For anyone concerned with economic and political inequality, the rise and impacts of participatory budgeting (PB) are certainly intriguing.

First developed in Brazil in 1989, PB had been implemented in over 3,000 cities worldwide by 2013. It is a public engagement process, typically conducted annually, that has been particularly effective for engaging low-income people.

The evidence from Brazil suggests PB has helped alleviate poverty, expand access to public services, reduce corruption, raise tax compliance, increase the number of civil society organizations and improve the social well-being of a wide range of citizens. In short, slowly but surely, participatory budgeting seems to have reduced both political and economic inequalities in Brazilian cities.

Can these outcomes be replicated in the United States and Canada?

To gauge the potential and maximize the impacts of PB in the U.S. and Canada, we should explore the factors that may be propelling its success in Brazil and examine the differences in implementation between the two places. From this analysis, we can better understand whether and how PB supports the economic argument for engagement—that is, the idea that giving people more say in the decisions that affect their lives can benefit them economically as well as politically.

This report delves into these questions and examines the potential of PB to address economic and political inequalities in the U.S. and Canada by:

  • Describing how PB is organized in Brazil
  • Summarizing the inequality debate
  • Reviewing the evidence from Brazil
  • Discussing three factors contributing to the impacts of PB on inequality
  • Exploring six key differences between Brazilian and U.S. and Canadian PB
  • Offering recommendations to public officials and practitioners for improving their PB processes

To maximize the potential for similar impacts in the U.S. and Canada, elected officials and practitioners should consider expanding the scope of their processes, supporting the more intensive aspects of PB, capitalizing on tools that help people measure inequality and incorporating PB in broader, more systemic reforms of local democracy.

The report is a companion to “Power to the People! (And Settings for Using It Wisely?), ” which focuses on the extent to which PB can encourage thoughtful and informed (“deliberative”) participation by residents. Both reports draw on the data gathered by local PB researchers and by Public Agenda, on local evaluations of PB processes and on interviews with public officials conducted by Public Agenda.

Click here to download the full report. If you’re interested in exploring how your PB process can contribute to reducing inequality, here are some recommendations from the report:

1. Look for opportunities to expand the scope of PB.

PB processes could be expanded to encompass all city council districts and/or to include specific thematic areas within the city budget as a whole. Rather than being limited to capital infrastructure improvements, PB would be applied to a broader array of the things people care about and more factors (policing, education, social services) that affect inequality. Many practitioners and public officials are already recommending this approach.

U.S. and Canadian PB is already spreading rapidly from city to city, propelled by positive media coverage, testimonials from one local official to another and the advocacy of local champions and the Participatory Budgeting Project. Expanding its scope within a city could be accomplished through the same kinds of communication and activism.

This move might also be accomplished by combining PB with other formats for public engagement in budgeting, such as priority-based budgeting, online budget input platforms and “serious games” that focus on budgets. These other formats typically encompass the whole city budget but are less intensive for participants and put them in a purely advisory role.

2. Maximize the more intensive, deliberative aspects of PB.

As described in the companion report, “Power to the People! (And Settings for Using it Wisely?),” PB combines “thick” (intensive, information-rich, small-group-focused) and “thin” (fast, convenient, individual-focused) forms of public participation—assemblies and budget delegate meetings are thick, while the vote at the end of the cycle is thin.

Because it builds relationships among different kinds of people who begin to understand one another better and empathize more, thick engagement can make participants more likely to propose and vote for projects that primarily benefit low-income people or the community overall. This effect was described in a series of New York Times articles published during the first year of PB in New York City, in which a reporter followed one budget delegate who decided that buying doors for the bathroom stalls of his neighborhood school, which is attended primarily by low-income students, should take priority over the project idea he had originally proposed. Some public officials feel the people who become more involved in the PB process, taking part in assemblies and budget delegate meetings rather than just the vote, end up more strongly committed to reducing inequality.

In addition to simply recruiting more participants for assemblies, idea fairs and other thick aspects of the process, PB organizers can incorporate tactics for deepening the deliberations, including “block walks” to survey infrastructure needs, site visits to schools, parks and police stations, more explicit research roles for budget delegates and more creative and thorough ways to help people think through the impacts and tradeoffs of potential projects before the final vote occurs.

3. Use tools that help people map, measure and reward efforts to reduce inequality.

With the support of the Participatory Budgeting Project, many U.S. and Canadian PB processes have begun using tools that help participants understand and visualize how inequality affects their communities. The most common are online maps that can show where poverty is concentrated, where public services are located and where PB funds are being allocated.

Maps developed for PB processes could be combined with other online maps that display other public assets and challenges, from WiFi hotspots and firehouses to the number of students receiving free or reduced lunch at a particular school or the incidents of crime on a particular block. Similarly, PB organizers could utilize online dashboards that measure progress on social indicators. Finally, they could also use systems by which budget delegates assign an “equity rating” to project ideas to help PB voters understand which proposals are most likely to reduce inequality and sponsor award programs to recognize budget delegates, public officials and other community leaders whose work through PB has helped improve equity.

4. Build and connect civic infrastructure.

While a recommendation to build stronger civic infrastructure might seem the most daunting of the four, it does not apply only to the PB community—practitioners and public officials involved in a variety of kinds of engagement have recognized the importance of rethinking the systems for participation. They, too, have looked toward Brazilian cities that are bringing a great many more, and more diverse, people into the public square. PB should be part of helping to build this infrastructure, so that subsequent engagement efforts will also build on PB. While this work requires the creation of new, better ways for people to be involved, it also can mean connecting and supporting the ways we already have.

To oversee and legitimize the strengthening of civic infrastructure, U.S. and Canadian PB cities might consider combining the model of Brazil’s municipal budget council with a similar structural reform that has taken hold in a few U.S. and Canadian cities: the public engagement commission. Although they vary from place to place, these citizen bodies are generally intended to gain buy-in for engagement from multiple institutions without making participants beholden to any single institution effectively coordinate a variety of activities; and ensure that engagement opportunities meet the needs of residents. Such a commission could take on some of the PB-specific roles served by the municipal councils in Brazil.


Download the PDF of the Report

Brazil Has Reduced Inequality Incrementally - Can We Do the Same?

Gauging the Potential of Participatory Budgeting in the United States and Canada

Media Type: PDF

Matt Leighninger explores the ways PB in the U.S. and Canada differ from PB in Brazil, explaining how they may affect PB's impact in North America.

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