Participatory Budgeting: From Porto Alegre, Brazil to the U.S.

September 1, 2006
Mike Menser and Juscha Robinson

Throughout the U.S. left, but in particular among those groups participating at the first U.S. Social Forum and the global justice movement more generally, “participatory democracy” is a phrase one encounters in all kinds of different movements and organizations, from anti-war meetings and environmental justice organizations, to direct action affinity groups, to community-sponsored agriculture outfits, international solidarity organizations and prison abolitionists. It is certainly a central feature of the solidarity economy. In this essay, we will talk a little about what “participatory democracy” (PD)[1] has come to mean for such movements, but for the most part our remarks will focus on a particular mode of PD called “participatory budgeting”, an innovation made famous in Brazil but recently spread across the globe to more than 1,000 cities.[2] The last section of the essay takes stock of conversations at and after the U.S. Social Forum, where a national participatory budgeting initiative was launched, and offers a few humble observations and suggestions about concrete plans of action for those interested is democratizing that most fundamental of all governmental functions: the budget.

Participatory democracy is that view of politics which calls for the creation and proliferation of practices and institutions that enable individuals and groups to better determine the conditions in which they act and relate to others. The term gained currency in 1962 after Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) issued their groundbreaking Port Huron statement, which, among other things, laid out a conception of democracy that called for citizens to seize their collective political fates by reclaiming the public sphere as self-determining agents, rather than lining to up to listen to those campaigning to take the reins of the military-industrial corporate state. SDS’s view was largely influenced by eminent social critic C. Wright Mills, but another key (now forgotten) figure was Arnold Kaufman, a professor at the University of Michigan, who first coined the phrase in an essay called “"Participatory Democracy and Human Nature" (Miller 160).[3] It was one of Kaufman’s students, Tom Hayden, who actually drafted the Port Huron Statement. For SDS and contemporary proponents of participatory democracy (PD), any sphere of human activity could and should be made more “participatory”; not just the formally political (e.g. legislatures, courts, bureaucratic departments), but the social and economic realms as well (families, neighborhoods, communities, schools, associations, firms). This unbounding of democratic desire is evident in the vast range of institutions in which PD has taken root: from food cooperatives and collective households, to free schools and neighborhood associations.

Although participatory democracy seems to share many of the values of mainstream liberal/Enlightenment tradition (freedom, equality, solidarity, democracy), actual liberal democratic states often impede or even actively undermine PD efforts. In recent years this has been especially evident in the growth of a bureaucratized (if private) “expert class” which considers the “average citizen” too stupid to make important policy decisions, much less understand the complexities of contemporary life because of its immense scale and technological sophistication.[4] Additional threats to PD are well-known: the dominance of big money donors and corporate media in elections and the failure of campaign finance reform to adequately address either problem.

This inability (or unwillingness?) of the state to foster more democratic and popular participation (all we get are scripted “town hall” meetings!) raises the more difficult question as to nature of the state and its role in building a more progressive political future. Perhaps states are essentially anti-democratic, as anarchists and (many) indigenous peoples believe. The argument here is that because the state claims a monopoly on both law-making and the deployment of coercive force (i.e. only the state can pass laws and legitimately use violence), it is at its core all about the wielding of incredible power by an elite against the populace at large (also known as the “citizenry”, but more accurately labeled the “subjects” of the state). We must remember, after all, that the United States was founded as a democratic republic, and republics are founded on the notion that those who rule and those who are ruled belong to two different spheres, and that the function of the police is to preserve the barrier between the two. In a republic, a representative stands in for the citizens, rather than allowing the citizens to participate and govern themselves (letting those who are affected decide). At their best, such republics may satisfy the interests of certain groups (usually elites), and when crises or unrest threaten, “new deals” are sometimes struck (e.g. the welfare state, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964[5]). For the most part, however, when the state benefits (represents or “stands in for”) some group, it sticks it to somebody else (minorities, slaves, women, the colonies, or indigenous people).

Others argue that this need not be the case. Rather it is neoliberalism or capitalism that renders states so violently inegalitarian. With the right political party, or possibly with widespread social upheaval, they believe that states can be made truly democratic. This is the view of socialism and liberalism, both of which are driven by a view that the state is the best way to create a just political community, even if they differ drastically about methods, the extent of change (revolutions v. elections), and who should lead it (vanguard party v. persons whose last name is Clinton).

In the last two decades or so, whatever one’s view, it seems clear that even liberal democratic states have become less and less democratic both in terms of their political processes, and the results of these political processes. More and more people have fewer opportunities to participate, and inequalities of all sorts have intensified. Yet, even though cynicism and apathy are conspicuous features of our socio-political landscape, over the same time frame there have been more and more efforts to make various institutions more participatory. As one might suppose (going back to SDS), the most robust examples of PD have occurred outside of the state in civil society (for example, community gardens, Food not Bombs, and indymedia outlets). If one expands the scope of inquiry and lets it drift a bit to the south, however, one of the best known PD experiments in the world has shown that it is possible to democratize that most central of all governmental functions: the budget.

Participatory Budgeting: Brazil and Beyond

Almost two decades ago the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, developed what has come to be regarded as the definitive case of a participatory budgeting process. Despite the cultural and political particularities of its emergence there, PB has spread beyond Latin America to the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and has been used in over a thousand cities to democratize municipal, county, state, school, housing, and organization budgets. Although none have taken root in the U.S., there are projects active in several cities, including Lawrence, Massachusetts, and New York City. In this section we shall give some more details on the PB process of Porto Alegre, and examine its manifold political and economic implications, especially since PB is not just about “participation” but also wealth redistribution, inequality reduction, capacity development, and the “right to the city.” In the last section, we shall consider the possibilities of PB in the U.S., especially in light of the conversations that happened at the U.S. Social Forum last summer in Atlanta, Georgia.

Participatory budgeting consists of a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making in which ordinary city residents decide how to allocate part of a public budget through a series of local assemblies and meetings. It is characterized by several basic features: community members determine spending priorities and elect budget delegates to represent their neighborhoods, budget delegates transform community priorities into concrete project proposals, public employees facilitate and provide technical assistance, community members vote on which projects to fund, and a public authority implements the projects. Various studies have suggested that participatory budgeting can lead to more equitable public spending, higher quality of life, increased satisfaction of basic needs, greater government transparency and accountability, increased levels of public participation (especially by marginalized residents), and democratic and citizenship learning. (Baiocchi 2003,Baiocchi and Lerner (forthcoming), Chavez 2004). Most of the well known examples of participatory budgeting were the results of city administrations that turned over decisions about municipal budgets, such as its overall priorities and choice of new investments, to citizen assemblies. Other examples involve school budgets, housing project budgets, and the budgets of cooperatives and non-profit organizations.[6]

PB was first developed in the late 1980s when Brazil was undergoing the transition from dictatorship to democracy and there was serious public doubt about the legitimacy of the new government.[7] At this time, although Porto Alegre was the capital of the wealthiest state of Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul), one third of its citizens lived in shantytowns or slums, and the city as a whole faced a budget shortfall so severe, it was unclear how to best spend the funds available. (Chavez 2004, 161)

In 1988, a new mayor was elected, Olivio Dutra of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), the Workers’ Party. The PT had played a key role in the opposition to the dictatorship, and was eager to implement its own brand of socialism. But Dutra and his vice mayor were also cautious; they had received only 30% of the total vote. Many within its ranks questioned more traditional socialist solutions to the present political and economic crises, such as creating mechanisms for the state management of various economic sectors. Brazil’s recent authoritarian past seemed to call for an opening up rather a new left authoritarianism, and this government needs to reach out to the broader public for the visions and coalition-building necessary for any chance at success,. A decision was made, despite dissension within the party, to forgo an attempt to implement state socialism. Instead, a program was launched to invite participation. This participation was not just solicited from factory workers, but also from the “popular classes”, including women’s groups and civil society organizations, which built upon the PT’s desire to break from more traditional workerist party models that privileged factory (usually male) labor as the subject for revolutionary change, and create a post-authoritarian democratic politics. After consultation with these various constituencies, the mayor issued a decree establishing the Participatory Budget. Note that no law was ever passed. (Chavez 2004, 57-70)

The key features of PB in Porto Alegre are as follows: The process begins with neighborhood assemblies in each of the city’s 16 regions, and, since 1994, in non-territorial thematic assemblies (e.g. environment, transportation). In these regional meetings (akin to municipal districts in the U.S.), any city resident may participate; some are attended by more than a thousand participants. The purpose of these meetings is to enable residents to voices their concerns with the municipal government and to express and deliberate over the most pressing needs. The discussion then shifts to a ranking of the top three needs.[8] Once the priorities are decided, delegates are elected to represent the region at the city-wide level in the city-wide “PB council” (Conselho do Orcamento Participativo or COP). At this assembly, delegates from across the city meet to decide what needs are most pressing and which region most lacks the services in question. After all the delegates’ reports about their respective regions’ needs are heard, the PB council deliberates to determine a ranking of priorities for the entire city.[9] During this stage of the process, delegates take trips to the sites deemed most in need and technical experts are made available to the COP by the mayor’s office to make sure funding requests for specific projects are feasible. After completion of PB budget for the year, it is integrated into the mayor’s budget proposal and submitted to the legislature. At the beginning of the following fiscal year a review of the past year is taken up and sometimes various procedures or criteria or altered to increase fairness or efficiency (Santos 2005b, especially 316-22). Because of its popular legitimacy, the PB section of the budget has never been modified by the legislature.

After some initial difficulties, the PB has routinely satisfied its primary goals: to deliver basic services to those most in need, to foster participation by a range of citizens, especially those most in need of city services, and to enable the delegates and residents to modify the norms and mechanisms of the PB process and COP. With regard to services delivered, the results have been tremendous, especially with respect to access to running water and sewage lines, housing assistance, and the creation of schools (Baiocchi 1999, Santos 2005). In terms of popular participation, the numbers of those joining the neighborhood meetings have increased as the process has matured over almost 20 years,although there has been unevenness in terms of participation by class and geography. In order to make sure that the PB did not reinforce hierarchies already present in society, the city responded to poorer and less educated residents’ demands for the provision of technical education and training in public speaking for participants (especially delegates). The purpose of these programs for participant capacity development was to make sure that class power did not translate into deliberative power in the assemblies. As such, Porto Alegre’s PB does not just permit participation by wide segments of the population, it empowers them to participate.[10]

At its inception, PB was responsible for only 2% of the total budget; the municipal legislature handled the rest. In this early phase, the process prioritized those most underserved and since the completion of its first year, basic services to the poorest and most marginalized have dramatically improved. This, in turn, justified the expansion of PB’s portion of the overall municipal budget to 20%. Now PB handles social services, local school policy, and human rights enforcement as well as the budget of education, culture, health, and sports (Baiocchi 1999, 11). In general, PB has made great gains from the standpoints of quality and quantity of participation.

In addition, PB contains a mechanism for the evaluation of its process and enables the participants and delegates to make changes based upon these evaluations independent of the city officials and bureaucracy. Although the latter can give input, the delegates have the power to decide and implement. Significant changes have occurred over the evolution of PB with regard to the number of delegates and their length of term, the point system in which needs and regions are prioritized, and the range of issues considered. This is crucial because it shows that PB is not just a means by which the state, on its own terms, invites participation (to quell dissent or further its own legitimation), but that those operating outside the formal state set the terms under which they deliberate and the goals of the deliberative process (see Santos 2005 for more details).

Not surprisingly, much (but not all) of the interest in PB in the US is coming not from elected officials or political parties, but rather from a range of advocacy groups and community organizations. These groups and organizations are building upon earlier local traditions in participatory governance (for example, the New England town hall meeting model,) or are forging new alliances with one another as part of the global Social Forum process. This process also began in Porto Alegre in 2001, and arrived in the U.S. in 2007.

Participatory Budgeting at the U.S. Social Forum

Interest in Participatory Budgeting has been growing here in the United States, as communities and organizations face budget shortfalls and wake up to the fact that the politicians they elect are not spending tax dollars according to community priorities. The U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta in June was an ideal place to educate about PB, identify people in organizations and community groups across the country interested in working on PB, and discuss what is needed to support the work of those groups. Among the 900 workshops and sessions over the course of the week, two focused exclusively on PB.

The first session, "Participatory Budgeting: Community Control over Public Money”, took place in the early afternoon, during the same time slot as 200 other workshops. Despite this competition, the session drew over 70 people. The participants started with a round of introductions, and got the sense of the incredibly wide variety of experience with PB in the room, ranging from former residents of Porto Alegre, Brazil, to those who had heard of PB, to people who had just read the session description and been intrigued by the idea of community control over resources.

The session started with a half-hour panel, aimed at presenting basic information on PB and highlighting some examples. Mike Menser, a City University of New York (CUNY) professor, PB organizer, and one of the authors, presented the history of PB and its nuts and bolts. Maureen Turnbull, recently finished with graduate work about PB in Brazil, talked about the experience and empowerment of women through the PB process. Jennifer Flynn, director of the NYC AIDS Housing Network, talked about how her organization interacts with the city around budget issues and attempts to integrate aspects of PB. Karen Dolan, from the Institute for Policy Studies' Cities for Progress network spoke about how this network coordinates with elected officials to pass progressive local legislation. Joe Moore, a city council member from Chicago, Illinois, and member of Cities for Progress, talked about his impressions of PB from his perspective as an elected official, and offered some tips on practicalities and obstacles that would have to be overcome in order to implement PB.

The conversation then opened up to the larger group, and what followed was a lively discussion following several threads. Several people expressed enthusiasm for PB in concept, but also doubt that such a system could ever work in the U.S., primarily because of low and unrepresentative public participation. Participants stressed that people need to see results from a PB system in order to continue participation (and to build participation). The group discussed the needs and methods for keeping participation and outreach diverse. Flynn warned that PB could potentially discriminate against small and vulnerable groups of people (e.g. AIDS survivors), unless inclusive measures were taken. This prompted discussion about what, if anything, is fundamentally different between Brazil and the U.S., what cultural differences might have to be taken into account, and how elements of PB might have to be adjusted to be more effective in the U.S.

The group also discussed how PB might look in the U.S. Although PB has usually been limited to capital rather than operating budgets, participants discussed other areas that might be fertile for experimentation. The session wrapped up with talk about how most PB programs depend on elected officials voluntarily giving up some budgetary power, and strategies for convincing officials to do so. A speaker concluded that PB in Brazil did not succeed overnight, and that no one model will work for every community.

The next day was the second session, "Participatory Budgeting: Making It Work in the U.S.”. Menser, Flynn, Dolan and Moore gave short presentations, and the group (around 50 participants) quickly got into a detailed discussion of how to move PB in the US forward.[11] The first part of the discussion focused on organizing strategies and how an individual or organization would actually get PB started. The group concurred that in order for a PB project to succeed, just like any organizing, the group of initial organizers has to include the wider community stakeholders and those whose buy-in will eventually be needed. Organizers need to do their homework and figure out how and where PB would best fit into the budgetary process and address community needs. One person suggested that putting together a local social forum would be an excellent place to begin such a community discussion. There was general debate about whether PB would most likely be successful starting with a smaller or medium scale project. The group did agree, however, that as part of any PB project, public civic education about the budgetary process, interaction with government, and basic organizing is essential. There was also agreement that public participation must go beyond attendance at hearings; it must be much deeper and more authentically participatory, including participation in the actual decision making, enactment, execution and organizing.

The group moved on to discuss what infrastructure they would need to do PB organizing. They came up with the idea of a national network assisted by national organizations, providing administrative support, public relations help (for example, coordination of op-eds), education of elected officials about PB, spreading success stories, and providing information and education to organizers about PB. At the conclusion, participants reminded the group that while PB is the project, the discussion is ultimately about using PB as a vehicle for building community power and deepening democratic participation. The implications of this are manifold. Firstly, PB cannot solve all of our problems (racism, sexism, environmental degradation, war, etc.), but it can develop individual and group capabilities that can be used in areas other than the PB. Secondly, efforts to initiate participatory budgeting processes must be linked to broader social justice movements to ensure inclusiveness and a radical political pluralism at the beginning of the process. Such pluralism and inclusiveness would prevent PB processes from being perceived to be a pet project of a few knowledgeable persons who are really controlling its development. It would also make those involved feel that they are not spectators passively watching the action, but agents who will directly contribute to the outcome of the project. The inclusion of multiple diversities at the beginning (not only racial and ethnic, but cultural and ideological) not only increases fairness and equality (hallmarks of PB!), but also taps a greater range of knowledge and experiences than a program dominated by one tradition or ideology.

What Next? A National PB Network

Citizen participation in budget making is not a new idea. In North America, and especially in New England, citizens in small towns have decided on budget spending through over 300 years of town meetings (Bryan 2004). Since the 1960s, many cities, large and small, have involved residents in budgeting through community boards and councils. In several cases, such as Dayton, Ohio and Portland, Oregon these boards have developed into enduring institutional venues for dialogue and community input (Berry et al 1993, Simonsen and Robbins 2000). Increasingly, municipal governments are organizing open public consultations, in which individual citizens and organizations can express their views on budget spending. In some cities, such as Burlington [Vermont] and Seattle, small citizen boards are empowered to allocate community grants, through participatory grant-making schemes (Lerner and Baiocchi, forthcoming).

Lerner and Baoicchi, along with the authors of this essay, are developing a national PB network, building upon these many examples of PB that already exist in the United States, and also on the work that was done at the USSF. The network aims to promote and support participatory budgeting in U.S. local governments, agencies, and organizations. Drawing upon Lerner and Baiocchi’s analysis, one might say that there are four possible scenarios for the emergence of new PB practices in the U.S. The first scenario is local precedent: there is some existing PD initiative (Dayton) or history of popular democracy (New England) which supplies a least a partial basis for the justification of PB. In other words PB is doable because some PD program is already in effect, or there is a local or regional history of it occurring. The second scenario is economic crisis, which is how PB came to be in Porto Alegre. Combined with a lack of faith in the state’s ability to solve the problem, economic crises sometimes enable previously inactive or unaligned groups to form coalitions for basic survival purposes. Lerner and Baiocchi note the recent emergence of a robust PD project in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Called Lawrence Community Works, it works for sustainable economic and physical revitalization of the community. Another example is when the Toronto’s Community Housing corporation (TCHC), the second largest public housing authority in North America, faced drastic budget cuts in 2000. A PB process was launched both because tenants wanted more decision-making power, and because the housing administration did not want to make tough choices, deferring instead to the newly emerging PB.

With this last example one cannot help but think of Katrina and the recent decision by the New Orleans city council to permit the demolition of 4,500 public housing units. There were many groups from the Gulf Coast at the USSF, including a few individuals who attended both PB sessions. Their presence and their questions reminded us of the urgency of this sometimes abstract phrase “participatory democracy.” From homelessness to gentrification, and now, to the subprime crisis, the housing question is one that begs for a new conversation, and the political parties are not permitting it. With the emergence of the “right to the city” coalition last year and the formation of several other alliances at the USSF, forwarding PB proposals and connecting them to existing solidarity economy projects is not only a possible next step, but a necessary one.

The trick, of course, is to create a political space where a mix of groups and individuals can come together in a way that is open and empowering but focused. Here, the Social Forum process which helped to launch the PD national initiative can be put to use at the local level. A great way of checking out the possibilities of launching a PB project is to have a Social Forum first and make PB a central piece (maybe part of a plenary). This helps to create the space for a wider sense of ownership of the PB project, since most people are totally unaware of its present or past. Another strategy is to focus on bringing in organizations that have earned the respect of their communities combined with those that have knowledge of the intricacies of municipal government and law. Alternatively, if those seem too daunting or ill suited to one’s local situation, then why not take the path of the Ridgeview elementary school in Vancouver, Canada and let the kids try it! In this case, PB was launched with seventh-graders. After assessing the needs of their school with the help of teachers and administrators, the students voted to set up a school store to help them raise additional funds so as to take on an array of projects, including “. . . cooking classes, a small indoor climbing wall, a water fountain, new sports equipment, and a school pet that students would take care of.” (Lerner and Baiocchi). It is with this wonderful mix of basic needs and ludic playfulness that we conclude, so that all of you may contemplate the possibilities of participatory democracy in the places where you live and love, fight and dream.


[1] For the purposes of this essay we shall use the term “participatory democracy” rather than “direct democracy” because the first category is broader; thus, DD is a kind of PD, but there are others. It is worth noting that some believe PD is too close to the liberal democratic state and that direct democracy (also called self-governance, self-determination, or autogestion) is the real future of democracy. While we are sympathetic to this view, we do not share it. For more on this issue see Menser, “Disarticulate the State (forthcoming, Routledge 2008).
[2] According to PB researcher Josh Lerner, the most robust example of PB is no longer Porto Alegre, but Seville Spain. Other cities that are undertaking PB projects include dozens in the Dominican Republic, Bobigny, France, the London Burrow of Harrow, Puntagorda, Canary Islands, and Guelph, Canada. PB has also occurred within different municipal departments such as in public housing in Toronto and in schools in Brazil. A lengthy if incomplete list is found at (Hereafter cited as “PB website.)
[3] We note the origin of the term not to proclaim Kaufman ( or SDS, for that matter) to be the sole originator of the participatory democracy; PD has been practiced in many different cultural contexts for millennia, but to note the intersection of theoretical innovations alongside emerging social movements and the productive interplay between the two. This cross-fertilization between the theoretical and the action-oriented is again at play in the current moment in what often gets called the global justice movement. See D.L. Sheth’s , The reinvention of Participatory Democracy”.
[4] Of course, this same elitist argument could be made against the leadership of the current administration but we’ll pass on that contradiction for the moment. What is worth emphasizing, however, is that the existence and spread of PD and participatory budgeting in particular demonstrates the falsity of the all too familiar argument that “average citizens” are unable to make good decisions; (more below.)
[5] A wonderful instance of this understanding was in full display in January of 2008 when Hillary Clinton stated that "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, [that] the president before [him] had not even tried," she said. “It took a president to get it done." Former community organizer and current presidential candidate Barack Obama took offense, as did many others and the two have agreed to drop the issue.
[6] Again see for this information and many resources and documents on PB across the world. One can also join the US and international PB list serves there.
[7] This paragraph and the next are largely taken from Menser (2008).
[8] Shortly after the onset of the PB process, street paving, sewage infrastructure, and housing were frequently deemed to be the most pressing needs for many of the regions (Baiocchi 1999, Santos 2005).
[9] From its inception, PB was not merely designed to increase participation, but to deliver benefits to those who had been underserved by the municipality. While this framework has generally been adhered to over its existence, it has evolved in myriad ways. See Santos 2005b.
[10] See Menser 2005.
[11] Organizers of the sessions were Josh Lerner (Planners Network;, Mike Menser (CUNY), Karen Dolan (Cities for Progress; and Juscha Robinson (Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution;
Baiocchi, Gianpaolo. 2003. “Participation, Activism, and Politics: the Porto Alegre Experiment,” in Deepening Democracy, edited by Archon Fung and Eric Olin Wright.
Berry, J, Portney, K and Thomsen, K. (1993). The Rebirth of Urban Democracy. Washington: The Brookings Institution.
Bryan, F. (2004). Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Chavez, Daniel 2004. Polis and Demos: the Left in Municipal Governance in Montevideo
and Porto Alegre. Shaker Publishing: Maastricht, Netherlands.
Lerner, J. and Baiocchi, G. (forthcoming) "Could Participatory Budgeting Work in the United States?, “The Good Society”.
Menser, Michael. 2005. The Global Social Forum Movement, Porto Alegre's "Participatory Budget, and the Maximization of Democracy,” in Situations: a Journal of the Radical Imagination, Vol. 1, No. 1, 87-108.
2008. “Transnational Democracy in Action: the Case of Via Campesina.” Journal of Social Philosophy.
Pateman, Carole. 1970. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2005. “Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre: Toward a Redistributive Democracy,” in Democratizing Democracy: Beyond the Liberal Democratic Canon, edited by Boaventura de Sousa Santos. New York: Verso.
Simonsen, W. and Robbins, M. (2000). Citizen Participation in Resource Allocation. Boulder, CO: Westview.

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