Participatory Budgeting and Possibilities for Deepening Democracy

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.

So in analysing and comparing PB processes it is necessary to adopt a critical perspective, especially in view of the political uses of PB in the context of ‘austerity’ cuts to government funds for public goods, services, and resources, which allow citizens the empowered possibilities of participation in distributing public money while simultaneously reducing public budgets overall. The anti-democratic uses of PB are extremely concerning given its promise to renew societies suffering from distrust in elected politicians, disengagement from the political process, and disassociation between ordinary citizens and the bubble of corporate politics.

Having researched a PB process in the UK which focused on the kind of democratic relationships that such an institutional design creates and the empowering possibilities that it contains, I recently attended an international conference on PB in Chicago that provided many insights into how PB has been used across North America and, indeed, in China, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Sweden, and how it has changed in Brazil, amongst other countries.

While the commitment of PB practitioners, researchers and local citizens was inspiring, energising and intellectually stimulating, a number of shared positives and negatives, and some differences are apparent in how PB has generally (but not always) been used in the UK and US experiences.

Firstly, in both the UK and the US, the increased transparency and accountability of public funds has been relatively positive in addressing a cynical perception on the part of some that certain discretionary public monies available to elected officials have been treated as a ‘piggy bank’ for favoured projects. This benefit is especially pertinent where dominant political rhetoric tends towards overstating public sector waste (while conveniently ignoring private sector rent-seeking and predatory capitalism).

Second, the shared liberal democratic complexion of the UK and the USA has meant that, rather than active social movements, local communities and grassroots political organisations being the leaders in developing PB as in Brazil, the projects have been implemented top-down by charismatic local political leaders that share a value commitment to more participation and are predisposed to include the wider public. This similarity also has negative implications as there is little countervailing power in civil society that can demand, maintain and call for deepening of PB (Fung & Wright, 2003, Wright, 2010).

Third, both countries have used relatively small discretionary funds for PB, although the UK has lagged behind somewhat in terms of the amounts of money being put up for public decision-making, and has also developed much less by way of the extent of the processes and the sustained nature of public involvement.

Where the UK is also falling behind is the institutional design of PB. The UK models have largely been participatory grants-making (Hall, 2010), where local groups apply for a chance to present a project, and local citizens vote on which ones should get the money. This demands a much more passive level of involvement in comparison to the US where, using the Chicago example, in the months leading up to the vote, citizens form a steering committee in order to deliberate on a range of proposed projects for the local area, establishing priorities and controlling the content of the decision-making.

The inclusion of a deliberative component not only gives citizens more collective control, but those elected on to the steering committee are relatively more empowered and able to shape the process, enhancing the participative and democratic nature of PB. However, the monies put up for PB are discretionary ward-level funds, and no input into core budgets or control over the amount of money allocated is present in Chicago’s PB suggesting a lack of deeper, structural transformation of local politics toward a more participatory model.

In addition, my PhD research into a UK PB has shown that other aspects of empowerment have potential to develop as unintended consequences of even a narrow PB process, including relationships of equal worth and respect, self-development of competencies and assertiveness, greater awareness of the local community and a deepening of social ties. Further research could explore if this is also happening in the US models.

But if PB is to develop any further in the UK, the adoption of a more deliberative and consciously empowering model is fundamental. However, this may also require a deeper structural and cultural transformation of British politics, broadly conceived. Firstly, the British political system is highly centralised with very little local government autonomy, whereas the US states and cities have significant powers. Secondly, while both the UK and US, as corporate-dominated liberal democracies, have largely cynical and disengaged publics, the US does retain a legacy of town-hall local democratic politics that the UK does not.

A final remark, and the most important, is if PB is to deliver on even the minimum of its vast potential, the political uses of PB in times of austerity politics require much attention and action. For example, some UK PB processes have introduced these schemes while simultaneously cutting the amounts of money available to, for example, voluntary and community groups. Other suggestions for PB in line with ‘big society’ retrenchment of the role of the state include allowing citizens to vote on which services to keep or cut, reflecting a hollow misuse of the principles behind PB.

A critical view would point to the pernicious and still pervasive influence of neo-liberal managerial politics (despite the fiscal and moral bankruptcy of its policy and ideology) which has a tendency to devolve responsibility and the social cost of decisions to individuals and communities, but not effective power. (Alternatively, and more likely in the case that I researched, is that this is part of skilful manoeuvring by local politicians between the demands and constraints of central state imposed cuts, and as a reaction to cynicism and growing disillusionment with local politics, which makes the job of local-level politicians incredibly challenging). The net effect of this strategic politicking of PB though could destroy the developing view of the process as transparent, clear, open and accountable.

The upshot of the conflicting and contradictory promise of PB in the UK and USA is that critical and effective development of the positives of PB requires engagement with its current shortfalls, and the development of associational local, regional, national, and international movements aimed at deepening participatory democracy in public institutions. This must especially go beyond the minor PB experiments thus far to limit and counter a neo-liberal attack on the public purse and democratic principles and practices in the fallout from the financial crisis. Perhaps our two countries, so complicit in the development of the neo-liberal world order (ironically emanating from Chicago’s School of Economics in the 1970s and 1980s), also contain the potential for its transcendence by reawakening the democratic impulse through socially beneficial innovations such as PB.

Fung, A. & Wright, E.O. (eds.) (2003) Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance, London: Verso.

Hall, J. (2010) ‘Participatory Budgeting: Adults and Young People Making Investments in their Communities’, Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal, 4(2), pp.135-146.

Lerner, J. (2011) ‘Participatory Budgeting: Building Community Agreement around Tough Budget Decisions’, National Civic Review, Summer 2011, pp.30-35.

Sintomer, Y., Herzberg, C. & Röcke, A. (2008) ‘Participatory Budgeting in Europe: Potentials and Challenges’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32(1), pp.164-178.

Wright, E.O. (2010) Envisioning Real Utopias, London: Verso.

By Steven Corbett.
You can find out more about Steve on our contributors page.

3 thoughts on “Participatory Budgeting and Possibilities for Deepening Democracy

  1. A great post stating clearly things that I have been wondering with my small research on PB in the UK. I am conducting this research as a part of my internship at the Finnish Institute in London and I find this post very useful since it partially coincides with my research (you can read a blog post about our PB research at our blog I would like to know at what point are you Steven with your PhD? Is there something you have already published on this theme?

    • Hello Laura, thanks for the comment, your research sounds interesting! Are you planning to use a few case studies or a broader overview of the range of PB processes in the UK? I’m currently writing up my thesis, and I’m aiming to submit an article on PB in the near future based on a case study, I can send you my slides from my presentation at the PB conference if they would be useful to you? My email is

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