As participatory budgeting is slowly gaining traction in North America (see map), two ways have emerged how the term is being applied:

  • Narrowly, referring only to processes that give participants decision making power, e.g. by way of voting on their preferred projects/investments (the “Empower” level on the IAP2 Spectrum)
  • Broadly, referring to any participatory processes that have to do with budgets, including budget consultations (the “Consult” level on the IAP2 Spectrum)

As mentioned previously, I usually don’t worry too much about what the right definition should be. As long as everyone’s clear what’s being talked about, no problem. However, in this case I’m strongly in the camp of using the term narrowly. Among the people who are most knowledgable about the topic, the consensus appears to be that it is a fixed term that refers to the kinds or processes we’ve seen come out of Brazil. It should not be watered down by applying it to any old budget survey (not that there’s anything wrong with those).

Earlier last year, I spent some time looking for a good definition, which turned out to be more difficult than expected. I found a number of decent ones, but nothing quite authoritative enough. So I let this post sit in draft mode for the time being.

Then, last September, Tiago Peixoto beat me to it by sharing his list of key qualities: Participatory Budgeting: Seven Defining Characteristics

“Participatory budgeting (PB) can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of budget allocation and in the monitoring of public spending.”

Nevertheless, while easy to understand, this definition opens the door to a big (and annoying) interpretation problem: some might think that simple budget consultations are the same as participatory budgeting, and they are not.

In my opinion, there are no perfect definitions, with different authors stressing different points. Based on the literature that I have read, I think that participatory budgeting – at least ideally – should present the following seven characteristics:

  1. Public budgets are the object of the process, or at least part of it (it is not urban planning)
  2. Citizen participation has a direct impact on the budget (it is not a consultation)
  3. Citizens decide on the rules governing the process
  4. The process has a deliberative element (it is not like the Swiss fiscal referendum for example)
  5. A redistributive logic is embedded in the design of the process (e.g. poorest districts / areas get more money and vice-versa)
  6. The process is institutionally designed to ensure that citizens can monitor public spending
  7. The process is repeated periodically (e.g. on a yearly basis)

Of course, I am probably missing and adding elements that many scholars would point out. Some might fairly consider my interpretation as too orthodox: a number of initiatives that we call PB rarely combine all seven elements.

Below are some of the definitions I came across in my search:

For starters, here’s one from New York, NY-based non-profit The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP):

What is Participatory Budgeting?

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.

[…]

This one comes from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), and is considerably broader: 72 Frequently Asked Questions about Participatory Budgeting (PDF)

What is Participatory Budgeting (PB)?

There is no single definition, because Participatory Budgeting differs greatly from one place to the next. […] Nevertheless, in general terms, a Participatory Budget is “a mechanism (or process) through which the population decides on, or contributes to decisions made on, the destination of all or part of the available public resources.”

It’s unclear whether the part enclosed in quotation marks references a previous definition. If it does, I haven’t been able to locate it.

And another one, from Participationcompass (formerly People & Participation):

Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting is an umbrella term which covers a variety of mechanisms that delegate power or influence over local budgets, investment priorities and economic spending to citizens.

The latter two definitions include budget consultations, which to date appear to have been the predominant approach in North America and Europe to engaging people around budgets.

And finally one more from a March 2008 consultation by the UK Department for Communities and Local Government: Participatory Budgeting: a draft national strategy (Update 2013/03/07: note that the original document seems to have disappeared but the City of Rossendale, UK hosts a mirrored version of the file on their website)

What we mean by participatory budgeting

Participatory budgeting engages people in taking decisions on the spending priorities for a defined public budget in their local area. This means engaging residents and community groups to discuss spending priorities, make spending proposals, and vote on them, as well giving local people a role in the scrutiny and monitoring of the process.

For more on the first ever participatory budgeting project, see Participedia: Participatory Budgeting: Porto Alegre

What does participatory budgeting mean to you?