Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

When Local Participatory Budgeting Turns into a Participatory System. Challenges of Expanding a Local Democratic Experience

Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

When Local Participatory Budgeting Turns into a Participatory System. Challenges of Expanding a Local Democratic Experience

Article excerpt


25 years ago participatory budgeting was implemented in Porto Alegre (Brazil). The idea was to mobilise the citizens to discuss and indicate by themselves the main priorities for investing a parcel of the scarce public resources. Starting as an informal experience encouraging people to present local demands in the public sphere, it proved to have unforeseen consequences like questioning the traditional model of representative local democracy, widening the circle of people interested in political affairs, allowing the residents to question bureaucratic structures and to exercise a bit more control over their rulers (Sobottka, 2004; Guimaräes, 2004).

The origins of the participatory impulses in the region reach back to the 1960's when local communities started to search for alternatives for development based on their own resources. In the 1980's, after the military dictatorship, there were in South Brazil some experiences which took up the idea of popular involvement in municipal planning. There was also a strong democratising impetus in social movements which had a quite significant impact on the Federal Constitution approved in 1988, opening space for citizen participation in a variety of forms and in all governmental spheres (Avritzer, 2008).

In the last three years this experience is being expanded to the regional level as a participatory system, embracing geographical expansion and more issues. In the article we discuss some more evident challenges of such an expansion, like longer distance, different levels of being affected, more bureaucratic mediations, the "inevitability" of some level of "representation", the different regional cultures of participation, as well as persistent reasons for citizens and members of political parties to continue participating, and for governors to invest in such a participatory process.

This effort represents the continuation, on regional (state) scale, of a series of experiments carried out since 1999. It started with the classical model of participatory budgeting as implemented in Porto Alegre, based on local, municipal and regional plenary session with broad popular participation and debates. Later it turned into a consultation process about priorities through ballots which could be cast in boxes located in public spaces such as schools and shopping centres, or through internet. Currently, participatory budgeting is part of a rather complex system of participation, which includes a digital office and a permanent council for development whose members represent various segments of civil society and government.

In our research process the tension between two different meanings of participation among the different actors has attracted attention: for some, participation is a democratic principle: public issues have to be discussed and decided by the affected citizens in the public sphere; for others participation seems to be a strategy to mobilise support, legitimise positions and to present performances. Although there may not be a clear dividing line between these two poles of the tension, the appreciation of the outcome of participation may be very different in both cases. As a principle, participation correlates with radical conceptions of democracy, where sovereign citizens define the rules of their shared living and charge their government with specific tasks; as a strategy, participation is a resource, such as elections, which is used by citizens to legitimise their claims, and by governments to ensure the legitimacy of their domination. In other words, participation can offer a political opportunity to ensure the conquest of citizenship rights by legal means and for deepening democracy, but it can also be used as an empty formula seeking power in adverse conditions while the decisions that really matter are taken elsewhere (Sobottka, 2004; Sobottka et al., 2005).

As a principle, participation may be a creative force for permanently inspiring different procedures for dealing with public administration. …

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