Designing participatory budget processes

Participatory budgeting has gained much traction the last few years across borders and demographics (see US map from Intellitics). Consider, for instance, the recent announcement by Boston’s Mayor Thomas Menino to “set aside $1 million in the City’s budget for youth to allocate through “Participatory Budgeting,” in an effort to educate youth on how the budget works and allow them to decide how funds should be invested”. (for other examples see:

But what it is it? And how does it work? Several readings have tried to define and explain the value of participatory budgeting (PB) from a participatory democracy, fair budgeting or  trust perspective. A Brookings Institution book, published this week,  on Open Budgets makes some reference the phenomenon within the broader context of fiscal transparency and democracy.

Tim Bonnemann,  of Intellitics, has recently written a blog (What Is Participatory Budgeting?) providing an anthology of different definitions.  He explains that  “two ways have emerged how the term is being applied:

  • “Narrowly, referring only to processes that give participants decision making power, e.g. by way of voting on their preferred projects/investments;
  • Broadly, referring to any participatory processes that have to do with budgets, including budget consultations.”

A new publication (accepted manuscript) in the European Journal of Operational Research focuses “On deciding how to decide: Designing participatory budget processes”. Written by a team from several universities in Madrid (J. Gomez, D. Rios Insua, J.M. Lavin, and C. Alfaro), the paper indicates that in most cases of PB “both its design and implementation are carried out in an informal way”. The authors therefore propose a methodology to design a participatory budget process based on “a multicriteria decision making model”. Of particular interest is their analysis of the many variants of PB processes based on a sequence of common tasks (reflecting similar citizen engagement tasks) such as:

  1. Participant sampling. In many processes, participation of all citizens is impossible for logistical or physical reasons. Thus, a sample of citizens is chosen to represent the whole population. This sample could be purposive, random …, depending on the proposed issue or problem.
  2. Election of representatives. For the same reasons, the participants might alternatively elect representatives to take part in the PB process.
  3. Use of questionnaires. They aid in focusing on the main issues of interest, revealing what is of most interest to citizens.
  4. Preparation of documents. There are two types of documents: preliminary, which contain information about the problem, and final, which contain the results of the process. The documents are usually proposed by representatives and/or experts.
  5. Distribution of information. A key element in decision-making is providing the best possible information to participants. Similarly, participants should be able to share the information they might be able to gather.
  6. Problem structuring. A problem might not be clearly formulated and participants would spend time structuring it, dividing it into parts so as to better apprehend it. In PB processes, these include determining criteria for choosing between proposals and elaborating an initial list of alternatives, together with their associated costs, technical features and constraints.
  7. Preference modeling. Participants are sometimes required to express their preferences, usually through pairwise comparisons, goal setting or value functions. These preferences aid participants in finding their most preferred alternative and support them in negotiation.
  8. Debate. Whether regulated or spontaneous, the exchange of ideas is vital for citizen participation. Participants can express and discuss their opinions.
  9. Negotiation. When individuals disagree on their preferred alternative, they may try to deal with the conflict through negotiations, in which participants exchange offers, ideas and arguments so as to try to reach a consensus…
  10. Arbitration. Through debate and negotiation, we may find that the parties involved cannot be satisfed and refuse to budge from their positions. To avoid this, some mechanisms include the figure of an arbitrator who makes the final decision, once the opinions and reasoning of the different parties have been presented…
  11. Voting. Many times, it is used as a last resort, particularly if achieving consensus is not possible. Voting can be done with different rules, such as simple majority, approval voting, Borda count, etc. …”

The authors subsequently explain the various variations and their impact according to different priorities and objectives (such as, for instance, maximizing transparency).

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One Response to “Designing participatory budget processes”

  1. Tim Bonnemann May 16, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

    Thanks again for the mention, Stefaan. Just to give credit where credit is due: the map of PB activities/interest in the US is from PB Project.

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