Participatory Budgeting: Step to Building Active Citizenship or a Distraction from Democratic Backsliding?

David Sasaki: “Is there any there there? That’s what we wanted to uncover beneath the hype and skepticism surrounding participatory budgeting, an innovation in democracy that began in Brazil in 1989 and has quickly spread to nearly every corner of the world like a viral hashtag….We ended up selecting two groups of consultants for two phases of work. The first phase was led by three academic researchers — Brian WamplerMike Touchton and Stephanie McNulty — to synthesize what we know broadly about PB’s impact and where there are gaps in the evidence. mySociety led the second phase, which originally intended to identify the opportunities and challenges faced by civil society organizations and public officials that implement participatory budgeting. However, a number of unforeseen circumstances, including contested elections in Kenya and a major earthquake in Mexico, shifted mySociety’s focus to take a global, field-wide perspective.

In the end, we were left with two reports that were similar in scope and differed in perspective. Together they make for compelling reading. And while they come from different perspectives, they settle on similar recommendations. I’ll focus on just three: 1) the need for better research, 2) the lack of global coordination, and 3) the emerging opportunity to link natural resource governance with participatory budgeting….

As we consider some preliminary opportunities to advance participatory budgeting, we are clear-eyed about the risks and challenges. In the face of democratic backsliding and the concern that liberal democracy may not survive the 21st century, are these efforts to deepen local democracy merely a distraction from a larger threat, or is this a way to build active citizenship? Also, implementing PB is expensive — both in terms of money and time; is it worth the investment? Is PB just the latest checkbox for governments that want a reputation for supporting citizen participation without investing in the values and process it entails? Just like the proliferation of fake “consultation meetings,” fake PB could merely exacerbate our disappointment with democracy. What should we make of the rise of participatory budgeting in quasi-authoritarian contexts like China and Russia? Is PB a tool for undemocratic central governments to keep local governments in check while giving citizens a simulacrum of democratic participation? Crucially, without intentional efforts to be inclusive like we’ve seen in Boston, PB could merely direct public resources to those neighborhoods with the most outspoken and powerful residents.

On the other hand, we don’t want to dismiss the significant opportunities that come with PB’s rapid global expansion. For example, what happens when social movements lose their momentum between election cycles? Participatory budgeting could create a civic space for social movements to pursue concrete outcomes while engaging with neighbors and public officials. (In China, it has even helped address the urban-rural divide on perspectives toward development policy.) Meanwhile, social media have exacerbated our human tendency to complain, but participatory budgeting requires us to shift our perspective from complaints to engaging with others on solutions. It could even serve as a gateway to deeper forms of democratic participation and increased trust between governments, civil society organizations, and citizens. Perhaps participatory budgeting is the first step we need to rebuild our civic infrastructure and make space for more diverse voices to steer our complex public institutions.

Until we have more research and evidence, however, these possibilities remain speculative….(More)”.