Transition towards urban sustainability through socially integrative cities in the EU and in China


1. Purpose(s)

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a government-driven (top-down) institutionally embedded mechanism aiming to promote citizen participation in policies (Åström, Jonsson, and Karlsson 2017), and promoted as good practice by international institutions including the World Bank, OECD, and the United Nations (Campbell, Escobar, Fenton, and Craig 2018). In PB citizens are directly involved in budgeting decisions and allowed to decide how to spend parts of a public budget. Ideally, PB allows citizens to participate in government budget decision-making, supervision and evaluation, which fully guarantees citizens' right to know and participate, reduce information asymmetry, implements government information publicity, and in general improves government transparency (Zhao 2018). It is a form of generating civic engagement which stresses empowerment and citizens' struggle against unequal social structures and is distinguished from Deliberative polling (DP) which works within, and focuses on improving official, already existing democratic decision‐making processes (Fishkin 2019). However, He (2019) argues that in real democratic life, the political activism and empowerment of PB can and should be combined with DP. 

Key Words: participatory budgeting, citizen participation, government transparency, citizen empowerment, policy making, citizen democracy

2. Relevance and Impact

Participatory budgeting is developed to allow citizens to participate in government budget decision-making, supervision and evaluation. It thereby acknowledges their right to be informed, enables participation, and improves government transparency. In addition to this, it empowers citizens by enabling and facilitating their engagement in matters that they are concerned with. It does not only facilitate dialogue between citizens and governing bodies, but also among citizens themselves. Essential elements of participatory budgeting include generation and sharing of ideas and discussing various points of views among citizens and other stakeholders, both in physical and digital contexts. This contributes to strengthening social cohesion and mutual acceptance of decisions reached.

Due to practical limitations, the tool was not tested in the project in a new case study, but the description of the tool quotes several case studies done in Chinese, South American and European contexts.

In Brazil, Touchton and Wampler (2014) find PB to lead to increased spending on social goods, civil society mobilisation and well-being improvements: increased municipal spending on healthcare and sanitation, reduced infant mortality, and an increase in the number of CSOs. The political party in charge and the number of years in which PB is used influence the robustness of the results and the associated broader, structural changes that take place.

Campbell, Escobar, Fenton, and Craig (2018) provide what they claim to be the first systematic assessment of the health, social, political or economic impacts of PB, based on 37 studies of which the majority of evaluations (n = 24) were of PB in South America (mostly Brazil), whilst seven were in Europe. The majority of studies found were single or multiple case studies, describing the scenario of individual PB schemes. There were fewer observational quantitative modelling studies using large population datasets, and only one study that combined this with qualitative analysis. They find that the impact on health and wellbeing have not been the focus of attention in public health literature, probably partly because 1) the ad hoc quality of many PB processes, and 2) the fact that so far only Brazil has sufficiently institutionalised PB to allow for comparative and longitudinal evaluations become viable.

According to Naranjo-Zolotov, Oliveira, Casteleyn and Irani (2019), the involvement of citizens in policy-making is still a big challenge for local governments at city level, but efficient E-government services for public participation such as PB are found to have a positive impact on citizen satisfaction. In the case of the online participative budgeting platform analysed in their study, key factors for keeping citizens satisfied not only depend on the technological aspects of e-services that support participatory budgeting, but also the quality of the back offices and services offered by local governments.

3. Strenghts

PB lets individual citizens voice their interests and preferences and vote on specific policies (Wampler 2007). It can delegate real authority to them, change how the state works and how citizens interact with it, and as a result deepen democracy and contribute to diversity and social justice. PB is reported to be first used in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Drawing on Brazilian experiences, Touchton and Wampler (2014) argue that in addition to direct involvement of CSOs into incremental policy-making processes, PB leads to institutionalisation of new forms of governance. Representative democracy has a bias towards middle- and upper-class groups whereas PB programmes often are designed to focus on poorer underserviced neighbourhoods and the social services aimed at them. PB can empower citizens, create engagement and build skills and knowledge that make it possible for them to hold public servants accountable.

Many reports of, and case studies about PB sketch context where citizens physically meet to participate in this participatory activity (Figure 1). Nowadays however, increasingly digital solutions for PB are used. Naranjo-Zolotov, Oliveira, Casteleyn and Irani (2019) discuss the role of a sense of virtual community (SOVC) as a success factor for participatory budgeting in such cases. The positive relation between SOVC and use (and continuous intention to use) e-participation technologies in the post-adoption stage provides evidence that citizens have a level of sense of community when using the online participatory budgeting platform to pursue a common goal. Even though citizens using e-participation may not know the other citizens that use a PB platform, they share a common goal of contributing to the community. The perception that others support the same projects may influence other citizens to participate for a common goal. Thus, Naranjo-Zolotov, Oliveira, Casteleyn and Irani (2019) conclude, that SOVC could play an important role to determine the continuous intention to use e-participation for PB over time. They also conclude that habit has a strong association with use and continuous intention to use, and that citizens who have already participated in previous editions of the digital PB platforms are likely to participate again in the next editions.

4. Weaknesses

PB’s focus on specific public projects or goods may limit participation and learning to the short-term and as mainly instrumental (Shah 2007). PB depends on committed government leaders, with the associated risk that it can be used to advance other agendas. The focus on the short to medium term makes it difficult and time-consuming to generate discussions and build skills needed to engage in complex, long-term planning, and limits the time citizens and communities have available to address such issues. With a focus on annual investments, the risk is also that long-term investments can be side-lined, a tendency found in Porto Alegre, Brazil, considered the earliest and in many ways a successful example of PB (Sintomer, Herzberg, Röcke, and Allegretti 2012). If the authority delegated to citizens through PB is limited, it further becomes difficult for them to hold government officials accountable and use PB to exercise their rights (Wampler 2007). Poorly executed PB programmes can fail to transform decision-making processes or involve citizens directly in policy making, possibly influencing citizens and civil society organisations (CSOs) negatively.

Describing cases from around the world, Sintomer, Herzberg, Röcke, and Allegretti (2012) report that in Latin America, many Porto Alegre-inspired examples of PB are primarily top-down and not based on civil society mobilisation, involve little money and therefore do not influence the redistribution of resources in society. Although they can contribute to benefits such as transparency and reduced corruption, political participation and empowerment are not in focus. In addition, PB light-versions can be found, in which the bottom-up mobilisation and wider political perspectives are missing. In Europe, Sintomer, Herzberg, Röcke, and Allegretti (2012) find the political impact of PB to have been lower than in Porto Alegre. In contrast to Western and Norther Europe where political parties, local government networks and state organisations have been involved in introducing PB, it has in Eastern Europe commonly been carried out as pilot projects promoted by international organisations, often coming to an end with the end of the international support. In African countries, PB practices have often been merged with other budgeting-related tools and linked to donor goals about transparent budget management, with citizen rights as a secondary concern. In Asia, PB models emerged later and tended to be developed locally but based on principles and methodologies similar to European and Latin American ones. In China, PB is reported to be mainly embedded in top-down processes, and advocated to be based on platforms within the framework of the people’s congress system (Sun, 2015); few examples actively involve ‘ordinary’ citizens, with possible exceptions such as the cases described in the Best Practices section below. He (2011) explains this very clearly as follows: “while the political reform logic and citizen empowerment logic overlap, they differ from each other in important ways. As political reform, PB is essentially an elite‐dominated process, while as citizen empowerment PB is citizen‐centric. In addition, the former aims to establish representative democracy in which deputies examine the budget, whereas the latter wants to establish direct democracy in which ordinary citizens discuss and decide the budget”.

5. Good practice examples

Participatory budgeting has since its origin been used all over the world, taking different forms. This makes that best practice is difficult to define, as what is good or not depends on the country’s political and financial system as well as cultural tradition (Zhao 2016).

The Brazilian programme was based on public meetings with negotiations and voting on specific projects (Touchton and Wampler 2014). Several digital PB tools have however also been developed (Funka 2018). These include Citizen budget, a tool and simulator that can be used at different levels of complexity and participation, Decidim which has PB features integrated into it, and Cobudget ( which allows for collaborative budgeting and crowdsourcing, enabling organisations and groups to propose projects and collect and allocate funds. A related, alternative approach is citizen juries, where a jury of citizens sets criteria, mobilises and invites other citizens to propose projects, and decides what projects to fund (see e.g. Borgerkraft).

Good practice example in Europe: Reykjavik

In the European context, Reykjavik has implemented PB, collaborating with Citizens Foundation and using the digital platform Betri Reykjavík (map). The platform was originally politically independent and launched ahead of the 2010 elections (Bjarnason 2018). Formal collaboration with the city of Reykjavik was established in 2011, and PB carried out under the Better Neighbourhoods heading. It aims to give citizens direct influence over parts of the local government’s budget, build trust and make better decisions in cooperation with them, and at the same time educate citizens on costs and budgetary limits. Citizens Foundation is responsible for the software, the City of Reykjavik for running the election, and the National Registry for authenticating voters (Citizens Foundation, n.d.). The process is the following: Citizens first submit and debate their ideas, using the “Your Priorities” platform. According to Citizens Foundation, anyone can submit an idea, and the process lasts about one month. Authentication happens through Facebook Connect or with email and password. Next, the city of Reykjavik evaluates the cost and feasibility of the ideas. Knowing the costs of the different ideas and the budgetary limits, citizens above the age of 16 can vote on the ideas. They do so using “Open Active Voting”, which is based on open source software. They choose the neighbourhoods they want to vote within, and what projects to vote for, and distribute their allocated budget on the projects they want to and can afford to support. Votes are binding, and authentication ensures that each person only can vote once. Citizens Foundation explains that elections are monitored by the city’s internal audit, and that security audits are carried out by experts annually and ahead of, during and after the vote. Finally, the city executes the ideas, and the citizens use what has been implemented. Between 2012 and 2018 696 ideas were approved by citizens, and in 2018, the budget was 3.5 million €. This has benefitted all of Reykjavik’s neighbourhoods. In this period, participation increased from slightly below 7.5 % to 12.5 % of the population (Bjarnason 2018). Figures 2-7 provide a visual impression of the Reykjavik PB process, taken from Bjarnason (2018). Though also acknowledging the Brazilian programme, German models of PB are referred to by Zhao (2016) as representing those with longest tradition, most abundant practice cases, and most participants from a wide range of social organizations.

Good practice examples in China: Chengdu and Shanghai

Also in China, PB is reported to have made rapid progress in participatory budgeting, and having taken on multiple forms and dimensions (Liu 2015). On, a website dedicated to mapping global community sharing knowledge and stories about public participation and democratic innovations, several initiatives can be studied. A feature story describes PB in Chengdu where from 2007, the Chengdu municipal government initiated a series of reforms to bridge the gap between rural and urban areas, as well as to facilitate development overall. By introducing a policy for Rural Public Service and Social Management Funds, inspired by a local practice in one village, every rural community would annually receive a specific amount of funds that can only be used to improve local public service and public management. By 2012, upscaling of implementation of the policy in the urban area meant that it covered 654 communities in and around the city and led to the establishment of a Special Fund system. It is considered a ground-breaking measure in terms of the scope and extent to which the Chengdu government encourage citizen participation to improve public service and engage in the budget decision-making process.

 Based on an analysis of PB in Shanghai’s Minhang District, Liu reports on the one hand that PB has improved the system’s ability to fulfil citizens’ rights to information, supervision, advice, and even decision-making, but also to have some problems in the depth, breadth, and the comprehensive effect of this type of reform. The PB procedure used here is facilitated by a dedicated area on the district’s website is used for collecting public comments on choice, implementation, and effect of budget projects. This can be done before (from one month before budget decisions), during and after the budgeting process. People can register on-line and exercise their right to public participation, and based on a selection process, those deemed to be eligible will be invited to attend budget hearings, either as public presenters (who express opinions of the public on the budget and are given right to speak) or as public observers (who are not entitled to speak but may submit written opinions). People’s congress delegates are reported to be generally satisfied with the process, though concerns are expressed about the lack of awareness among the general public of the possibility to participate.

6. References

Bjarnason, Robert. 2018. “Citizen participation and digital tools for upgrading democracy in Iceland and beyond.” Powerpoint presentation, Citizens Foundation Iceland, Reykjavík, September 2018.

Campbell, Mhairi, Oliver Escobar, Candida Fenton, and Peter Craig. 2018. “The impact of participatory budgeting on health and wellbeing: a scoping review of evaluations.” BMC Public Health 822(18).

Citizens Foundation. (n.d.). “My Neighbourhood”. Accessed April 30, 2020.

Fishkin, James. 2019. “Deliberate Polling.” In The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy, edited by André Bächtiger et al., 315-328. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Funka. 2018. “Kartlegging over digitale verktøy for e-demokrati i kommuner 2018." Accessed April 30, 2020

He, Baogang. 2011. “Civic engagement through participatory budgeting in China: Three different logics at work”. Public Administration and Development, 31(2): 122-133.

He, Baogang. 2019. “Deliberative participatory budgeting: A case study of Zeguo Town in China.” Public Administration and Development, 39(3): 144-153.

Liu, Wei. 2015. “Some Reflection on Participatory Budgeting in China: Minhang District Case Study.” In Public Budgeting Reform in China: Theory and Practice, edited by Xiaonan Liu. Research Series on the Chinese Dream and China’s Development Path. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. DOI 10.1007/978-3-662-47776-2_8

Naranjo-Zolotov, Mijail, Tiago Oliveira, Sven Casteleyn and Zahir Irani. 2019. “Continuous usage of e-participation: The role of the sense of virtual community.” Government Information Quarterly, 36(3), 536-545.

Shah, Anwar. 2007. Participatory budgeting. Public Sector Governance and Accountability Series. The World Bank, Washington, D.C.

Sintomer, Yves, Carsten Herzberg, Anja Röcke, and Giovanni Allegretti. 2012. "Participatory Budgeting in Europe: Potentials and Challenges.” Journal of Public Deliberation, 8:2 (2012), Article 9.

Sun, Yuhua. 2015. “Role of the People’s Congress in Minhang Performance Budgeting Reform. In Public Budgeting Reform in China: Theory and Practice, edited by Xiaonan Liu. Research Series on the Chinese Dream and China’s Development Path. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. DOI 10.1007/978-3-662-47776-2_8

Touchton, Michael, and Brian Wampler. 2014. “Improving Social Well-Being Through New Democratic Institutions.” Comparative Political Studies, 47(10), 1442-1469.

Wampler, Brian. 2007. Participatory Budgeting in Brazil: Contestation, Cooperation, and Accountability. Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press.

Zhao, Yadan. 2018. “Comparative Study on the Education Informationization of Participatory Budget Management System between China and Abroad.” In proceedings of the 2018 8th International Conference on Social science and Education Research (SSER 2018). Atlantis Press.

Åström, Joachim, Magnus E. Jonsson, and Martin Karlsson. 2017. “Democratic Innovations: Reinforcing or Changing Perceptions of Trust?” International Journal of Public Administration, 40(7), 575-587.

7. Author(s) of the article

Casper Boks (NTNU), Ida Nilstad Pettersen (NTNU)