Brazil let its citizens make decisions about city budgets. Here’s what happened.

The Rocinha favela outside Rio de Janeiro (Fred Alves for The Washington Post).

The Rocinha favela outside Rio de Janeiro (Fred Alves for The Washington Post).

This is a guest post from Brian Wampler and Mike Touchton.  Wampler is professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science At Boise State University.  Mike Touchton is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Boise State University.

Over the past 20 years, “participatory institutions” have spread around the world. Participatory institutions delegate decision-making authority directly to citizens, often in local politics, and have attracted widespread support.  International organizations, such as the World Bank and USAID, promote citizen participation in hopes that it will generate more accountable governments, strengthen social networks, improve public services, and inform voters. Elected officials often support citizen participation because it provides them the legitimacy necessary to alter spending patterns, develop new programs, mobilize citizens, or open murky policymaking processes to greater public scrutiny. Civil society organizations and citizens support participating institution because they get unprecedented access to policymaking venues, public budgets and government officials.

But do participatory institutions actually achieve any of these beneficial outcomes?  In a new study of participatory institutions in Brazil, we find that they do.  In particular, we find that municipalities with participatory programs improve the lives of their citizens.

Brazil is a leading innovator in participatory institutions. Brazilian municipal governments can voluntarily adopt a program known as Participatory Budgeting. This program directly incorporates citizens into public meetings where citizens decide how to allocate public funds. The funding amounts can represent up to 100 percent of all new capital spending projects and generally fall between 5 and 15 percent of the total municipal budget.  This is not enough to radically change how cities spend limited resources, but it is enough to generate meaningful change. For example, the Brazilian cities of Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre have each spent hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars over the past two decades on projects that citizens selected. Moreover, many Participatory Budgeting programs have an outsize impact because they focus resources on areas that have lower incomes and fewer public services.

Between 1990 and 2008, over 120 of Brazil’s largest 250 cities adopted Participatory Budgeting. In order to assess whether PB had an impact, we compared the number of cities that adopted Participatory Budgeting during each mayoral period to cities that did not adopt it, and accounted for a range of other factors that might distinguish these two groups of cities.

The results are promising. Municipal governments that adopted Participatory Budgeting spent more on education and sanitation and saw infant mortality decrease as well. We estimate cities without PB to have infant mortality levels similar to Brazil’s mean. However, infant mortality drops by almost 20 percent for municipalities that have used PB for more than eight years — again, after accounting for other political and economic factors that might also influence infant mortality.  The evidence strongly suggests that the investment in these programs is paying important dividends. We are not alone in this conclusion: Sónia Gonçalves has reached similar conclusions about Participatory Budgeting in Brazil.

Participatory Budgeting’s influence grows stronger when the mayor is from the Workers’ Party. The Workers’ Party, which has governed Brazil since 2003 (President Lula Da Silva, 2003-2010, and President Dilma Rousseff since 2010), has invested heavily in promoting direct citizen participation in new democratic venues. Our finding is thus significant because it showcases how programs flourish when elected officials are committed to implementing participatory institutions. This finding sheds light on why institutions like the World Bank and USAID are always seeking local “champions” who are willing to commit themselves to reform.

Our results also show that Participatory Budgeting’s influence strengthens over time, which indicates that its benefits do not merely result from governments making easy policy changes. Instead, Participatory Budgeting’s increasing impact indicates that governments, citizens, and civil society organizations are building new institutions that produce better forms of governance. These cities incorporate citizens at multiple moments of the policy process, allowing community leaders and public officials to exchange better information. The cities are also retraining policy experts and civil servants to better work with poor communities. Finally, public deliberation about spending priorities makes these city governments more transparent, which decreases corruption.

Therefore, the shifts in spending patterns for new capital projects, such as health-care clinics in poor areas, produce not just temporary improvements but real lasting change.  The efforts of political parties, social movements and international organizations to promote direct citizen participation in policymaking venues are justifiable. Participatory programs will not necessarily produce fundamental change in the short term, but they are a vital part of building better institutions and improving citizens’ quality of life.

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