Participatory budgeting – one way of Putting People First


Dr. Clodagh Harris, Department of Government, UCC

The Action programme for Effective Local Government ‘Putting People First’ (2012) proposes the creation of new municipal districts with local policy/regulatory roles. It also refers to increasing citizen engagement with reference to new forms of public engagement (p.159) such as Participatory Budgeting (PB).

An innovative form of democratic co-governance, PB involves citizens in the allocation of public finances. It has been used successfully internationally to promote good local governance by allowing citizens to control and shape the distribution of public resources through deliberation and negotiation.

First developed in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, PB has spread across the globe to countries such as France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and to various parts of North and South America. Today it is used in over one thousand and two hundred places worldwide (Participatory Budgeting, 2011). In Europe there has been a rapid increase from approximately a dozen participatory budgets in 2001 to 174-196 of them in 2010 (Sintomer et al., 2010: 9).

There is no universal form of PB and research indicates that various methodologies are used in different contexts. This is supported by the Council of Europe’s study of PB which found that that there was no uniform practice across the member states (2011).

In the absence of a single definition of PB Sintomer et al. (2010) provide clear guidelines, stressing that it incorporates the five following criteria:

  1. Discussions of financial/budgetary expenditure.
  2. Decentralised districts with an elected body that has some power over administration.
  3. A repeated process (it cannot be a once of meeting or series of meetings).
  4. Public deliberations which involve horizontal discussions between citizens. Opening up administrative/council meetings to citizens is not participatory budgeting.
  5. Accountability on the output.

PB has been shown to contribute to the development and delivery of local services that meet local needs thereby giving citizens an increased sense of ownership of their community. It includes a strong civic awareness/citizenship education dimension as it provides for a wider understanding of budgetary processes and the need for prioritisation. By including groups that traditionally under-participate in political processes it also enhances social inclusion.

In addition PB addresses the challenges identified in the 2009 Utrecht Declaration of the Council of Europe which include:

  1. Dealing with the effects of the current financial/economic crisis.
  2. Addressing the low levels of democratic participation at the local and regional level.
  3. Enhancing the efficiency of local and regional government and increasing the transparency of their decision making processes.
  4. Strengthening  governance in local and regional communities or authorities.
  5. Improving access to public services delivered at local and regional level.

The impact of PB on social justice matters in European countries has not been as strong as it has been in South American municipalities.  This is partly because European cities are starting at a higher social base than many of their South American counterparts and also because PB processes in Europe tend to be top-down with the ‘upper fractions of the working class or the middle class’ at the centre (Sintomer et al, 2008). 

The European experiments have also been mostly consultative with limited autonomy for civil society.

Seville, however, is a European exception. Its  PB processes, are quite similar to those used in Porto Alegre. The city has been divided into 15 zones/neighbourhoods where citizens meet in public fora (usually community centres) to discuss, initiate and propose project ideas.  Delegates are elected at the neighbourhood and city level to examine the proposals (which are defined as district or city issues according to their cost) and prioritise them using a point system based on general and supplementary criteria. Its process is considered one of the most ‘ambitious examples’ of PB and has a participatory budget of approximately €14 million (Sintomer et al, 2010:34)

If PB is introduced in Ireland, it should look to the Seville participatory process rather than the more consultative mechanisms used elsewhere. This would not only enhance citizen understanding of the link between raising and spending public monies but would make local decision making more transparent, participatory and representative. It also has the potential to improve accountability, subsidiarity and responsiveness to local issues. Furthermore, as Sintomer et al. find in their analysis of PB world wide it is ‘advantageous to link participatory budgeting not only to local government modernisation, but also to gender mainstreaming’ (2010:43) issues that have been identified and prioritised in the programme for Government.

The success of PB in Ireland will be dependent on supportive political will, the coherence of the organisational ‘design’ elements of the process and the administrative and financial abilities of the authority overseeing the process. In particular, the ‘design’ elements should emphasise the participatory aspects of PB if we are really serious about ‘Putting People First’.


Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (2012). A guide to putting people first – Action programme for effective local government.Dublin: Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

Council of Europe (2011). ‘Report of the CDLR survey of the role of central/regional government in participatory budgeting at local level’, Strasbourg.

Council of Europe (2009). ‘Good local and regional governance in turbulent times: the challenge of change’, Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for local and regional government (Utrecht declaration), Utrecht.

Participatory Budgeting (2011). ‘International Experiences of Participatory Budgeting’,  

[ – accessed November 22nd 2012]

Sintomer,  Y., Herzberg, C., Allegretti, G and Rocke, A (2010). ‘Learning  from the South: Participatory Budgeting worldwide – an invitation to global co-operation’, Dialog Global series, InWent, Bonn.

Sintomer, Y., Harzberg, C. and Rocke, A. (2008). ‘Participatory Budgeting: An innovative experiement’ presentation at the OECD workshop ‘Building citizen centred policies and services’ Ljubljana 26th-27th June.

One thought on “Participatory budgeting – one way of Putting People First

  1. In addition to the case made for greater participation in “budgeting”, there are at least four other issues, which will have to be discussed, more widely
    1) How are the funds to be budgeted for raised – ie. who pays? how is the basis of payment set?
    2) What about the existing methods of “participation” ie. in direct elections, we delegate our power to Councillors;
    3) Transparency in how public funds are raised and used ie. detailed accounts, made publicly available in a timely way – now, as we start a new phase of funding local government through property taxes to complement the rates which business continued to pay after rates on domestic residences and agricultural land were abandoned;
    4) Consideration of other forms of “participatory” budgeting in the form of citizen participation through long established forms of direct democracy eg. in the cantons of Switzerland, over 20 US states and many hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of cities and counties across the US. As an example, the Constitution of the Canton of Zurich provides for citizens’ initiative on fiscal matters, without any seeming deleterious effect on Zurich’s regular very high ranking in lists of desirable places in which to live and do business.

    If there is to be a drive for independent and powerful local government – including better budgeting through additional forms of participation – there is lot more fundamental work to be done as Proinnsias Breathnach pointed out here

    Among the issues is the hi-jacking of Dubliners’ property taxes into an allocatory system which does things in arbitrary and whimsical ways. On this see also, this article in the Irish Independent on Thursday 21 November last
    “The decision by Government not to adhere to previous commitments to allocate 80pc of the yield from local property tax in 2014 to those areas in which the property is based is regrettable. The reverse in policy has not been explained satisfactorily.” has provided a basis for assessing how much scope for variation the new local property tax may give rise to,

    Click to access Local-Property-Tax-Variation-by-Local-Authorities-1.pdf

    I also refer back my comment (in the Regional Studies Association series on local government) on the complete central control of and lack of fiscal autonomy of local government in this Republic as set out in a Council of Europe report (October 2013) on Local Democracy in Ireland

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