Should citizens be allowed to vote on public budgets?

Considered to be a successful example of empowered democratic governance, participatory budgeting has spread among many cities in Brazil.

Image: a youth occupation of Belo Horizonte to present and discuss different forms of occupation of urban space, by upsilon (Flickr CC BY-SA).

There is a general understanding that public decision-making could generate greater legitimacy for political decisions, greater trust in government action and a stronger sense of representation. One way of listening to citizens’ demands and improving their trust in politics is the creation of online communication channels whereby issues, problems, demands, and suggestions can be addressed. One example, participatory budgeting, is the process by which ordinary citizens are given the opportunity to make decisions regarding a municipal budget, by suggesting, discussing, and nominating projects that can be carried out within it. Considered to be a successful example of empowered democratic governance, participatory budgeting has spread among many cities in Brazil, and after being recommended by the World Bank and UN-Habitat, also implemented in various cities worldwide.

The Policy & Internet article “Do Citizens Trust Electronic Participatory Budgeting? Public Expression in Online Forums as an Evaluation Method in Belo Horizonte” by Samuel A. R. Barros and Rafael C. Sampaio examines the feelings, emotions, narratives, and perceptions of political effectiveness and political representation shared in these forums. They discuss how online messages and feelings expressed through these channels can be used to assess public policies, as well as examining some of the consequences of ignoring them.

Recognised as one of the most successful e-democracy experiences in Brazil, Belo Horizonte’s electronic participatory budgeting platform was created in 2006 to allow citizens to deliberate and vote in online forums provided by the city hall. The initiative involved around 174,000 participants in 2006 and 124,000 in 2008. However, only 25,000 participants took part in the 2011 edition, indicating significant loss of confidence in the process. It is a useful case to assess the reasons for success and failure of e-participation initiatives.

There is some consensus in the literature on participants’ need to feel that their contributions will be taken into consideration by those who promote initiatives and, ideally, that these contributions will have effects and practical consequences in the formulation of public policies. By offering an opportunity to participate, the municipality sought to improve perceptions of the quality of representation. Nonetheless, government failure to carry out the project chosen in 2008 and lack of confidence in the voting mechanism itself may have contributed to producing the opposite effect.

Moderators didn’t facilitate conversation or answer questions or demands. No indication was given as to whether these messages were being taken into consideration or even read, and the organisers never explained how or whether the messages would be used later on. In other words, the municipality took no responsibility for reading or evaluating the messages posted there. Thus, it seems to be an online forum that offers little or no citizen empowerment.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed.: You say that in 2008 62.5% of the messages expressed positive feelings, but in 2011, 59% expressed negative ones. Quite a drop! Is that all attributable to the deliberation not being run properly, i.e. to the danger of causing damage (i.e. fall in trust) by failing to deliver on promises?

Samuel & Rafael: That’s the million dollar question! The truth is: it’s hard to say. Nevertheless, our research does show some evidence of this. Most negative feelings were directly connected to this failure to deliver the previously approved work. As participatory budgeting processes are very connected to practical issues, this was probably the main reason of the drop we saw. We also indicate how the type of complaint changed significantly from one edition to another. For instance, in 2008 many people asked for small adjustments in each of the proposed works, while in 2011 they were complaining about the scope or even the relevance of the works.

Ed.: This particular example aside: is participatory budgeting generally successful? And does it tend to be genuinely participatory (and deliberative?), or more like: “do you want option A or B”?

Samuel & Rafael: That’s also a very good question. In Brazil’s case, most participatory budgeting exercises achieved good levels of participation and contributed to at least minor change in the bureaucratic routines of public servants and officials. Thus, they can be considered successful. Of course, there are many cases of failure as well, since participatory budgeting can be hard to do properly and as our article indicates, a single mistake can disrupt it for good.

Regarding the second question, we would say that it’s more about choosing what you want and what you can deliver as the public power. In actual fact, most participatory budgeting exercises are not as deliberative as everyone believes—they are more about bargaining and negotiation. Nevertheless, while the daily practice of participation may not be as deliberative as we may want it, it still achieves a lot of other benefits, such as keeping the community engaged and informed, letting people know more about how the budget works—and the negotiation itself may involve a certain amount of empathy and role-taking.

Ed.: Is there any evidence that crowdsourcing decisions of this sort leads to better ones? (or at least, more popular ones). Or was this mostly done just to “keep the people happy”?

Samuel & Rafael: We shouldn’t assume that every popular decision is necessarily better, or we’ll get trapped in the caveats. On the other hand, considering how our representative system was designed, how people feel powerless and how rulers are usually set apart from their constituents, we can easily support any real attempt to give the people a greater chance of stating their minds and even deciding on things. If the process is well designed, if the managers (i.e. public servants and officials) are truly open to these inputs and if the public is informed, we can hope for better decisions.

Ed.: Is there any conflict here between “what is popular” and “what is right”? i.e. how much should be opened up to mass voting (with the inevitable skews and take-over by vested interests).

Samuel & Rafael: This is the “dark side” of participation that we mentioned before. We should not automatically consider participation to be good in and of itself. It can be misinformed, biased, and lead to worse and not better decisions. Particularly, when people are not informed enough, when the topic was not discussed enough in the public sphere, we might end up with bad popular decisions. For instance, would Brexit have occurred with a different method of voting?

Let’s imagine several months of small scale discussions between citizens (i.e. minipublics) both face-to-face and in online deliberation spaces. Maybe these groups would reach the same decision, but at least all participants would feel more confident in their decisions, because they had enough information and were confronted with different points of view and arguments before voting. Thus, we believe that mass voting can be used for big decisions, but that there is a need for greater conversation and consensus before it.

Ed.: Is there any link between participatory budgeting and public scrutiny of public budgets (which can be tremendously corrupt, e.g. when it comes to building projects) — or does participatory budgeting tend to be viewed as something very different to oversight?

Samuel + Rafael: This is actually one of the benefits of participatory budgeting that is not correlated to participation alone. It makes corruption and bribery harder to do. As there are more people discussing and monitoring the budget, the process itself needs to be more transparent and accountable. There are some studies that find a correlation between participatory budgeting and tax payment. The problem is that participatory budgeting tends to concern only a small amount of the budget, thus this public control does not reach the whole process. Still, it proves how public participation may lead to a series of benefits both for the public agents and the public itself.

Read the full article: Barros, S.A.R. and Sampaio, R.C. (2016) Do Citizens Trust Electronic Participatory Budgeting? Public Expression in Online Forums as an Evaluation Method in Belo Horizonte. Policy & Internet 8 (3). doi:10.1002/poi3.125

Samuel A. R. Barros and Rafael C. Sampaio were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.