Participatory budgeting

Getting everyone involved in the government budget process


Participatory budgeting is, simply put, the process whereby citizens are invited to participate in, and contribute to, setting the budget direction of a portion of a City’s capital funding. Below, we’ll will look at the early origins of participatory budgeting, as well as elements of successful budgeting and points to consider before adopting it in your city, county, agency or state.


The origins of participatory budgeting


The first instance of complete participatory budgeting occurred in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, as a reform initiative aimed at overcoming inequities in the living standards of the city’s residents. The city continues to use this model to remarkable success. Due to the high level of interest amongst citizens, the City uses a fairly complex participatory model.


So how does it work? In Porto Alegre, citizen groups are established throughout the 16 districts of the city, representing many economic and political backgrounds. These groups identify and discuss their priorities, and then select a representative to attend weekly meetings with city officials to prioritize spending. More than 50,000 citizens in Porto Alegre get involved in the process each year, with attendance at district meetings upwards of 1,000 people.

The high level of involvement and success of the program can be seen in some of the budget improvements that have taken place in the City since participatory budgeting began:


  • The number of schools has quadrupled
  • Health and education budget has increased by 27%
  • Sewer and water connections have increased by 23%
  • Increase in support services for the unemployed


With the success in Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting was rolled out in over 150 cities in Brazil, and eventually to countries around the world. Many cities in North America have incorporated participatory budgeting in some way, including the cities of Chicago, New York, and Vallejo in the U.S., and the cities of Guelph, Toronto, and Vancouver, in Canada. Some are using it city-wide while others are using it for select districts or departments.    


Participatory budgeting is typically employed in two fiscal environments: when the financial resources are available to allow citizens to help set funding for specific programs, or when a government is fiscally strapped, and citizens are engaged to help set general policies on how to most effectively allocate limited resources.


Successful participatory budgeting requires:

  • Support of both mayoral office and legislature – must be willing to experiment with the budgeting process and consider new alternatives
  • Citizens willing and able to commit to the process – a successful participatory budgeting model can take years to establish
  • A political environment conducive to participatory budgeting – governments that enjoy an environment of strong social activism, as the mechanisms may already be in place for community engagement
  • Resource availability – both financial (to support the programs), and time (to administer the process)   


While there are benefits to participatory budgeting, there are also potential barriers that should be considered:

  • Citizen involvement in the budget process can be a good thing but there are differing opinions as to how involved they should be. Do you engage them in the early stages, towards the end, or throughout? It stands to reason that the earlier citizens are involved, the higher the level of transparency and input, increasing the level of buy-in. With City budgets being cut and scrutiny at an all -time high, engaging the public becomes an ever more important factor to consider.
  • Are the citizens knowledgeable enough to understand the complicated process of selecting programs and executing them?
  • Is every group being given an equal voice? In the case where one citizen group has higher numbers in attendance, are the smaller, perhaps more important initiatives being heard?
  • Do all citizens have equal access to the process? Geography, socioeconomics, and physical ability need to be considered when establishing a citizen contribution structure. Are other methods, such as social media, being used as tools to encourage and support citizen engagement?


Participatory budgeting in North America


As we’ve discussed, participatory budgeting has been successful in many areas such as Brazil, and North America. It provides an opportunity to involve citizens into the budgeting process while also creating efficiency on how to allocate scarce resources. Below we will look at how other cities in Canada and the U.S. used participatory budgeting to their advantage.


  • City of Chicago – being used at the ward level to fund infrastructure improvements such as new street lights, improved bike lanes, playground upgrades.
  • New York City – largest participatory budgeting program in the U.S. doubled in size after its’ initial year. Program initiatives have included new books and equipment for library, transportation for seniors and meals-on-wheels deliveries, new equipment for volunteer fire department, funding for etech campus for non-profit agency servicing 45,000+ people.
  • City of Vallejo – citizens agreed to a one penny increase in sales tax, which would result in an anticipated $9.5M increase in revenue. In return, they could vote on how that money would be spent. This represents the first city-wide initiative in North America.
  • City of Toronto – Community Housing is using this approach. Holding an “Allocation Day”, 17 community housing units received funding including: upgrades to a community recreation center used primarily for youth programming, installation of lighting to improve community safety, and new playground equipment for three communities.
  • City of Guelph – working with the Neighborhood Support Coalition (NSC) to provide funding for projects aimed at meeting the needs of the city’s lower income neighborhoods. The City transfers funds to the NSC which is then directly responsible for distributing the funds. This collaborative effort has grown to 12 participating neighborhood groups throughout the City. Money has been directed towards numerous community building events and programs (peer support groups, language classes, tax clinics, etc.).



Learn more about how Questica Budget Suite for governments can help your city, county, agency or state shift to not only participatory budgeting but streamline its budgeting process. Sign-up for one of our free monthly informational webinars or request a demo today.