Participatory Budgeting: A Way Forward for the Brazilian Anticorruption Agenda

In Brazil’s presidential elections last month, former President Lula, leader of the left-wing Workers’ Party, narrowly defeated right-wing incumbent President Bolsonaro. But even though many Brazilian anticorruption scholars and activists, as well as members of the international anticorruption community (including on this blog), had endorsed Lula over Bolsonaro, there is considerable pessimism about the future of anticorruption reform in Brazil, at least in the near term. Although Lula’s previous administrations had advanced important anticorruption reforms, as well as broader institutional reforms to strengthen the independence and effectiveness of Brazil’s institutions of justice, the fact that Lula was himself incarcerated for corruption offenses until the Supreme Court voided his conviction on procedural grounds has made anticorruption such a polarizing issue—and so associated the anticorruption agenda with the right wing—that many believe that Lula will be much more hostile to an anticorruption agenda this time around. Moreover, even if President Lula were amenable to backing anticorruption reforms, the right wing dominates Congress, making such reforms even less likely to pass.

Although the prospects for significant advances in the anticorruption agenda at the national level are dim, there are more opportunities for progress than the dominant pessimistic view acknowledges. Importantly, Brazil is a federal republic, where both state governments and local municipalities have a considerable degree of autonomy. Furthermore, even if the rhetoric of anticorruption has become unhelpfully politicized in Brazil, there are many reforms that do not overtly target “corruption” but that nonetheless may have significant anticorruption benefits. So, the way forward for Brazilian anticorruption reformers over the next several years involves a shift in focus from federal-level anticorruption prosecutions to local-level institutional reforms with significant but indirect anticorruption effects.

One reform that fits the bill is participatory budgeting (PB). Brazil’s anticorruption community should make common cause with other good-government and pro-democracy advocates to push for the expansion of PB at the municipal level.

PB originated in Brazil, in the southern city of Porto Alegre in 1989, and since then PB has spread to over one hundred municipalities in Brazil and over 7,000 cities in dozens of countries across the globe. PB is somewhat difficult to summarize, as there is a great deal of diversity among PB models. But speaking generally, PB seeks to democratize the municipal budgeting process by facilitating direct citizen participation in decisions about municipal spending priorities and the allocation of municipal funds to concrete projects. Though the mechanisms for doing so vary, there are certain common features that are widely shared:

  • Priority setting: The process typically begins with information sessions (which may be held in town halls, schools, churches, and online) to teach the community about the PB program. After this general introduction, community assemblies are formed. These are often neighborhood-based but can also be thematic. In these assemblies, citizens discuss and vote on the community’s priorities (which might be things like increasing street lighting, updating school buildings, or building more parks).
  • Project development and selection: After the community assemblies establish their priorities, delegates from the community then work with government officials to select a set of concrete project proposals, a process that involves assessing projects’ feasibility and developing a more detailed project budget and timeline. The community then has the opportunity to vote again, to select which of the proposed projects should be implemented.
  • Oversight: PB typically also involves community-based oversight after the projects have been selected, with community delegates keeping track of the projects’ progress and the use of the funds, and government officials periodically providing public updates to the neighborhood assemblies.

PB was initially adopted to increase citizen participation and to improve service delivery, particularly among the poor; it was not originally conceived as an anticorruption tool. But, intriguingly, in Brazil PB has been correlated to lower levels of corruption. While this correlation alone does not establish a causal relationship, there are at least two reasons to believe that PB, if effectively implemented, can reduce municipal corruption:

  • First, by committing portions of the discretionary budget to the projects that the community most wants and needs, PB can decrease bribery opportunities and disrupt clientelism networks that involve exchanging the selection of public works projects for money or political support.
  • Second, PB makes corruption schemes at the project implementation level more difficult because the citizenry is active in determining the expected costs of the work and monitoring its progress. Indeed, many PB models, including several in Brazil include explicit transparency and accountability mechanisms. In Porto Alegre, for example, at the end of the PB cycle, municipal officials must make public reports to the local assemblies about how much the project has cost, the degree to which it has been completed, and how much more it is expected to cost before completion. If a project is substantially delayed, or is costing more than was allocated, budget delegates discuss what has driven up costs or caused delays. Other effective oversight mechanisms in use in PB cities abroad include making payments only when projects are completed and approved by the community, which ensures projects are not stalled or abandoned after payment.

Although Brazil is a PB pioneer, there is still room for substantial expansion of PB programs. Currently, fewer than 1.5% of Brazilian municipalities have PB programs, and even in cities that do have such programs, the amount of funding allocated through PB is often modest. Anticorruption advocates can and should push for the adoption of PB in more cities, and for scaling up PB in those cities that have it. To be sure, the experience with PB has not been universally positive, and for this reason advocates should also focus on promoting PB best practices. This should not entail trying to identify one-size-fits-all models: the flexibility of PB and the ability of municipalities to experiment with the model to fit their unique needs are key strengths of PB. Rather, efforts should focus on developing networks where activists and local leaders can share best practices and successful innovations in their municipalities, to assist municipal governments in designing PB programs that fit their particular needs and circumstances.

Not only would pushing for the expansion of PB at the municipal level help reduce corruption in Brazil over the longer term, but right now this sort of reform is much more politically feasible than other items on the anticorruption reform agenda. The growth of PB at the municipal level does not depend on the goodwill of the federal government. PB has broad appeal to both middle class and working class voters. It also has cross-party appeal: Although the Workers’ party pioneered PB, and Lula promised during his campaign that he would adopt PB at the federal level if elected, almost half of the municipalities that have adopted PB are led by other parties, and no party has come out openly against PB.

There is thus reason to be optimistic about the political feasibility of a push for PB expansion at the local level, and about the potential impact of PB on corruption. Brazilian activists, civil society, and politicians can and should push for the expansion of robust PB models with strong oversight and transparency mechanisms specifically as an anticorruption tool.

3 thoughts on “Participatory Budgeting: A Way Forward for the Brazilian Anticorruption Agenda

  1. What a creative and fascinating proposal! I think you are absolutely correct that this could be an effective anticorruption tool. The one concern I have is that the greatest strength of a PB program — its promotion of active citizen engagement — might also pose a problem. Wealthier people tend to be more politically engaged (at least in the US), due in large part because they have more time and resources to devote. If this is true in Brazil, then you might imagine that the wealthy would be disproportionately engaged in the PB process, which in turn might distort the priorities of any PB project.

    If that’s the case, I wonder if (1) you think that this would have any impact on the effectiveness of PB as an anticorruption tool; and (2) if so, whether there are any mechanisms or safeguards to combat that possibility?

    • Thank you for the thoughtful question and response. Empirically, participation in PB appears to be more equitable than in other forms of political participation, particularly more than voting: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1177/0486613411418055 (finding that in Porto Alegre, PB incorporated groups traditionally marginalized from political participation, particularly racial minorities, women, and low-income individuals “in a greater percentage than their weight in the population as a whole”); https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07393148.2017.1278858?casa_token=fivmu8tPCM4AAAAA%3A1-5F2zlHOSmlWneNL3m0Y_4hrCYY5bAz2txP019aKhqtIwHzobIh-E6iffAq94p_zPUL0oD5rxSn (noting that “PBNYC has succeeded in engaging traditionally marginalized constituents”, that these results have been replicated in other models globally, but also importantly highlighting the racial justice nuances and complications of PB). Importantly, participation in PB may actually increase individuals’ likelihood to vote on traditional elections: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11109-021-09679-w.pdf?pdf=button. Also importantly, the impacts of PB tend to be redistributive: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0020852320943668?casa_token=0sor3Q5B7sIAAAAA%3A-_gEmyYgSww5AkpgYhfNMhVVAz5T6SHjgzs24exw0Ai5FBAUcdL_srg_4tyMFtqG_VUA9GKSYy-Y; https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0486613411418055?casa_token=xpCvNzVOh-kAAAAA%3Akduyxt2wLIglg5A157Xj5tNfsyL6-RzwWQRvlAg_nb3edQ5XnUNA2DnDr0tSWN-SPou6cXqwSnsL.

      There are a couple of reasons why that might be the case, and these reasons are themselves good ideas for best practices. One is that the threshold for participation is often lower, particularly in models that are digitized. Participation in the deliberative portion, for example, can happen through comments in a platform (that is notably the case in NYC). Another important equalizer is neighborhood assemblies. Because neighborhoods tend to have more homogenous levels of income, the use of these assemblies (and sending delegates and proposals from each one) prevents wealthier individuals from being the only delegates and the only voices heard. The use of language specific meetings (also done extensively in New York) can also encourage participation from individuals who, due to language barriers, do not otherwise participate in other forms of political participation such as townhalls. PB also often does not have citizenship requirements, nd allows younger participants who cannot vote in regular elections, which encourages participation from otherwise politically disenfranchised individuals.

      Finally, there are some good reasons why lower income individuals may feel more compelled to participate in PB than in state or federal elections. The participation of any one individual is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete policies that would have a substantial impact in that individual’s daily life within their community. As PB funds are often allocated on a sub-city level (by borough, for example) and involve much smaller communities of individuals, the potential for a singular person to have a real concrete impact on local-level issues that affect them daily (no playgrounds for children, for example, or insufficient streetlighting contributing to crime, lack or subpar access to sewage and clean water in the neighborhood) is much higher. Programs such as Porto Alegre’s or Seoul’s, which prioritizes funding access based on the socioeconomic need of the community can further that phenomenon, where lower income communities experience more of the benefits of PB (sometimes more directly than national-level social programs) and therefore have more reason to participate.

      The participatory paradox, where high-intensity levels of participation can lead to less equitable participation and outcomes, is a potential challenge that PB models have to confront head-on. But in many models this challenge has not materialized, and the opposite has in fact occurred. There is therefore reason to be optimistic that PB models can avoid this trap successfully in part because of the rich existing literature and variety of models with differing levels of success to learn from.

  2. Great post. I appreciate your point about turning to local anticorruption reform. Like you suggest, states get to experiment and look to the results that one another’s experiments bring about. And PB is a really interesting way to do that while achieving other benefits for democracy and distributive justice.

    PB strikes me as an especially useful example because it can broken down into so many sub-components. States can pick and choose measures that help curb corruption even if they don’t embrace PB as a whole. For instance, you mention Porto Alegre’s reporting requirements. That seems like it could be really helpful even if a government doesn’t adopt a PB system.

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