top of page

Participatory Budgets: Let the people decide

Public participation is central to democracy and people’s participation in public policy is increasingly being viewed as a means to make the governance ecosystem more inclusive, transparent, and accountable. Over the past 25 years, participatory institutions have proliferated in over 40 countries and have gained widespread support, particularly at the local and municipal levels of governance. Democratic innovation such as participatory budgeting (hereafter referred to as PB) has been promoted by civil society organisations across the globe to encourage social mobilisation around governance issues. It has shown that greater participation by people in local planning and priority setting of public spending leads to better social and economic outcomes for all.

This introductory video of the Participatory Budget Project shows how participatory budgeting can work:

What is the purpose of Participatory Budgeting?

Participatory Budgeting is the active involvement of people in the processes of budget priority setting and management. In Participatory Budgeting, citizens and civil society articulate their needs and negotiate with the relevant organs of the government over the distribution of public resources (see: International Budget Partnership). In contrast to the techno-bureaucratic administration which is limited in its ability to achieve equitable development and distributive justice, Participatory Budgeting has the potential to maximize the equity in decision-making processes and effect better policy outcomes.

Participatory Budgeting provides avenues to make the fiscal policy a subject of public dialogue and engages citizens in all phases of the budget cycle. Citizens are involved throughout the entire budget cycle, in:

  • Identifying and prioritising the most pressing local needs

  • Preparing a budget proposal for submission to the nodal authority

  • Overseeing the budget approval process (review, discussion, and voting)

  • Monitoring budget execution, monitoring procurement (tendering, bidding, and contracting) and monitoring the implementation of projects

Participatory Budgeting promotes a bottom-up approach and empowers communities to set and monitor public spending thereby, also improves public provisioning of essential services.

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11.3 states, “By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.” SDG 16.7 specifically spells out the call to action, “Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.” As Participatory Budgeting is progressively being recognised as an effective mechanism to strengthen citizens’ voices in decentralised systems, it is certainly a tool that can be used to accomplish these global goals.

How can we apply Participatory Budgeting?

Some key factors that are essential for an effective PB exercise include:

1. A clear roadmap for operationalisation: Governments should be willing to build the necessary institutional, informational, and financial support needed for Participatory Budgeting to function effectively. Participatory Budgeting processes require a clear operational road map as they involve an annual cycle of meeting and voting, integrated into the broader budget decision-making process. Political will and strong support from relevant government organs/functionaries and legislature are imperative to gain substantive outcomes from such an initiative.

2. Substantive space for deliberation: Debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas are vital for active citizen participation. Better-informed citizens raise the quality of debate, grounding their budget proposals in evidence. Participatory Budgeting must ensure the representation of all social groups in these deliberative processes. It must also encourage multi-stakeholder engagement and adopt elements of decision-making through consensus.

3. Transparency in government budgets and processes: A key element in decision-making is providing locally relevant information to citizens. To empower local citizens to engage in budget priority setting processes, the information should be presented in an accessible and reader-friendly format and must be incorporated into any of the consultation or participation processes around the budget. Increasingly, information and communication technologies such as open-source technologies are broadening opportunities to access budget data concerning the availability of resources which will help communities in prioritising projects and monitoring the implementation of such projects.

4. Role of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs): Civil society plays a critical role in the effective implementation of Participatory Budgeting exercises. Over the years, CSOs across the globe have worked towards demystifying budgets and to draw the attention towards the implications of budgetary policies on the marginalised sections of the population and on critical social sectors. Participatory Budgeting initiatives have been most successful in municipalities/cities with strong civil society involvement. Existing networks of social movements, community organisations, and other voluntary associations provide support for such initiatives.

5. Capacity building: It is crucial for governments to recruit a dedicated cadre and invest in capacity building of relevant functionaries. Governments should also build capacities and raise basic budget awareness in communities. Civil society can also facilitate the process of capacity building and public education. Examples could include: mentoring and confidence building programmes to support women and excluded social groups to improve their participation; building awareness about government programmes, their rights and entitlements etc.

6. Discretionary Resources for Participatory Budgeting: The government should have sufficient discretionary funds available to undertake a Participatory Budgeting programme, which involves shared control of local resources. If the government mainly focuses on incremental budgeting (contrast to zero based budgeting) and committed funding, it could result in very limited resources available for Participatory Budgeting and hence, an unfunded mandate. This could also lead to discontent among people. Therefore, it is crucial for the government to set aside resources exclusively to carry out Participatory Budgeting.

What are the challenges?

  • The capture of participatory processes by local elites or by the most vocal and better organised constituencies is a big risk. This reinforces social exclusion and does not reflect the voices and priorities of vulnerable groups. For instance, despite several design interventions in a Participatory Budgeting process in Bangladesh (including color-coded cards for women’s issues, women-only group discussions, and balanced genders on committees), men continued to dominate decision making (see: World Bank).

  • The capacity of ‘lay citizens’, especially the marginalised groups, to contribute meaningfully to complex discussions around the budget and its technicalities could be questionable. There is a general skepticism regarding mass planning processes. A typical complaint is that Participatory Budgeting processes merely result in ‘shopping lists’ of demands from communities that do not take into account the scarce resources available.

  • Issues of staff capacity - Designing and sustaining deliberative processes in budgeting is not an easy task. Governments require a sophisticated level of organisational capacity to manage large-scale participatory programmes.

  • Consultations with multiple stakeholders could be time-consuming and open-ended. They involve holding a series of public meetings to amass community opinion on budgetary priorities. Participatory Budgeting processes are rarely implemented because local governments are of the opinion that there is a time constraint and that such meetings could open up a Pandora’s box of demands in the community.

  • Need to strengthen other mechanisms for deliberation in budgets such as pre-budget statements and pre-budget consultations with various stakeholders and social audits. Participatory Budgeting alone cannot achieve a responsive governance ecosystem.

Where has it been successful?

Interestingly, there is no standard model of Participatory Budgeting. Various countries, cities and local governments across the globe have experimented with and adopted different models. However, largely, Participatory Budgeting has been most successful at the municipal level across the globe. Since Porto Alegre in Brazil established the Participatory Budgeting process formally in 1989, it has spread to over 1,500 cities in Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe (Source: Participatory Budget Project). A range of basic service items has been covered under Participatory Budgeting for local economic development. These include sanitation and waste disposal, roads and street lights, primary education, health, upkeep and maintenance of public spaces etc.

The case in Porto Alegre began as a local initiative and as a result of grassroots activism. Its example shows how ordinary citizens used their collective power to negotiate for changes in budgetary priorities. Participatory Budgeting could also be mandated by national governments; that is, they are “top-down” in nature like in Peru, Uganda, Bolivia, and the Philippines.

In the US, New York City has the largest budget, dedicating more than $25 million in public funds to be allocated by participants in the Participatory Budgeting process. In 2014, the City of Paris started the world’s largest Participatory Budgeting initiative. In 2016, 158,964 people voted on how to spend nearly €100 million, including €10 million set aside for schools.

In India, the most prominent participatory practices have been implemented in Kerala and Pune. In Kerala, the People’s Campaign for Decentralised Planning, started in 1996. The campaign achieved significant administrative, fiscal and democratic decentralisation and deepening. It covered 1214 local governments with the state’s 31 million inhabitants. In Pune, Participatory Budgeting was initiated in 2006 at the municipal level. It received enormous support from both citizens and civil society organisations.



Fung, Archon and Erik Olin Wright (1999): Experiments in Empowered Deliberative Democracy: Introduction

Participatory Budgeting Project: Participatory Budgeting Map & Process List

About the Author:

Priyanka Samy works with Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), New Delhi, India.


If you would like to give feedback, contact Priyanka Samy.

We thank the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability for their kind contribution.

3,151 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page