Making democracy more democratic

It has been called the world’s largest experiment in participatory democracy, but did it become too large to possibly be successful? In his PhD project, Sveinung Legard has studied the achievements and limitations of participatory budgeting in Southern Brazil.

Photo credit: Guilherme Santos/PMPA

In 1989, a major democratic experiment began in Porto Alegre, the capital of Brazil's southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. Through what was called participatory budgeting, residents got direct influence over parts of the city's budget. The relative success attracted international attention, and in the years to come, it inspired similar initiatives far beyond Brazil's borders.

Ten years later the authorities of Rio Grande do Sul decided to lift the idea from municipal to state level. It is this intent of scaling up a model for direct democratic participation that is in focus of Legard’s PhD project. Could participatory budgeting work in a state with more than 10 million citizens, an area almost the size of Italy, and with much more resources than what is usual at municipal level?

Sveinung Legard

"I have always been interested in how democracy can be made more democratic. Are there ways to organize and do politics that are not just about voting every four years? How can citizens become active participants, not just passive voters or taxpayers, or not participants at all?” asks, and answers, Legard when we want to know what motivated his choice of doctoral project in sociology. In June 2018 he defended the dissertation «Scaling up Participatory Democracy. Citizen Engagement in Budgeting in Brazil and Norway” at the University of Oslo.


Strong civic associations

In the dissertation, Legard points out that an important reason why participatory budgeting developed first in Porto Alegre, was the city’s strong civic associations. They organized a large share of the population, had formal structures, and an umbrella organization that demanded participation in discussions of budget issues. Hence, when the Workers’ Party (PT) won the local elections in 1989, with an ideology based on popular participation, they could communicate with a unified organization that would attract people into the political processes. In addition, many of the activists in these associations came from the PT.

“You write that the dominant view within social sciences is that participatory democracy cannot work in larger and more complex societies, but that this is a vision you have wanted to challenge. I suppose Porto Alegre, with over a million inhabitants, is already on a scale that can give some answers?”

Legard with fire engine financed by the participatory budget

“Yes, absolutely, and in a way Porto Alegre is a much better example than the state of Rio Grande do Sul on how things can be done. Also internationally, with the application of participatory budgeting in a number of cities, a range of studies suggest that such participation is much more effective than representative institutions in solving many issues. In Brazil, municipalities with participatory budgeting are better at increasing social spending, reducing infant mortality rates and combating corruption than non-participatory budgeting municipalities. There are, however, very few studies of attempts to scale up participatory budgeting above the municipal level, and even fewer that explicitly discuss what challenges the increase in scale poses to the intrinsic qualities of participatory budgeting.”


Balancing participation and representation

“In the dissertation you argue that scale is not an insurmountable barrier to participatory democracy, although there are challenges to scaling up. Among these, you write, are how to balance representation and grassroots participation. How was that handled in Southern Brazil?”

"I suppose the vast majority of people who support some kind of participatory democracy, believe that a certain form of election of representatives or delegates is needed, but the challenge is how to avoid just reproducing the representative governance we have today. One of the solutions in Porto Alegre was to make the representatives accountable. They had to come back to the neighbourhood to account for their acts. They were also careful to replace the representatives, preferably every year. You could say that the representatives had a clear mandate from the citizens, as opposed to being elected on a program that the voters agree to,” says Legard, before he adds:

"But at the state level it went in a completely different direction. There was only one round of open assemblies, but a second level of elected delegates. The process was largely carried out by the delegates. Those who were elected, or more or less randomly appointed, at the meetings, ended up making the budget proposals. It became more of a typical representative process.”


Higher education and income

“Other challenges you mention are how to include low educated groups in deliberations addressing complex political issues, and how to get politicians and bureaucrats at higher levels of government to delegate power to lay people. These were challenges you observed?”

"Some studies have shown, including from Porto Alegre, that the participants have lower education and lower wages than the average citizen, and that more women than men have participated. However, what I found at the state level was that especially the educational level, but also the level of income was much higher than the average. Moreover, for Rio Grande do Sul there were three levels of participation – municipal, regional and state – and the higher the level, the higher the educational level of those involved.”

On the other hand, he points out, this has varied over time. In the first period of participatory budgeting at the state level, from 1999 to 2002, there was much more participation of ordinary people, who were mobilized by social movements, unions or local associations. In the next period he studied, from 2011 to 2014, things had changed. The income level was significantly higher, and those most involved were public servants.

Photo: Ivo Gonçalves/PMPA

“The popular aspects of this process had disappeared. At the state level, clearly many found the questions raised to be complicated. There was little left of the discussions on local infrastructure in people’s neighbourhood, but rather on what kind of hospital to go for, and what to do about the education system. Actually, there was a change, so that in the second period there were more local issues taken up. Nevertheless, the educational level of the participants had raised. I think this has a lot to do with what questions become important, and who are able and willing to mobilize for these issues.”


The end of a tight connection

“So, in the last period you looked at, there was less mobilization from organizations and social movements?”

“Yes, and I think there are several reasons for that. The development of strong ties between the PT and local neighbourhood associations was a clue to the relative success of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre. At the state level, when the PT eventually won the governor elections in the late 90's, you had quite strong urban associations in a large number of cities, but also the presence of large nationwide organizations and movements, like the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) and the main national trade union, CUT. A range of these organizations supported actively the PT, and the party in turn included their demands in its election programs. But since then, the relationship between the PT and the movements has become much more complicated. After the PT came to power at federal level in 2003, many considered that the party conducted right-wing politics, especially in the economic sphere. The tight connection ended, as the party became more technocratic, increasingly corrupt and marked by political horse trading at the national level,” says Legard, and continues:

“A second reason was that the amount of money allocated to participatory budgeting had decreased. Hence, it was not as much to get back for the energy and effort you put in. We might imagine an ideal situation where individuals participate only motivated by a will to determine what’s in the best interest of the community, but that's not the case with participatory budgeting. The participants act out of self-interest, assessing what they might get out of it, and influenced by who organize and mobilize the participation.”

In a way, your dissertation is not the typical Latin America study. The focus is more on a topic of general interest?”

“Yes, you can say that. If we write about a phenomenon in the United States or Europe, or Norway for that matter, we refer to it as general and generalizable, but once we talk about Latin America, it's like it’s all about Latin America, or about Brazil. It becomes Latin America knowledge. I have tried to avoid that, attempting to argue the same way I would have done if I were writing about Germany. I ask what this example can tell us about scale and democracy, and scale and participation, which has been so important in democracy and social science research, and in political philosophy. Although the process I have looked at has major shortcomings, it can help us expand our ideas about what is possible to do even in a state with ten million inhabitants. There is much room for other ways to pursue politics.”


See abstract of the dissertation.

Video on participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, part of a documentary on democratic participation:


By Erik Berge
Published Apr. 5, 2019 12:00 PM - Last modified May 12, 2019 3:58 PM