Participatory Budgeting worldwide!

I am a very passionate about politics. More specifically I am a lover of democracy and the first goal of my life is today working for that in order to make people’s life better. I am a “participatory democracy developer” ad my job now is to develop projects of participatory budgeting in the cities.

It started long time ago. I finished the secondary school - degree in electronic and telecommunication! - and I was struggling to find a job. No way.

So it was usual to spent time watching tv, especially in night time…but no, not watching porno movies… worse: political talk shows! Even worse, the favourite one used to be Porta a Porta, a programme anchored by Bruno Vespa where the guests are usually politicians! I know, that is crazy, but the creaziest thing was that I found them damned interesting (perhaps - yeah! - that could be the reason of my aversion to politicians and to elitarian democracy).

Well, to make a long story short, I enrolled at the University, faculty of Political Science, and from that moment on I’ve never stopped being interested on politics and, more recently, on democracy: BA, MA, PhD.

I was studying in UK (Leeds University) when I discovered participatory budgeting, probably the most innovative form of democracy: basically, it is a way in which citizens can directly decide how to spend public money and elect special representative for that. That would have been my PhD thesis. And that was.

After my filedwork in Porto Alegre in Brazil (where I had the good fortune to meet the founders and long time activists) I had the chance to implement without restraints a concrete experience of Participatory Budgeting in a small town called Canegrate. That meant that I could finally put into practice what I was trying to explain (with any results) during the academic conferences I used to participate. Canegrate Partecipa was launched and in three years it has been considered a best practice from many institutions: the Provincia di Milano awarded it as the most innovative project of e-democracy, it was selected as the best example of participatory project by the Scuola di Alt(r)a Amministrazione, and by the FORUM PA, the Forum of the Third Sector. Actually it worked: during the last edition, almost two thousand of citizens (nearly 15% of the population) decided directly how to spend 100.000 euro for public needs.

The democratic mechanism is quite simple: citizens formulate proposals, public servants evaluate them and citizens vote the priorities, those who must be realized right now. They must be aware of simple rules: the more they are, the more they get. That is to say, they should make the effort to gather and come up with a joint or common project which is much more likely to find widespread support from the bottom up. In this sense, being aware of the economic restraints (the budget) is a valid incentive to realize that we are part a world of limited resources and nobody can pretend to get simply what they want. Today, citizens do not vote projects according to the knowledge of the common resources, they vote people according to somobody else’s promises (which problably do not know how budgets neither)…

This large interests around Canegrate Partecipa, allows us to spread the idea as well as the practice in itself beyond the borders of Canegrate and the Province of Milano, as many other Municipalities were curios to know and experiment it.

Today new and more sopisticated projects of participatory budgeting are carrying out in two Municipalities - Cernusco Lombardone (LC) e Cascina (PI) - and soon in an entire Province (Pesaro-Urbino). To be able to coordinate all them together and provide citizens as wella as local authorities for a useful and friendly tool, we are creating a web-based platform for participation and participatory budgetings.

What lies behind participatory budgeting?

There are several forms of democracies and democratic processes, but I believe we should first understand how human being, society and the world work. Afterwards, we can imagine and develop democracy.

In a nutshell, according to my opinion society is relation; agency depends on social structures as well as social structures depend on agency. People interact to each other and to “the world out there”, si that intelligence and cohesion can spread only if information is shared and cooperation is promoted. Therefore, democracy is the poltical system which allows people to communicate, to be informed and to affect the sphere where they live. All these are the basic principles of the web. Therefore, democracy should broadly take the form of the web in the sense that people must be free to participate and self-organize in accordance with their natural forms of aggregation.

People gather into specific themes, interests and projects and they do not really gather around political programmes. As a result, democracy should be based on participation over projects: people should be able to decide which and how develop project as well as to elect somebody who reflects their ideas. Those people will be responsible to find the synthesis, but the synthesis should be the interaction of such existing communities.

(to be continued… )

Great thing!

Hi, I didn’t knew about this form of democratic experience, I think it’s a very interesting way to encourage democratic participation.

I’m italian too so I can understand what you are talking about, our country really needs to motivate people to believe again in democratic institutions and, most of all, to partecipate in the developement of them.

I’ve read on wikipedia in italian that there are some Municipalities in our country which did it, how were the results? Did people partecipate? Was it effective or there were just a lot of words?

Revitalizing the word democracy

I’ve heard “participatory democracy” before, but the “deliberative democracy” flavor is new to me. Looked it up however, and it sounds great. Nowadays we intuitively associate dempocracy with its representativ flavor, which to a degree has discredited the word itself. So thanks for revitalizing “democracy” for us, the word and the idea.

It also seems a good idea to start with participatory projects on the local / municipal level. It has the best chances to work here, as this level is not too attractive to serious “power junkie” politicians, so that there’s a good chance for a deliberation process rather than power struggle. I’m still suspecting power struggle will always dominate politics in larger groups, and bring about bad decisions - but welcome to prove me wrong here. (So far, my own rather radical proposal is to localize all state functions as much as possible, so that the local entities are more or less sovereign themselves and there’s not much need for “higher” politics.)

Also, Stefano: Congrats for finding the job that is meaningful to you! I can confirm that finding such a thing can take much time …

Align with the deepest aspirations of the citizens

This is what Edgeryders is trying to do, ‘first understand how human being, society and the world work’, It had never been asked before to citizens, “What type of society do you want to live in? On which basis do you want to become linked in the community?” When Gilda Farrell created the Edgeryders project, this is the aim she had in mind. (see Meet the team: Gilda)

I have more confidence in this model of collaboration between a government and its citizens, since it allows to really align governments projects and policies on the deepest aspirations of the population.

Citizens often feel disconnected, or disengaged, about what the governement is proposing. Participatory budgeting could be a source of division and conflict, if the budgets that are proposed do not correspond to projects or directions aligning with the aspirations of citizens.

For instance, there has been many cuts in budgets, but if these cuts put an end to agencies struggling to maintain world peace, or diminish efforts to lower the level of greenhouse gases prioduced within the country, these budget cuts may not be accepted by citizens. Participation and collaboration will then turn into confrontation, and policy makers will find the exercise very difficult to handle, and citizens will not enjoy their experience. Everyone will lose.

I believe that what lies beyond, and behind, the participatory budgeting, is crucial, and should be more explored by governments. So far, most of the intiatives have been about ‘what do you think about this specific bill or thing that we are doing?’, instead of asking what the citizens would like to see happen. Policy makers could have many surprises, and end up with a variety of totally new things they had not considered at all…

Policy makers will have to let go of their grip on power, in order to establish a true collaboration with citizens.

Participatory deliberations as rejuvenating democracy

This is brilliant – One more profound social invention coming out of Latin America’s beautiful mix of Liberation theology, serious marxist scholarship and presumably indigenous community practice.

How can this be made more visible:

say by building a to-scale version of it into the procedures of the occupy movement?

I’d gladly spend some time on this Stefano… as for your friends the chronic politicians, I’m working on the antidote for that too.


Thanks everybody!

Hi everybody!

thank you for your comments and support! If you don’t mind, I try to reply to you all here.


Thanks and good point! “Deliberative” or “participatory” give more sense and flavour to “democracy”! I’d also like to localize as much sovereignty as possible, but the more the globalization the more we need some sort of coordination, let alone the word centralization. In this sense, I believe that we need new forms of governace at the state and global level, which let other people - with other interests - to be in charge. The problem is right on what you said: “power struggle”. Present day politics and political institutions are patterned on centralizion and incentive struggle to gain power. We need to start from the assumption that power in democracy must be achieved as a result of coordination, not of competition. But this is another story…


You’re extremely right when you says that “Citizens often feel disconnected, or disengaged, about what the governement is proposing”, I wonder how can be possible! If there is such a large GAP, the answer is just one and “double-face”: representatives are not representing (they are at least ruling), and society is not (able to) governing. In my opinion, this situation is unsolvable because of the structural distinction between politics and society. Nobody hold the Holy Grail and this must be crafted together. In this sense, the solution is in both “deliberative” and “participatory” democracy because they let the people enter more into the governing process through their “representative” groups.

In this sense, PB can by no means be a source of (more) conflict (than now), because people learn the exact amount of resources (then the cuts) and deliberate directly on it (rather than delegate the responsibility to policy makers). And if they feel that the rule of games are really democratic (they provide with effective redistribution), despite the cuts, they are more willing to accept the results. What if the contrary happens: would people feel less frustrated?

So, you’re doubly right: the policy makers have to release their power: I think they must behave like “facilitators” to empower citizens and their governing capacity. But to do so, democratic institution and participation has to change as well. PB is a method.


There are several cases of PB in Italy as well as over the world. But more than 2000 cases were recorded in total, many of those in Latin America of course, but many others in Europe as well. I believe that Portugal is definitely the most active country up to date (Lisbon, Cascais, Odemira). Spain used to have many PBs (Seville, before the financial crisis and the collapse of the Left. In my opinion, the most interesting (western) cases are spreading right now in USA: Chicago and New York first of all, where Aldermans give their personal budget at disposal to the citizens.

With regards to Italy, to be honest, I do not really know the exact number of PBs, especially the quality. In any case:

  • there used to be much more experiences in 2000 than now, when the Left and Social Movements were stronger, in the wake of the emerging global movements and the extraordinay experience of the World Social Forums. Pieve Emanuele (also called Pieve Alegre!) achieved huge notoriety on that time. Many other cities in Lombardia (Bergamo, Vimercate, Cernusco s/n), and Emilia Romagna also committed themselves in experiments, but I do not know their actual status. Anyway, as you know, since the Berlusconian regime came, there has been a rapid decline of initiatives. Among all, Grottammare was perhaps the first and the most interesting case, as PB were settled in 1994 by a civic list wo gathered people coming from the civil society and won the first elections after the scandal of corruption "Mani Pulite";
  • participation has never been high: it's about 1-2% of the citizenry. In my opinion, this is because PB has always been seen as a form of direct democracy based on (sometimes exhausting) meetings and assemblies where people elaborate proposal directly and vote them.
In any case, the problem is that nobody really knows what PB exactly is as any initiatives which involve citizens to decide over the public expenditures is labelled as such: so, everybody call their own participatory initiatives as PB but many of those are not really PB! Participatory urban planning area sometimes called PB, but it is not. Even consultative assemblies (people are asked to propose, but not to decide) are called PB.

I don’t really know about Italy because I started studying PBs in 2007 (so I lost the first wave of them) and in UK. However, I deliberately decided to focus on the original and most important one - Porto Alegre - in order to understand the social and political dynamics behind it which could have been replied somewhere else…like Italy!

What I found is that PB is a cool way to involve people from civil society, gather citizens around their interests and let these people to emerge as representative of the urban life.

My strong critique is that PB is by no means considered as a radical democratic shift to take it seriously, but just like a nice tool in the hand of politicians to better involve citizens, and not the contrary. It is not concidence that PB is more sponsored by City Councils or Mayors rather than citizens of civil society. Therefore, citizens come to award them, rather than themselves, and keep thinking PS as a service offered ranther than a right achieved! That is, in my opinion, the reason why even in Spain as well as in Italy, PBs collapsed at the same time that a political party flopped.

My aim is turn it upside down and spread PB from the bottom-up. That’s why we are building a web platform where citizens can set up a their own PB and try to be so much as to convince their Municipality to realize it (or, at least, their projects). As long as the majority of citizens become aware that this could be a new form of political participation (like - and perhaps more than - elections and referendum, etc.), PB will never produce positive effects. I think time is mature: a new wave of participation is emerging and I think it is because of the large diffusion of the web. So, we must seize the moment!

@Bembo ,

I also think that Mix has been extremely powerful and amazing! That’s why I believe on the power of relations and I don’t believe on ideologies at all! I am looking forward to know your antidote too! I’ve read your post too recently and I will read your mission too…

Less frustrated… and even happy

This is why I believe so much in the open government philosophy (participatory budgeting being as subset of this new managing trend). Governments must change their role altogether: move from a production role to co-creation co-production role (you called this ‘facilitators’).

I bet there is no case of participatory budgeting in Canada… Actually, I recall an attempt of consultation of the citizens. It happened once in Quebec, but the citizens had to send their comments by email, and none of what they proposed was published on an open platform, for everyone to see and comment furthermore.

There is also the contest of youth being invited for a day at the government, which pleases me a lot (it’s sooooooo fun to watch!!!), where young people are asked to play Minister of Finance and propose a budget. But that’s more of an entertaining game, a rather twisted version of TV Reality, where the candidates are followed by cameras from all angles, every stratching of the head is recorded, every sweats is tracked. They youthful and naive citizen perform a show, in which they usually are unable to make as good a job as the Minister does… of course… The citizen ends up being portrayed as an idiot, and even if he/she bought new shoes, he/she can not hold a candle like the people in power do.

Empowering citizens is not an easy thing to accept, because it means letting go of the power. No amount of power is actually being lost in the process, as it is redistributed from the vertical to the horizontal. I would even be tempted to predict that a more balanced distribution of power gives rise to more a higher degree of production of empowerment, as individuals become empowered, and communities, and ultimately, the organizations or institutions benefit from it. In fact, everbody would win, with this type of distribution of power.

And I agree with you, people would feel less frustrated. Hey, they could even feel HAPPY. Empowering people leads to creating happiness, as individuals are allowed to define their visions and grow by expressing themselves, learning from collaborative processes, gaining self-esteem, and feeling that they contribute to something greater than who they are.

consultation is perhaps worse than

True, it is self-evident: selfish power aims at keeping people disinformed and diesempowered as they will otherwise claim for their right to the detriment of any privilege. Enligthed power, instead, aims at releasing power, or - let’s say - multiplying it! And that’s the way to increase creativity, and then create progress, even economically, I am sure!

But, of course, democratic participation does not definitely mean consultation. I think consultation is more harmful than it appears, because it means treating citizens like children and politicians like “protectors” who eventually decide. Moreover, it does not trigger the most powerful and important element or participation:  collaboration, coordination and sharing. Consultation simply let people to express themselves, but individually! It does not further them to join together and come up with a common solution…which means increasing political/decicional power! Democratic rules are those who encourage people to join and find common solution. Consultation is not such a sort of rule as it (deliberately or inevitably) let the people alone…and perhaps strengthen the power of the few.

As far as I know Canada has (or has had) its own PBs: in the city of Guelph, for example, and Toronto to some extent. I had the fortune to meet a very intelligent Canadian researcher, Françoise Montambeault which is an expert of participatory democracy and we could ask her: she will probably know more than I do. We could invite them to join the discussion (I’ll do it!)

I’ve just discovered that one of the candidates for Mayor in my city have PB in her programme, if she will win I will have a great opportunity to see how it could work here in Italy. Furthermore I come frome a quite small city of Abruzzo, so it will be even more interesting because people here don’t have a strong political culture and usually they’re not very interested in it, once the have voted.

And, if she will not win, it will be a good oppotunity to try to sponsor PB as a citizen: I agree with your critique, especially with the fact the project can collapse within the political party which proposed it.


Which part of Abruzzo are you from, Ginevra? I am from Teramo!

A better and more democratic Abruzzo is my hope, and I would give anything for that. We have had the misfortune to be the stage for perhaps the worse government of the Italian Republic and for the peak of its arrogance. What happened and is happening in L’Aquila is still in my mind and will perhaps be in the schools and in the courses of politics (“media and postmodern regimes”) as well.

See you.

What a small world

I’m from a city nearby Pescara, it’s cool to find another “abruzzese” -and I totally agree with what you say about L’Aquila.

By the way, the mayor candidate I was talking about didn’t won the elections, so let’s see what we are gonna do with the PB project. I’ll post a comment if there will be some interesting news about it.


…yes let me know, Ginevra.

I also believe that PB can also be carried out, at least spread, autonomously by a single group as wella as a part of the community which believe on it, with or without money. In USA they are doing PB thanks to the support of single Aldermans through their personale budget. It can also be the way in which the opposition build their amendments…

PB is about changing mind and the way of thinking democracy. That’s all. And it can be done everywhere and by everyone.

We are working on it… :wink: Keep in touch!  And see you ina few days.

Encourage responsible participation

Stefano, since we last talked this has become much more convincing. What I like most about your approach is the budgeting part in PB: people are playing with figures, and that brings home straight away that policy making cannot be a book of dreams, in which we want everything and don’t worry about who is going to pay for it. The lack of the “who is going to pay up” question is my main critique to participatory non-budgeting tools like, for example, online consultations based on tools like Ideascale. These tend to be just that, books of dreams: see for example the ongoing one about Italy’s digital agenda:

I also like (in principle) your idea that it should be citizens to do a budget and then involve politicians, but I don’t see how it could work. The problem, there, is that the initiator cannot really promise to other citizens that their contribution will be taken seriously. I like to say that you can’t do government 2.0 without… government: you can do civil society initiatives, but if no institution has a commitment to actually using the participatory budget, the whole think risks using a lot of people’s time for nothing.


Good Points, Alberto, thank you very much for bring them out!

I completely agree with you.

I completely agree with your opinion on the many tools available for making good “books of dreams”. However, this is quite normal: how can you avoid it with any points of reference like family, local or national budget? Here lies the difference between deliberation and consultation. Hence, PB and the idea to create an online platform which goes far behiond the only collaboration towards an effective empowerment. Collaboration…consultation…hum…I can move now to your following point: civil society with or without government…

I do think that people can do by themselves. But, of course they need some sort of…structure: imagine a participation-based tool (not consultation, I don’t like this word at all) in which people know the exact amount of public budget of their Municipality (otherwise, why would we are fighting for opendata?:slight_smile: and can evaluate it (like this) and choice. And imagine if citizens can also select other citizens to “facilitate” this process and to debate towards a synthesis?

This does not mean “no government”: it’s just a matter of what and how we define the word “politics” or “government”. I also do not think we could live without government…but we could definitely have and imagine a new and different one!

PB is something like that: it is a different way to establish a government! Rather than choosing omnicompetent (or demigod) persons according to their political programmes (their political project for us!) , you elect people coming from civil society (then, specialized, sectorial and really committed) at that political stage. You do not vote for a person or group (political party) which is entitled (or enlightened!) to work in advance for a political programme-propose-execute it. Rather, you vote for many persons you trust and you know how they work in their sector, which will work together for proposing projects afterwards (like they use to do everyday) which will finally be confirmed by the citizens. They will be the new “government” I mentioned before. As they are civil society, those who get their hands dirty, I believe that they definitely will provide with more appropriate political (=budget) solutions. That’s the way Porto Alegre’s PB was close to reach and I’d like to reach.

Of course, today we need the present-day institutions to implement PB. However, we also need to provide people with new tools which will make them able to reach cricital mass to convince the institutions to use it.

Thanks, Alberto.

Participatory Budget Public Deliberations

You two will soon clear up the slight confusion around ‘without… governement’ phrase which wasn’t a proposal but was one of Alberto’s elipical rhetoric tools.

This strategy still seems the most concvincing place of meaningful interface which could genuinely reverse trends in the oligaric democracy that dominate my part of the world.  On some level it is a small, almost symbolic action, but then again it has concrete applications in the day to day of the municipality/commune.  Even more importantly, it carries ideological ramifications that follow as logical extensions of the approach.

One question: Has anyone addressed how heightening the dynamics of the procedure can amplify its significance?

Are either of you making your way to Strasborg - were we could perhaps model such a decision making process at some juncture of the unconference ??

Both :slight_smile:

I think both Stefano and I will be in Strasbourg. But realistically there is no decision to make at the Edgeryders conference: all we can do is propose. And, perhaps, make some decision for ourselves, at the individual level.


Bembo, what do you mean with your question? Sorry, my English is not help me a lot…

But anyway, yes, I will be in Strasbourg as well!! I’ll be happy to discuss with you all. :wink:

Open versus Closed Participatory Budgeting

Hi! This is great, I’d love to talk to you about this further. One quick question though - have you experimented with different forms of participatory budgeting? I’ve been developing a few methods, and broadly I categorize participatory budgeting (PB) methods depending on whether they’re open-ended or closed-ended:

A closed PB system is one where funding, appropriation or other such aspects are decided beforehand or separately from the budgeting process. In such a system, the government might decide that there is a certain amount of money in the pot, and that PB can be done with that money, or something similar to that. In short, there are limitations on what can be budgeted, and the government takes care of raising funds. This generally leads to a loss of dynamic,  but is substantially simpler than an open system.

An open PB system is one where the citizens have to develop both the budget and the appropriations model. This can be done either for a subset of a government’s budget (with special appropriations), or the entire budget. The simplest way I can see to do this is have two separate steps in the budgeting process. The first being the step where projects are defined and money allocated to them, and then when that has been done, the citizen is taken to a second step where they need to adjust tax rates, based on an economic forecast, until the budget is balanced. If the budget does not balance - has a surplus or a deficit - the citizen can opt to go back and redo the budgeting round. It might be a hard-written rule that the buget may not be in a deficit, but a surplus is acceptable, or something like that. The statistics work out in such a way that if each individual proposes a balanced budget, then the worked average budget (based on weighted geometric average, which appears to be the most reasonable) will also be balanced, which is pretty neat.

… I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.


Wow, Smari, Smari from International Modern Media Institute?! This sounds great…I’d love to meet you and have some thoughts from you too. So,thanks for your intervention which clarify the topic further. We ha ve now other irons in the fire

(I’ve start writing a very complex reply and I wrongly posted it too early  …so I deleted it and I’ll post it later on… :slight_smile:


Yeah, that’s me. Looking forward to meeting you too! :slight_smile:

I got an e-mail with your previous draft, and largely agree with it - while open budgeting would be better, closed form is more realistic at the moment… but we can always aspire. I designed a closed PB voting system that was used in Reykjavík recently to determine public works projects in the different neighborhoods. You can see how it works: ballot example (click the options to put them on your ballot) and simple non-ranked counting example.