The history and definition of participatory budgeting

The history and definition of participatory budgeting

Guest article |  General |  Dr. Carsten Herzberg |  30.04.2013
The history and definition of participatory budgeting

Participatory budgeting (PB) has been the most successful instrument of participation of the last 15 years. Having originated in Brazil and New Zealand, in recent years this form of citizen participation has spread in several countries of Europe simultaneously. Between 2001 and 2005, the number of cases rose from six to more than 50. These include entire cities, such as Seville in Andalusia, which has a population of over 700,000, as well as individual districts of the European capitals London, Paris, Rome and Berlin, and smaller cities and towns such as Hilden and Emsdetten in Germany. PB is also found in smaller municipalities such as Grottammare and Altidona in Italy. But what actually is PB, and how can a process of this kind best be defined? Why do we need a definition at all?

The first answer is a practical one: a definition enables actors who would like to share ideas about PB to talk about the same thing, and not mix PB up with other forms of participation. From a research perspective, as well as for practical reasons, a definition also simplifies comparisons. PB processes from large or small municipalities, or local authorities with similar contexts, can be compared with each other in order to generate practical recommendations.

The most important argument in favour of a definition, though, is the specificity of participatory budgeting. PB represents a new quality of participation, which is achieved particularly through accountability and through dealing with citizens’ proposals. Having said that, we need to supplement this criterion with others before we can speak of a PB process.

So far there has been no clear definition of what constitutes participatory budgeting. Some actors even refer to information brochures as PB, while others use the term exclusively for the Porto Alegre process, which involves participation in the investment budget. There are also participatory processes that are known by another name, yet are essentially PB processes. Given this situation, I would like to propose a definition that on the one hand is simple enough for practical application, but on the other hand offers sufficient scope for different types of PB process. Here I will drawn on the definition we prepared together with our cooperation partners in the ‘Participatory budgets in Europe’ project, and which practitioners and researchers in various countries are already using in their work.

To qualify as PB, a process must meet the following five criteria:

  1. Participation revolves around financial matters; the issue at stake is limited resources.
  2. Participation takes place at the level of the city as a whole, or at the level of a district that has its own political and administrative competences. A neighbourhood fund alone that does not involve participation at the level of the city as a whole or a district, is not a participatory budget.
  3. The procedure is designed as a permanent one that will be repeated. A one-off referendum on budgetary or fiscal policy issues is not a participatory budget.
  4. The procedure is based on a dedicated deliberation process conducted either online or at public meetings or gatherings. A written survey alone is therefore not a participatory budget. Nor is mere disclosure by existing administrative bodies or institutions of representative democracy.
  5. The organisers must remain accountable for the decisions taken on whether or not to respond to and implement the proposals put forward as part of the procedure.

This is not to say that forms of participation which do not meet these criteria are less interesting. On the contrary, quite a bit can be achieved with a generous neighbourhood fund or a referendum on how to spend taxes, as in Milton Keynes in the UK. Equally, an information brochure or a survey may be appropriate where there is a need to answer specific questions. However, for reasons of comparability and to designate a new level of participation as outlined above, the term ‘participatory budgeting’ should only be used when the five criteria described are met.


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