Blog Political Science and Public Administration

Ismael Blanco (Visiting researcher at De Montfort University, researcher IGOP- UAB).

What effects can be expected from the practice of participatory budgeting? Is it reasonable to anticipate significant policy changes? What does it depend on? This study addresses these questions through a comparative analysis of eleven currently operating participatory budget experiences in the province of Barcelona. The research highlights the serious limitations of such practices as they are conceived and developed in this context. At the same time, the study reveals substantial local variation, and also the fact that the best results tend to occur in small municipalities governed by independent candidates.

 

A review of the literature on participatory budgeting and other mechanisms of participation shows the predominance of highly optimistic predictions about the potential of such practices. Some authors have presented them as an antidote to the phenomenon of political disaffection; it has also been argued that participatory mechanisms can help offset the decline of social capital; it has been claimed that they can improve the efficiency and equity of public policies; and it has even been suggested that they can empower the most disadvantaged social groups.

 

This study is based on the premise that the transforming capacity of this type of participatory mechanism depends on the existence of certain preconditions, among which are the following: a) The existence of strong political leadership and transversal acceptance of participation within the municipal administrative apparatus; b) the range of decision-making power afforded to citizens; c) visibility of the participation areas, awareness of them among the population, their mobilizing power and social representativeness; d) evidence of the impact on public decisions; and e) a change in the political attitudes of the groups that are involved (councilors, municipal technicians, associations and the citizens themselves). All these parameters are used to assess the performance of participatory budgets, and ultimately, to infer their ability to transform politics at the local level.

 

The empirical information this research is based on was obtained through a study commissioned by the Office of Citizen Participation of the Barcelona Provincial Council. The main objectives of that study were to obtain systematic information on participatory budgeting practices in the province and their results, as well as to encourage an exchange of information and observations among municipalities.That study yielded a wealth of information on these experiences through the carrying out of over 30 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with political representatives, technicians and associations in each town; extensive analysis of documents; and the conducting of six discussion sessions with the specialists in charge.

 

The main findings of the research project are:

 

First of all, the transformative power of participatory budgeting is severely limited by three types of factors: a) The fact that they tend to be limited to areas of government with little institutional importance, such as citizen participation councils, and the great difficulty of involving other key areas like urban planning or revenue; b) the limited decision-making power given to the citizens, as in most cases only a small percentage of the investment capital is controlled by this participation, and c) the lack of social mobilization generated by this practice, along with a clear under-representation of certain groups, such as youth and immigrants.

 

Secondly, despite such limitations, all the instances analyzed tended to achieve good results in two important dimensions: a) The transformation of citizen proposals into highly visible budgetary decisions, in cases where they involved investment in public works; b) the development of more favorable attitudes toward political participation as a result of the participatory experience, particularly among technicians and municipal politicians.

 

Thirdly, although these trends were observable in all the cases studied, the variation between cases was significant. Comparative analysis highlights the incidence of two types of factors, namely: a) The size of the municipalities, and b) the political-ideological orientation of those governments, and their conception of citizen participation. In this sense, the best results can be seen in small towns governed by candidates outside the major political parties, with strongly participative discourse.

 

The full text of this article can be found in:

 

Blanco, I. and Ballester, M. (Approved 2010). “¿Participar para transformar? La experiencia de los Presupuestos Participativos en la provincia de Barcelona.” Management and Policy Analysis.