As four states go to the polls this year, millions of Indians will cast their votes and participate in the most fundamental aspect of democracy. But, for many of them, this will be their only taste of democracy this year. After votes are counted, the elected officials will be left to deliver on their promises. Citizens will have to wait again for the next election to have their say. Yet this need not be the case.

Across the world, governments are experimenting with a process of participatory budgeting where members of a community help decide how to allocate public expenditure. Pioneered by the Brazilian city Porto Alegre nearly twenty years ago, participatory budgeting usually includes four stages: members of a community identify spending priorities, develop spending proposals, and vote on proposals to fund, which are then finally implemented by the local government.

In Brazil, participatory budgets emerged out of the Porto Alegre municipal government facing bankruptcy and chronically inadequate public infrastructure. Forced to experiment, they did so by letting citizens have a greater role in allocating resources. Since then, according to the Participatory Budget Project, an advocacy NGO, more than 1,500 cities across the world have incorporated some variation of participatory budgeting in their city budgeting.

participatory budgeting

Different factors have driven this development. In some instances, it’s been mandated by law and incorporated into constitutions. In some, it’s been driven by donor requirement. In others, it’s a local government’s genuine attempt to better cater to citizens’ needs. While the actual process varies across the world, the underlying principles — citizens having a say in the allocation of resources — remain the same.

Why do participatory budgeting?

Intuitively, participatory budgeting dovetails neatly into the principles of democracy by extending the role of citizen participation to shape local budgetary decisions. This can be a good thing for many reasons. It better reflects citizen interests, holds policymakers more accountable, improves implementation and, as a result, increases the standard of living. For instance, in Brazil a study examining the impact of participatory budgeting in various municipalities across the country between 1990 and 2004 revealed that allocation of expenditure closely matched the preferences of citizens. A larger fraction of budgets were invested in sanitation and health services that led to a reduction in infant mortality rates. Beyond the material changes, participatory budgeting can strengthen the foundations of democracy by allowing politicians and communities to interact beyond elections.

The success of participatory budget hinges on many factors, but two are paramount — a progressive local government willing to engage with its citizens and, on the citizen side, a progressive civil society with the enthusiasm and ability to participate in the budget process. This ability to participate is particularly important because there is a risk of elite capture where certain groups of citizens yield a disproportionate influence on the process. To mitigate this risk, governments need to create an accessible platform that effectively captures interests of the entire community. Much of the current work on participatory budgeting focuses on designing the ideal platform and combining it with technology.

participatory budgeting

Local governments also need to have a discretionary budget which they can allocate for participatory budgeting. Typically, because of the complexity of policymaking, this discretionary funding is a small amount. For instance, Brazilian municipalities that are financially stable tend to have 12%–15% of their budgets available in this pot.

India’s experience with participatory budgeting

In India, some of the principles underpinning participatory budgeting were incorporated in the 74th Constitutional Amendment, which sought to address the ineffectiveness of local government bodies across the country. The amendment mandates some form of representation from citizens on municipal committees. However, there have only been two enduring examples of explicit participatory budgeting in the country.

In Pune, participatory budgeting was launched in 2006 in each of Pune’s 76 wards in partnership with Janwani, a local NGO. In every ward, citizens provided inputs and suggestions on budget allocation for spending across six areas (roads, electricity, buildings, slum-improvement, water supply, and drainage).  The 2015-16 budget set aside Rs. 37.4 crores for participatory budgeting, which was allocated based on around 6,000 suggestions from citizens. Participation in Pune has increased steadily over the last four years, even though the allocated budget has remained largely the same.

participatory budgeting

Before Pune, Kerala had experimented with a slightly more radical form of participatory budgeting. In 1996, the Kerala government launched the Kerala People’s Campaign for the Ninth Plan. Unlike participatory budget initiatives globally, which focused on city or other local governments, the Kerala experiment was implemented across the state. From 1996 to 2001, Kerala’s citizens were able to provide inputs on how to spend about 40% of the state revenues on projects in their areas. An evaluation of the program found it to be effective with around two-thirds of project beneficiaries successfully demanding a project through the participative process. Since then, the model has been adjusted and incorporated in all state planning. The model in Kerala worked because of the rich heritage of civic engagement created by initiatives like the Total Literacy Campaign and the People’s Resource Mapping Program in the years before the interventions.

The Indian government seems to be making a concerted effort to increase citizen participation in policymaking. However, participatory budgeting remains a nascent movement.

Through initiatives like, the Indian government seems to be making a concerted effort to increase citizen participation in policymaking. The Smart Cities challenge, a government-led initiative seeking to improve city planning by making municipal governments work with citizens, even highlights the Porto Alegre participatory budgeting case. However, participatory budgeting remains a nascent movement in India.

For all of the conceptual attractiveness of participatory budgeting, several questions remain both for the Indian and global contexts. How much of an impact does participatory budgeting create? Is the created impact cost effective? Can we make participatory budgeting work in areas where there is a weak civil society and grassroots movements? There has been some research to try to answer these questions, but more is still needed. As the concept of participatory budgeting expands, there is plenty of scope of to experiment and learn. However, doing this will need political will and, perhaps more importantly, constant citizen engagement.