For the uninitiated participatory budgeting (or PB) is a two-and-a-half decade old innovation of direct citizen involvement in decision-making over the allocation of public finances. In simple terms, PB refers to ordinary citizens, instead of public officials, deciding on public spending at local and regional levels (Lerner, 2011). But there are many different variations of PB which range from merely consultative to genuinely participatory, empowering and inclusive (see Sintomer et al., 2008 for descriptions of various models). PB can also be more or less democratic, and not all PB processes contain a democratic component (which suggests that attention to the content and practice of what is often called ‘PB’ is paramount).
PB began in the reawakened democracy of late 1980s Brazil following military dictatorship and has since spread across the globe, under the influence of both radical activists and the World Bank. Usually implemented at the municipal or local authority level, in Brazil PB grew to allow citizens to influence up to one fifth of the core municipal budgets in some cities, with redistributive, empowering and social justice aims. This has been a shining light in progressive politics, celebrated in the World Social Forum, and an example of radical participatory democracy having a positive social and economic impact on a vastly unequal society in which democracy was eradicated and the living conditions of the poorest were worsened by the junta. Elsewhere, aside from democratic processes in Kerala, India for example, PB has rarely matched these heights of participatory democracy, and in the UK experience, the process has often seemed tokenistic, concerned with minor discretionary funds in a narrow voting process. Continue reading