Participatory Budgeting

  • Luca BartocciEmail author
Living reference work entry


A set of structured methods to involve citizens in the process of allocating the public budget. Some scholars proposed the following defining criteria to identify a sensu stricto participatory budgeting: (i) the financial and/or budgetary dimension must be discussed; (ii) the city level or a district with an elected body has to be involved; (iii) it has to be a repeated process; (iv) it must include some forms of public deliberation within the framework of specific meetings and/or forums; (v) some accountability on the output is required; and (vi) the possible and desirable participation of lay citizens.

Introduction: Citizen Involvement as a Key Factor in Government Renewal

In the increasing attention paid to PS renewal, special significance is attributed to the involvement of citizens in government. Many approaches consider CP as a distinguishing feature of new cultural paradigms, such as PG, through which the evolution of the PA can be interpreted (Bingham et al. 2005). CP can be broadly defined as an effective and informed opportunity for citizens to influence the choices and behavior of the PA. From this standpoint, the problem of the “intensity” and quality of participation depends on the role – and therefore the possibility of influence – that the individual citizen is able to play in the public decision-making process (Arnstein 1969).

CP is an issue that touches upon many disciplines and is a concept that can have diverse practical implications. The interpretation of participatory practices necessitates a particular focus on their goals and outcomes, which can be attributed to three different realms of meaning and application of CP.

A first key to understanding is political in nature, by which participation is seen as a value and an instrument in renewing systems of government. At the basis of this understanding of the concept, and the promotion of the theme, is the crisis in the traditional model of representative democracy typical of Western countries. In this sense, participation can be interpreted as an instrument capable of predisposing citizens to the idea of collectivity and sociality, in the aftermath of dissatisfaction with the democratic regime. Therefore, the traditional representative form has been gradually opposed to the participatory and deliberative – in its further extension – form. The underlying idea is that systems of government based on the pursuit of new collective decision-making methods are able to return to the authentic meaning of democracy.

A second perspective is of a more strictly social nature. CP can be interpreted as an instrument that brings people closer to the idea of community and sociability and combats feelings of dissatisfaction and alienation. Thereby, inclusion in decision-making processes can be considered a useful instrument in reconstructing a sense of community. More precisely, this practice has the potential to raise the extent to which values identify a community and the degree of convergence of the behavior of individual members. Consequently, CP can be seen as a foundation for rebuilding social capital, strengthening democratic governance, and facilitating sustainable community outcomes. In this light, the theme also involves that of the legitimization of power; indeed, measures that improve social cohesion and trust have an impact in terms of a community’s acceptance of identification with the political institutions that represent it (Wampler 2012).

Another area of participatory significance is of a more administrative nature. This regards a technique capable of renewing and improving administrative performance in the PS, overcoming the limitations of the traditional conception of government, and also allowing for a correction of distortion produced by the managerialist wave of recent decades. The well-known cultural movement often called NPM began to take shape in the 1980s, promoting an international agenda for reform. More recently, another conceptual framework, generally known as PG, has come into vogue and is often seen to have overtaken NPM (Kooiman 1993). The limits of NPM include the fragmentation of the sector and the intensification of competition that result in detrimental effects for the “public ethos” (Brereton and Temple 1999). There are risks of aggravating the conflict between individual interests and the public interest with the consequence of eroding traditional social values (in particular legitimacy, representativeness, and equity) that should characterize government action.

In the attempt to overcome this, the PG approach tends to return to the bidirectionality of the relationship between PA and citizen, who is treated not as a mere customer, but as a partner (OECD 2001). This model is based on a logic of collaboration, by which the assistance of a number of parties satisfies public needs (Vigoda 2002). In this sense, CP is seen as a fundamental aspect of the shift from the “old public administration” to the “new public governance” (Osborne 2010). There are also other specific terms to express this concept such as collaborative governance, shared governance, and community governance.

The Emergence and Spread of PB Around the World

In this frame a large number of different participatory tools have arisen with the aim of involving citizens in decision-making processes and public service provision. Among these practices PB deserves a special mention for its inclusive potentialities given the centrality of budgeting in public resource allocation. As Khan (1997: 93) said: “the budget would present to the citizens their government in miniature.”

To understand PB one must first consider that it is not an instrument that was planned at the drawing board, but was developed through experience, and has emerged with a great degree of diversity. It is, as a result, difficult to provide a generally accepted theoretical definition. PB can be generally described as a set of structured methods with which to involve citizens in the process of allocating the public budget. Even today, despite having spread across the continents, with a variety of experiences that can be considered mature, it remains difficult to define the identifying features of an ideal form of PB.

Sintomer, who promoted and coordinated a relevant research project in order to map European praxis, suggested the following five criteria to identify PB (Sintomer et al. 2008):
  1. 1.

    The financial and/or budgetary dimension must be discussed.

  2. 2.

    The city level or a district with an elected body has to be involved (the neighborhood level is not enough).

  3. 3.

    It has to be a repeated process.

  4. 4.

    The process must include some forms of public deliberation within the framework of specific meetings/forums.

  5. 5.

    Some accountability on the output is required.


Later, other scholars (Bassoli 2012) proposed the effective possibility and desirability for lay citizens to participate as a sixth defining element.

Even the origins of PB are difficult to trace. On first estimate, three incubation areas can be identified, in which the first practical applications were established, which went on to become a source of inspiration for other experiences that followed.

New Zealand can be considered the home of one of the earliest PB experiences, and the example of Christchurch is of particular interest. This was one of the first towns to structure a method of citizen involvement during the drawing up of the annual budget and multiannual investment plan, with particular attention being paid to themes of transparency and reporting. For these reasons it was awarded the “Carl Bertelsmann Prize for Democracy and Efficiency in Local Government” in 1993. In the Oceanic approach, participatory mechanisms were introduced specifically to improve PA performance and, it has been said, to correct the distortive effects of NPM, with particular attention paid to the crisis of trust, the result of an emphasis on managerial accountability at the expense of political accountability.

A second area of great interest is the experience that developed in South America. The most relevant case was implemented in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The Porto Alegre PB dates back to 1988 and was included among the UN good practices in 1996. Its fame has spread considerably, on a global scale, mainly thanks to the 2001 Social Forum, which attracted the attention of many experts, and is still considered a model of reference today. In brief, it can be said that, in comparison with the approach developed in the Western world, this approach to PB is characterized by a strong political and social motivation, as well as the use of participation mechanisms based on assemblies in order to reach a good quality of deliberation, and also by the binding nature of the participated decision for the governing bodies.

Finally, it is worth mentioning North America, where PB developed in the 1990s, thanks in part to the encouragement of institutions such as the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). Generally speaking, it can be acknowledged that, in the first wave of North American cases, the aspiration to interact with citizens was determined, above all, by the need to recover the legitimacy of political action and reconstruct social cohesion (Franklin et al. 2009). It should be noted that the last few years have seen the introduction of new experiments in North America, mostly inspired by the Porto Alegre model. This second PB wave has also involved important cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

The process reached Europe in the 1990s, drawing inspiration from cases that had developed in other contexts. Only a handful of applications of PB were observed before 2000, while the last 15 years has seen PB become much more widespread across the Old Continent. According to the abovementioned survey promoted by Sintomer, 55 European experiences were registered in 2005 – but that number would increase rapidly – and the analysis of such cases showed how heterogeneous those practices were (Sintomer et al. 2005). These differences are mainly referred to the conception of CP that underlies the structuring of rounds of PB, the size of the institutions involved, their financial capacity, and the technical characteristics of the participatory process.

The multiplicity of this phenomenon does not only regard Europe, as evidenced by a subsequent survey undertaken on a global scale by the same research group. That survey (Sintomer et al. 2010: 10) included a census of cases active in 2010, which showed a total number of between 795 and 1,469 applications, with the greatest concentration in Latin America (between 511 and 920), followed by Europe (171–296) and Africa (66–110), continents where PB has developed more recently. It should be noted that, in addition to the technical challenges associated with carrying out a full census across the globe, the study was based on Sintomer’s definition of PB, as outlined above; this involves strict identification criteria, the rigidity of which threatens to exclude cases which are nevertheless significant. The issue is, furthermore, very current, and the praxis indicates the continuous emergence of new applications.

An Overview of PB: Main Features

In order to shed light on the main features of PB, despite the fact that there is no single model of reference, major themes can be identified that constitute a variety of profiles that are potentially characteristic of the individual experiences. The following is a concise overview.

Form of PA Involved

As noted above, the first experiences of PB were promoted at the municipal level, and, even today, most of the cases analyzed in the literature involve local government. Applications are also not uncommon at the sub-municipal (district or neighborhood) level, and there are also experiences at the provincial and regional levels. Implementation at the national level appears more difficult to achieve and therefore less likely.

In general it is believed that CP is more accessible and easier to manage when it involves small communities that are united by a strong sense of identity. Also for this reason, the preferred institutional profile is at the municipal level, above all in cities of smaller dimensions. That said, applications of PB have also been promoted in many large cities, as demonstrated by the iconic case of Porto Alegre.

Evidently the bigger the community of reference, the more detailed and complex the structuring of the participatory process needs to be; typically, in these cases, paths are chosen that involve territorial subdivisions or which take advantage of the possibilities offered by the development of technology.


In most cases studied to date, the path that leads to the adoption of PB is of the top-down variety. These are situations that involve a formal initiative on behalf of government bodies (the mayor, regional council, or one or more aldermen), with the possible sponsorship of another political entity (the council or a superordinate institutional body). The stimulus that can be provided by specific state or regional regulatory measures, or international institutions, should also be considered. There are, for example, PB projects promoted and financed by the World Bank and the European Union.

Another hypothesis is that of a genesis of a technical nature, due to the proactive role played by certain managers. It is worth noting that also in these cases, it is possible to hypothesize “patronage” of a political nature.

Less common, but no less notable, is the possibility of a bottom-up driving force, as a result of pressure from the citizenship. In such cases experiences in South America, Africa, and Asia document the importance of the action that can be performed by intermediate bodies (in particular by NGOs, but also citizen movements and associations).

The diverse origins of PB can also provide indications about the primary values (political, technical administrative, or social) that are pursued through its adoption.

Types of Citizen Invited to Participate

The most prevalent concept of PB is open to all members of the community (generally voters), as individual citizens without qualified interests (known as lay citizens). However, it is also possible to consider inclusive processes aimed at specific categories of stakeholder, or the involvement of specially selected panels of citizens, or interaction with organized interest groups.

The theme of those to whom PB is addressed also calls into question the issue of the quantity and quality of CP, which will be discussed later.

Participatory Structure

The heart of the PB cycle is represented by the mechanisms through which the co-decision is reached. There exist a vast range of possible instruments, and this praxis also signals the possibility that they can be combined together: referenda, assemblies, forums, focus groups, committees, technical committees, e-voting, etc.

Even given the vast influence of the Porto Alegre model (an experience that has however been modified over time), a central role is often played by assemblies. These meetings can be held to perform a variety of functions: to inform citizens, to summon and compare opinions in the context of a debate, to develop proposals, and to choose between options. Assemblies are often held at the sub-municipal territorial level, but thematic meetings according to subject categories are also possible. The assembly can involve one or more cycles. The classic structure is divided into two cycles: the first of a more informative nature, dealing with the emergence of needs, and the second with a focus on decision-making.

The procedures for conducting assemblies are a particular sensitive issue; they can be coordinated by political or technical figures at an institution, by citizens nominated to the role, or by external experts with a consultative role.

On occasion an assembly may appoint representatives who, on the basis of a defined mandate, participate in technical bodies responsible for enforcing the wishes of the assembly.

Themes of Co-decision

PB was created to enable citizens to express their opinions on concrete and precise choices, such as the planning of public works, to choose between alternative services to be delivered. However, the recent tendency toward broader issues and policy-making in deciding the annual budget is worth noting.

The experience witnessed in Brazil offers indications to that effect. On this topic Wampler (2000) distinguishes between two important eras of PB. In the initial phase, PB involved punctually defined themes. In particular, the first cases were characterized by their focus on needs and possible responses in the field of urban planning and public works in general. Subsequently, the focus has expanded to interventions concerning social services and health care, culture, sport, and the environment. In the second era, municipalities have opened up to experiments in which participation has mainly focused on social issues of broader scope, involving the definition of public policies. In this way orders of priority between different spending policies can be established.

Less common, but also of great interest, is the practice of widening the discussion to include the theme of taxation. Associating the co-decision on expenditure with the theme of how to cover these expenses can further empower citizens, as well as foster more effective solutions in the field of fiscal policy.

Existence of a Preset Budget

It has already been noted that the prior clarification of resources intended for the realization of the co-decision is, at least for Sintomer, an essential requirement of PB. Indeed, without a clear connection with a specific part of the annual budget, PB risks resulting as a practice of consultation for the purpose of financial or investment planning.

When this requirement is complied with, the resources available for the co-decision may relate in part or in total to certain expenditure items of the budget (typically capital expenditures) or may consist of a fixed percentage of the total or some entries.

Recently public forms of fund-raising have also emerged, funded by the granting of tax concessions, to supplement the budget of resources made available by the authority.

Level of Process Formalization

The institutionalization of PB by the PA that adopts it can be encouraged by a variety of formal interventions: statutory integration, the development of appropriate guidelines approved by government bodies, the creation of new administrative regulations or changes to preexisting guidelines, etc.

The formalization of PB can be viewed as a sign of the will of the institution to stabilize its use and encourage its internalization in the organization. On the other hand, there is a risk of rigidly formalizing a practice that often arises in a spontaneous manner and which requires continuous technical and organizational adjustments in order to remain flexible and creative. For these reasons, in the early stages, it is often preferable to maintain an organizational context that is not too restrictive, as the rules of the game must be clear and simple, in order to win the trust of the citizenship. At a later stage, it may become opportune to proceed with an appropriate formalization of the PB cycle.

Process Reporting

The final stage of the PB cycle is normally represented by the reporting of the process, which guarantees a form of accountability for the community. The most frequent methods involve the publication of information through the corporate website of the authority, the local press, the distribution of brochures and other printed materials, and the organization of dedicated public hearings. On occasion the first assembly of the following cycle is used to discuss the results of the previous cycle. It can be observed that the information given often only regards the performance of the process that led to the co-decision while omitting information on issues regarding the implementation of the co-decided initiatives and their impact.

Critical Issues

The above discussion, besides highlighting a plurality of options regarding the implementation of PB and the possible configuration of diverse modes of application, also allows for an understanding of some critical issues concerning this type of instrument. Above all, there are some issues of a general nature relating to all forms of inclusive practice. Reference is made, in particular, to the fact that CP:
  • Is a concept of participation that, at least according to some (Sandercock 2005), is elusive by nature, as it is difficult to define and, above all, difficult to measure in its applications and effects.

  • Lends itself easily to rhetorical use, which could be manipulated for other purposes, and, in any case, facilitates formal and ceremonial practices.

  • Often involves costs and delays for the parties involved.

  • Can have a negative influence on the accountability of the PA, altering the traditional vertical principal-agent relationship, creating potential conflict between participating citizens and those who are excluded (even if by their own choice).

  • The type of relationship involved, which may involve substitution or complementarity, is not always clear. It may encompass the operation of traditional mechanisms of representation, founded on mediation between political parties, and the adoption of participatory mechanisms, in particular direct participation (such as PB).

There are also a number of critical issues that are specific to PB. Many studies have highlighted a pronounced instability in its application: often the use of PB does not last for more than a few years and, in other cases, undergoes continuous applicative modifications. Lopes Alves and Allegretti (2012) discuss the fragility and volatility of the phenomenon.

At times there is the issue of the overidentification of PB with the figure or political coalition that has promoted its use. This may create a dangerous connection between the political fortunes of the promoter and the fate of PB.

Another critical issue concerns the quantitative and qualitative profile of participation. Citizens are not always keen to be involved in PB. In many cases, the participation rate is well below the 5 % threshold. Participation also entails a cost for the citizen, in terms of the dedication of time and energy, and does not provide for any form of remuneration; the potential benefits associated with participation are not immediate. It is also true that an accurate assessment of the quantitative levels of participation should take into account the effect of the proxies that citizens might implicitly assign, including family members, friends, and others in the same interest group.

From a qualitative standpoint, the possible influence of lobbies should be noted, as they are capable of conditioning the process of the formation of the co-decision in a negative manner. Often the citizens most eager to participate are those with an acute perception of their own needs. Thus the co-decision risks being the result of a process strongly influenced by those members most able to organize themselves in order to satisfy their own needs, casting doubt on the degree of universality.

These issues highlight the importance of some of preconditions necessary for the success of PB. It is necessary to verify and facilitate the existence of a variety of requirements of a sociocultural, organizational, and financial nature.

With regard to the first typology, which refers to the characteristics of the community of reference, PB requires a sensitive and receptive environment. In this sense the presence of social networks rooted in the area (political movements, voluntary associations, NGOs, etc.) can be crucial. A significant role can also be played by the use of other existing practices and instruments of an inclusive nature. In general it is considered important to promote training initiatives that can educate the public to the potential and advantages of PB.

With reference to the second order of prerequisites, it is necessary for the institutional system and the organizational structure of the institution that promote PB to enable an adequate “internalization.” It is not uncommon to encounter internal resistance, often of a cultural nature: operators (public officials) have to be adequately prepared, in order to avoid formalistic and demagogic use of BP and the risk of conflict between the various parties involved in the management of the process.

Finally, there is the financial aspect to consider. Activating a cycle of PB can result in significant costs. Certain situations may benefit from financial incentives granted by higher-level or international institutions (such as the World Bank in some developing countries), but such conditions have a limited duration.

A sensitive issue, which particularly affects the quality of the co-decision, concerns the structuring of the process. In this regard it should be noted that the supporters of what is known as deliberative democracy do not look favorably on the spread of the instruments of e-democracy, as they prefer the assembly approach. From their point of view, a decision is not the result of the simple aggregation of the individual preferences expressed, but rather arises from dialectical processes that make it possible to reach a shared and responsible “collective will.”

Furthermore, in some experiences this expression of the popular will has not been attributed a binding value by government bodies, as PB is treated as a praxis of informed debate and consultation, rather than a genuine co-decision.


The need for the renewal of the PA and the spread of the paradigm of PG are contributing to a return of the theme of civic participation, which had been popular in the past. PB is considered to be one of the instruments with the greatest inclusive potential and, as a result, has seen a significant global dissemination.

Theoretical studies and empirical observations conducted to date indicate that there is a set of practices that present a greater degree of differentiation, although the widespread influence of the Porto Alegre model, at least in its original form, is to be recognized. The diversity between the experiences is a result of the choices made in the implementation of PB, decisions that concern certain aspects in particular: the identification of the recipients, attention to the external and internal preconditions necessary for the operation of participatory mechanisms, how these mechanisms are structured, the choice of themes, the clarification of a preset budget allocated for the co-decision, the degree to which the parties are willing to accept the co-decision as binding, the level of formalization of the process, and the reporting process.

The praxis has faced some critical issues, and the future of PB depends on the approach that will be taken to deal with them. Perhaps the element of greatest significance is the instability of the cases implemented, in terms of both fragility (a tendency for the experience not to be repeated) and volatility (sensitivity to change). Even the experience of Porto Alegre has undergone important change and today appears to have less support, prompting advocates of deliberative democracy to wonder if “a time of closure” has arrived (Melgar 2014: 121).

Therefore, the questions about the future of PB and the true significance of its diffusion remain pressing: is it an instrument that can truly influence the government conception of “public affairs,” or is it just a passing fad? Are these initiatives aimed at reshaping the way democratic systems operate, or are they only promoted to acquire or legitimize political consensus in the short term or to accommodate the short-lived requests of pressure groups?

To attempt to answer these questions, it is necessary to examine and interpret the changes currently underway, in order to fully understand their significance. In doing so, particular attention should be paid to the relationship between the objectives for which PB is promoted, the manner in which PB is implemented, and the internal and external environment of reference (as a model that performs well in one context can be a failure in another). In the same way, other fields that require further attention are the perception of citizens (as there are still a limited number of studies on the subject) and the assessment of the impact produced, in both the short and medium term.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of PerugiaPerugiaItaly