Latin America as 'part of a set of comprehensive administrative reforms'. Arriving in the wake of the return to civilian rule in Brasil, PB was a centre-piece policy instrument for re-orienting the relationship between political society, civil society and the state itself. It was generally accompanied by fundamental reforms in bureaucratic organisation, training, procurement, transparency and many others.

In its home of Porte Allegro, the authors argue PB and its associated reforms 'improved the administrative machinery, improved the conditions of poor people, and established a new way of administering'. PB established a structured debate among citizens and government that was eventually transferred directly to state action.

In its second phase, PB has been disconnected from the reforms needed to achieve its full potential. At the UN Habitat Istanbul meeting in 1996, a simplified version of PB was recognised as a 'best practice'. It was largely seen as a means to improve administrative performance, rather than as a spur to genuine administrative reform.

The authors argue PB has showed itself to be an 'politically malleable' device that is now part of the 'loose toolkit of ideas for innovative good governance'. As such, it has migrated from its leftist roots to a politically neutral device that is often used by governments for limited purposes.

For example, throughout much of Europe PB is used to advise governments, not bind them to decisions. Many governments have promoted PB as an alternative connector between civil society and the state, but without driving any meaningful reforms.


Thumbnail image: participatif/Flickr. 

Ernesto Ganuza

CSIC (Spanish National Research Council)

Gianpaolo Baiocchi

New York University

Published Date
December 30, 2012