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Participatory Budgeting: Does Evidence Match Enthusiasm?

Participatory budgeting (PB) empowers citizens to allocate portions of public budgets in a way that best fits the needs of the people. In turn, proponents expect PB to improve citizens’ lives in important ways, by expanding their participation in politics, providing better public services such as in healthcare, sanitation, or education, and giving them a sense of efficacy.

Below we outline several potential outcomes that emerge from PB. Of course, assessing PB’s potential impact is difficult, because reliable data is rare and PB is often one of several programs that could generate similar improvements at the same time. Impact evaluations for PB are thus at a very early stage. Nevertheless, considerable case study evidence and some broader, comparative studies point to outcomes in the following areas:  

Citizens’ attitudes: Early research focused on the attitudes of citizens who participate in PB, and found that PB participants feel empowered, support democracy, view the government as more effective, and better understand budget and government processes after participating (Wampler and Avritzer 2004; Baiocchi 2005; Wampler 2007).

Participants’ behavior: Case-study evidence shows that PB participants increase their political participation beyond PB and join civil society groups. Many scholars also expect PB to strengthen civil society by increasing its density (number of groups), expanding its range of activities, and brokering new partnerships with government and other CSOs. There is some case study evidence that this occurs (Baiocchi 2005; McNulty 2011; Baiocchi, Heller and Silva 2011; Van Cott 2008) as well as evidence from over 100 PB programs across Brazil’s larger municipalities (Touchton and Wampler 2014). Proponents also expect PB to educate government officials surrounding community needs, to increase their support for participatory processes, and to potentially expand participatory processes in complementary areas. Early reports from five counties in Kenya suggest that PB ther is producing at least some of these impacts.

Electoral politics and governance: PB can also promote social change, which may alter local political calculations and the ways that governments operate. PB may deliver votes to the elected officials that sponsor it, improve budget transparency and resource allocation, decrease waste and fraud, and generally improve accountability. However, there is very little evidence in this area because few studies have been able to measure these impacts in any direct way.  

Social well-being: Finally, PB is designed to improve residents’ well-being. Implemented PB projects include funding for healthcare centers, sewage lines, schools, wells, and other areas that contribute directly to well-being. These effects may take years to appear, but recent studies attribute improvements in infant mortality in Brazil to PB (Touchton and Wampler 2014; Gonçalves 2014). Beyond infant mortality, the range of potential impacts extends to other health areas, sanitation, education, and poverty in general. We are cautious here because results from Brazil might not appear elsewhere: what works in urban Brazil might not in rural Indonesia.


Supporting PB for Maximum Benefits

PB has its greatest, most beneficial impact when three factors exist: strong government support, available resources for project implementation, and an organized civil society.

First, not all government officials in PB-adopting cities are willing to experiment, innovate, or cede decision-making authority to PB participants. However, PB programs require government support: once underway, government officials must be willing to commit personnel and carry administrative costs to sustain PB processes. Thus, greater government support contributes to greater PB impact.

Second, there is a direct relationship between resources available for allocation through PB and its impact. Brazilian municipalities that allocate greater per capita resources through PB implement more projects and have a greater impact on infant mortality, on average, than programs that allocate relatively fewer resources through PB (Wampler and Touchton 2017 Working Paper). This relationship represents one of the greatest challenges for PB—government officials often oversell the program to excite followers and pursue adoption, but programs with relatively few resources only produce incremental changes. For example, in the southern Brazilian city of Blumenau, the government dedicated only marginal levels of resources to PB, which allowed citizens to support minor reforms to existing schools and health clinics. In contrast, Brazilian cities like Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre allocated, annually, tens of millions of US dollars to PB, thus allowing a wider range of projects to be implemented.

Third, a strong, organized civil society is critical to PB performance. PB works best when civil society organizations work with government officials to provide information, mobilize citizens to participate, work to ensure project implementation, and provide technical assistance throughout.

Research on PB’s impact is sparse; we don’t have a lot of evidence surrounding the range of possible impacts, how impacts change in different contexts, or how differences in program rules influence impacts. Case studies have generated the bulk of evidence surrounding PB’s impact, but analyses that incorporate large numbers of PB programs are rare because the data needed to perform these analyses has not been available. Furthermore, it appears that PB in Brazil, where local, quantitative data is more widely available than in other countries, is on the decline just as PB is increasing in popularity across the world. For example, the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, that pioneered PB in 1989, has finally eliminated its PB program after a decade of slow decline.

Importantly, we are uncertain if the positive outcomes produced under favorable conditions in urban Brazil are applicable to other locations, or perhaps even sustainable in Brazil. It is feasible, for example, that we will see greater changes in citizen empowerment than in the quality of governance in rural communities; there is also a compelling argument for the reverse. This really showcases the lack of knowledge in many areas surrounding PB. Collecting data on where programs are, how they are designed, what they do, and where they might have impact is a critical next step for understanding PB and promoting it.  The result will inform advocacy efforts and improve program performance– hopefully on the way to empowered citizens, better governance, and greater well-being around the world.  

Given the proliferation of PB programs, now is the time to build upon existing impact studies to develop sharper understandings of how PB can transform civil society, accountability, governance, transparency, and well-being.

Building a knowledge base may take different forms. One strategy is to provide support to create an integrated community of researchers and practitioners to share research, practical tips, rule design, and impact evaluation. A second strategy could involve building an international set of standards that might allow existing and interested practitioners to better grapple with the trade-offs associated with different program sub-types. This knowledge would provide government officials and civil society leaders with a much better understanding of the range of possible outcomes that these programs may generate.

Building a knowledge community should also help to set future research directions. For example, we have many excellent single case or small comparative studies. Where are the frontiers of research? One direction is cross-regional, cross-national studies. A second direction is to make better use of existing data to use quantitative analysis to assess impact. A third direction is to make better use of randomized control trials to assess the relative weight of different rule sets or deliberative forums. A fourth direction is to more closely examine the introduction of PB programs into new areas, such as for mining revenues or in rural villages.

To finalize, the rapid expansion of PB currently offers incredible opportunities for government officials, civil society activists, practitioners, and researchers to build on what we already know about PB to improve the quality of both existing and future PB programs. PB is being adapted to address different political and social needs as it travels around the world. As our previous posts outlined, key transformations include a change in scale (national-led, and district-based), the role of decision-making (toward consensus-based decision-making processes), the absence of social justice rules as well as the entry of new actors (international donors and agencies). The adoption of PB and its transformations create opportunities to extend new forms of governance across the globe. These new forms show great promise for empowering citizens, promoting accountability, improving services, and fostering well-being. Creating networks of practitioners, building learning communities, and advancing knowledge surrounding what works in PB, for whom, and why, is essential to realize that promise.      

Open Government Partnership