Participatory Budgeting

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Andrew Gordon
University of Washington Evans School
Chris Halaska
social design

Developing a budget is a task often left to financial "experts" even though the decisions that result from the budget-making process impact everyone, and the ideas that inform budget decisions often are improved by the experience and insights of a wide range of individuals. Budget development is in fact a "political" act, with "winners" and "losers" most of whom never participate in the process.


Properly understood, budgets and the budget development process are tools through which social values are expressed and manifested in useful public activity. This pattern explains the importance of budgeting and encourages participation in all stages of budget development. Public budgeting connects to several other patterns. For example: participating in the creation of budgets is an ideal way to foster Civic Intelligence (pattern 1); joint budget development helps create Shared Vision (pattern 9); public budgeting via online tools is an example of Using Collaborative Technologies for Civic Accountability (pattern 26); and understanding budgets is one aspect of Power Research (pattern 293).


A fundamental step in the life of any organization is the design of a budget. The decisions which are made early in the process (e.g., What is to be budgeted for? What are the sources of income? Who is to be paid? What are the categories of effort which are highly compensated and what effort is to be considered voluntary?) often set core parameters for the future, and impact not only the ways in which time and money are spent, but also the values and reputation of the organization, and even its soul. But budgeting is often treated as a "technical" process which should be handled by experts rather than as a political activity in which many people should be invited and encouraged to participate. One way in which budgets can be more easily discussed publicly is to use online tools to disseminate budget information, host public discussions, and create sample budget variations -- though from our experience, we believe this should be coupled with face-to-face discussions whenever possible. The best-known example of participatory budgeting is found in Porto Alegre, Brasil, where community residents (now numbering in the thousands) have cooperated since 1989 in annual deliberations about the allocation of a portion of the municipal budget. Poor citizens are vastly more engaged in this process than is typical in budgeting processes, and increasing proportions of the city's revenue have been directed towards improving the most impoverished parts of Porto Alegre. While there is some disagreement over how much of this outcome to attribute to the participatory budgeting process, there is no doubt about the increased sensitivity of all citizens to the importance of budgeting decisions. In June, 1996, the United Nations declared the "popular administration" of Porto Alegre as one of forth urban innovations at the Second Conference on Human Settlements. Various related experiments in participatory budgeting have taken place on several continents since Porto Alegre, typically fine-tuned to local circumstances, with an evolving set of principles promoting conditions that enhance the effectiveness of the process. Several important attempts at involving typically excluded citizens in the budget allocation process have occurred in the U.S. -- often during progressive periods. Two of the most significant were the Affirmative Neighborhood Information Program during Mayor Harold Washington's tenure in Chicago (Kretzmann, 1992), which failed to survive successor administrations; and the Seattle Public Schools multi-year experiment in decentralized, "school-based" budgeting, supported by an online budgeting tool (Halaska, 2000). In the Seattle experiment, a vastly increased proportion of district resources was redistributed from the central administrative offices to individual schools. School principals were encouraged to engage in a public budgeting process where trade-offs (e.g. reduced class size vs after-school music programs) were actively debated -- both in public meetings and online. The process was messy because "democracy is messy" and was controversial at every stage, in part because it surfaced hidden assumptions about core values in public education. Some participants believed that this process had the potential to provoke a fundamental rethinking of the purposes of the education process itself. Key findings from the Chicago and Seattle experiments align with the principles of Porto Alegre and elsewhere. For example, it is important that significantly different approaches to budgeting such as these become so embedded that they cannot readily be set aside by later regimes. Equally critical is that traditional budget staff be convinced about the importance of participatory budgeting. While philosophical and political discussions about larger scale budget issues can be done without technical assistance, detailed information about current costs and funding formulas typically reside with budget staff. Without their support, key budget information can be difficult to obtain. Moreover, while the ideology of participatory budgeting has wide appeal, critical studies should be undertaken to determine under what circumstances participatory strategies have lasting effects and whether, in the case of participatory budgeting for example, systemic changes such as in the labor market must occur for poorer citizens to benefit from these new strategies in the long run.


Budgets for organizations in the public sphere should be developed openly and inclusively, in public meetings and using publicly accessible online tools. Budget assumptions should be discussed, and rethinking of assumptions, priorities, and allocations should be encouraged, no matter how far they depart from current practice. At every stage, the results of the process should be made public for feedback and refinement. Attention should be paid to what has been learned from experience (for example, about the wisdom of convincing traditional budget staff of the utility of public budgeting), and studies of the long-range impact of participatory budgeting are essential.

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