Participatory Budgeting and Deepening Democracy


For the uninitiated participatory budgeting (or PB) is a two-and-a-half decade old innovation of direct citizen involvement in decision-making over the allocation of public finances. In simple terms, PB refers to ordinary citizens, instead of public officials, deciding on public spending at local and regional levels (Lerner, 2011). But there are many different variations of PB which range from merely consultative to genuinely participatory, empowering and inclusive (see Sintomer et al., 2008 for descriptions of various models).  PB can also be more or less democratic, and not all PB processes contain a democratic component (which suggests that attention to the content and practice of what is often called ‘PB’ is paramount).

PB began in the reawakened democracy of late 1980s Brazil following military dictatorship and has since spread across the globe, under the influence of both radical activists and the World Bank. Usually implemented at the municipal or local authority level, in Brazil PB grew to allow citizens to influence up to one fifth of the core municipal budgets in some cities, with redistributive, empowering and social justice aims. This has been a shining light in progressive politics, celebrated in the World Social Forum, and an example of radical participatory democracy having a positive social and economic impact on a vastly unequal society in which democracy was eradicated and the living conditions of the poorest were worsened by the junta. Elsewhere, aside from democratic processes in Kerala, India for example, PB has rarely matched these heights of participatory democracy, and in the UK experience, the process has often seemed tokenistic, concerned with minor discretionary funds in a narrow voting process.

So in analysing and comparing PB processes it is necessary to adopt a critical perspective, especially in view of the political uses of PB in the context of ‘austerity’ cuts to government funds for public goods, services, and resources, which allow citizens the empowered possibilities of participation in distributing public money while simultaneously reducing public budgets overall. The anti-democratic uses of PB are extremely concerning given its promise to renew societies suffering from distrust in elected politicians, disengagement from the political process, and disassociation between ordinary citizens and the bubble of corporate politics.

Having researched a PB process in the UK which focused on the kind of democratic relationships that such an institutional design creates and the empowering possibilities that it contains, I recently attended an international conference on PB in Chicago that provided many insights into how PB has been used across North America and, indeed, in China, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Sweden, and how it has changed in Brazil, amongst other countries.

While the commitment of PB practitioners, researchers and local citizens was inspiring, energising and intellectually stimulating, a number of shared positives and negatives, and some differences are apparent in how PB has generally (but not always) been used in the UK and US experiences.

Firstly, in both the UK and the US, the increased transparency and accountability of public funds has been relatively positive in addressing a cynical perception on the part of some that certain discretionary public monies available to elected officials have been treated as a ‘piggy bank’ for favoured projects. This benefit is especially pertinent where dominant political rhetoric tends towards overstating public sector waste (while conveniently ignoring private sector rent-seeking and predatory capitalism).

Second, the shared liberal democratic complexion of the UK and the USA has meant that, rather than active social movements, local communities and grassroots political organisations being the leaders in developing PB as in Brazil, the projects have been implemented top-down by charismatic local political leaders that share a value commitment to more participation and are predisposed to include the wider public. This similarity also has negative implications as there is little countervailing power in civil society that can demand, maintain and call for deepening of PB (Fung & Wright, 2003, Wright, 2010).

Third, both countries have used relatively small discretionary funds for PB, although the UK has lagged behind somewhat in terms of the amounts of money being put up for public decision-making, and has also developed much less by way of the extent of the processes and the sustained nature of public involvement.

Where the UK is also falling behind is the institutional design of PB. The UK models have largely been participatory grants-making (Hall, 2010), where local groups apply for a chance to present a project, and local citizens vote on which ones should get the money. This demands a much more passive level of involvement in comparison to the US where, using the Chicago example, in the months leading up to the vote, citizens form a steering committee in order to deliberate on a range of proposed projects for the local area, establishing priorities and controlling the content of the decision-making.

The inclusion of a deliberative component not only gives citizens more collective control, but those elected on to the steering committee are relatively more empowered and able to shape the process, enhancing the participative and democratic nature of PB. However, the monies put up for PB are discretionary ward-level funds, and no input into core budgets or control over the amount of money allocated is present in Chicago’s PB suggesting a lack of deeper, structural transformation of local politics toward a more participatory model.

In addition, my PhD research into a UK PB has shown that other aspects of empowerment have potential to develop as unintended consequences of even a narrow PB process, including relationships of equal worth and respect, self-development of competencies and assertiveness, greater awareness of the local community and a deepening of social ties. Further research could explore if this is also happening in the US models.

But if PB is to develop any further in the UK, the adoption of a more deliberative and consciously empowering model is fundamental. However, this may also require a deeper structural and cultural transformation of British politics, broadly conceived. Firstly, the British political system is highly centralised with very little local government autonomy, whereas the US states and cities have significant powers. Secondly, while both the UK and US, as corporate-dominated liberal democracies, have largely cynical and disengaged publics, the US does retain a legacy of town-hall local democratic politics that the UK does not.

A final remark, and the most important, is if PB is to deliver on even the minimum of its vast potential, the political uses of PB in times of austerity politics require much attention and action. For example, some UK PB processes have introduced these schemes while simultaneously cutting the amounts of money available to, for example, voluntary and community groups. Other suggestions for PB in line with ‘big society’ retrenchment of the role of the state include allowing citizens to vote on which services to keep or cut, reflecting a hollow misuse of the principles behind PB.

A critical view would point to the pernicious and still pervasive influence of neo-liberal managerial politics (despite the fiscal and moral bankruptcy of its policy and ideology) which has a tendency to devolve responsibility and the social cost of decisions to individuals and communities, but not effective power. (Alternatively, and more likely in the case that I researched, is that this is part of skilful manoeuvring by local politicians between the demands and constraints of central state imposed cuts, and as a reaction to cynicism and growing disillusionment with local politics, which makes the job of local-level politicians incredibly challenging). The net effect of this strategic politicking of PB though could destroy the developing view of the process as transparent, clear, open and accountable.

The upshot of the conflicting and contradictory promise of PB in the UK and USA is that critical and effective development of the positives of PB requires engagement with its current shortfalls, and the development of associational local, regional, national, and international movements aimed at deepening participatory democracy in public institutions. This must especially go beyond the minor PB experiments thus far to limit and counter a neo-liberal attack on the public purse and democratic principles and practices in the fallout from the financial crisis. Perhaps our two countries, so complicit in the development of the neo-liberal world order (ironically emanating from Chicago’s School of Economics in the 1970s and 1980s), also contain the potential for its transcendence by reawakening the democratic impulse through socially beneficial innovations such as PB.

Fung, A. & Wright, E.O. (eds.) (2003) Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance, London: Verso.

Hall, J. (2010) ‘Participatory Budgeting: Adults and Young People Making Investments in their Communities’, Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal, 4(2), pp.135-146.

Lerner, J. (2011) ‘Participatory Budgeting: Building Community Agreement around Tough Budget Decisions’, National Civic Review, Summer 2011, pp.30-35.

Sintomer, Y., Herzberg, C. & Röcke, A. (2008) ‘Participatory Budgeting in Europe: Potentials and Challenges’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32(1), pp.164-178.

Wright, E.O. (2010) Envisioning Real Utopias, London: Verso.

This blog post originally appeared on the Sociological Studies Blog:


The Big Society, Neo-liberalism and the Rediscovery of the social in British Politics


Since 2010 the UK Coalition Government has been attempting to flesh out vague election promises to ‘empower communities’ by translating its ‘Big Society’ notion into policy. Its measures thus far include a ‘National Citizen Service’, which encourages children to volunteer (although the scheme also has an entrepreneurial free-market bent); a ‘Localism Act’, which sets out the Government’s individual and community empowerment agenda; and a social investment bank, called ‘Big Society Capital’, to fund appropriate projects.

But the credibility of these Tory-led initiatives, and their claim to empower individuals and communities, is dubious. That’s because the Government is simultaneously removing state support through massive funding cuts to local government and the welfare state.

At first glance, the two-faced nature of the ‘Big Society’ agenda suggests that the rhetoric of empowerment is no more than a veil for neoliberal policy. However, a deeper look reveals that ‘Big Society’ thinking has a much more complex foundation – both in terms of the ideological and historical appeals made by the Conservatives and the political space it has opened up for developing a more critical concept of the ‘social’.  As yet, Labour’s ‘One Nation’ response has only partly begun to engage with this agenda.

The ‘Big Society’ draws on a mix of conservative communitarianism and libertarian paternalism. Together, they constitute a long-term vision of integrating the free market with a theory of social solidarity based on hierarchy and voluntarism.

The social strand, which has also been dubbed ‘Red Toryism’, locates the bases of social organisation in the family, community and voluntary groups and regards these as buffers against both the power of the state and rampant market individualism. The first part of the argument chimes with 19th century conservative communitarian opposition to state intervention, as well as the promotion of paternalism in the form of mutual aid, philanthropy and voluntary activity.

But this view of an earlier prosperous British peasantry is rose-tinted: exploitative conditions were rife in the 19th century and it took a much more active state to attain progress.

The potentially radical value of ‘Red Toryism’ rests in its parallel critique of neoliberalism. Over the last thirty years atomising neoliberal policies have overlooked the importance of social solidarity. In the proposed new narrative Conservatives must now ‘radically’ reclaim the territory of the ‘social’, albeit on an extremely narrow basis that emphasises solidarity and (market) freedom, but not equality.

Yet, by rediscovering the’ social’ in this way, the Conservatives have been able to occupy part of the traditional ground of the social-democratic left.

The economic strand, which is a form of libertarian paternalism, emphasises freedom of choice for consumers, but also sees a role for the state in steering the choices available to individuals.  In this vision, however, the state’s role is limited to shaping the development of basic social institutions like the family and local community.

The big problem here is that insufficient attention is paid to existing inequalities of wealth, free time and social power.  This is aggravated by the Government’s approach to public spending. The effects of major local government cuts and substantial reductions of public funding support for the voluntary sector in the years up to 2015-16, will generate higher levels of unemployment, the replacement of welfare by workfare and increased ‘marketisation’ of society.  All of this will hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

Blithely ignoring these negative impacts, the ‘Big Society’ project pretends that there is a zero-sum relationship between society and the state. It purports to believe that removing state funding will spontaneously create more community participation.

This invites comparisons with the governments of Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s.  Despite her infamous claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’, and Cameron’s retort that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state’, both share a common neoliberal orientation.

Thatcher’s neoliberal policies were legitimised by repeatedly emphasising the notion of the ‘public burden’ generated by welfare and appealing to so-called ‘Victorian values’, such as voluntarism. She drew on exactly the same mythical conservative communitarian past to justify anti-welfare state policies. While both Mrs Thatcher’s ‘no society’ and Mr Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ appeal to the same ideological heritage, the former was more focused on the individual, while the latter has shifted (at least rhetorically) towards the community.

However, the rediscovery of the’ social by the Conservatives presents an opportunity for Labour to question the complicity of this whole project with neoliberalism. Ed Miliband has taken up this challenge in his tentative exposition of ‘One Nation’ Labour.  But he must be careful to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Previous critiques of neoliberalism, when last in opposition, were swiftly transformed, when in power, into a similar kind of conservative communitarianism that ‘Big Society’ advocates now espouse.

In their attempts to rethink the relationship between community and the market-state, communitarians of both the Right and the Left have been bedevilled by one glaring omission: their failure to offer a serious consideration of equality.

A critical response to the ‘Big Society’ must emphasise empowerment and democratic reform. But it also needs to address society understood as the framework within which people develop as human beings and participate in multiple and collective identities. In this vision the appropriate role of the state – central and local – should be to promote and sustain the well-being of communities, democratic equality and the full capacity of all to participate in society.

By Steve Corbett & Alan Walker

This blog first appeared on SPERIcomment:

Towards Civic Capitalism: The Social Quality of Participatory Democracy


The Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) recently launched an initiative for developing a new capitalism to replace the failed Anglo-American neo-liberal model, which the Coalition Government clings to despite the model’s fiscal and moral bankruptcy. This new civic capitalism would emphasise people as citizens within a democratic polity, seeking sustainable and socially just economic growth, rather than the unsustainable consumerism of selfish individualism, socially destructive levels of inequality, and increasing precarity for the majority of people created by the neo-liberal model of capitalism.

This is an ambitious, but timely, proposal. One aspect that Anglo-American capitalism has neglected, but which a civic capitalism requires is a coherent theory of social well-being that goes beyond vulgar utilitarianism (Phillips, 2006). Social quality is a philosophical and evaluative framework that is suitable for a civic model of capitalism (Van der Maesen & Walker, 2012).

Social quality views humans not simply as self-interested individuals competing against one another, but as constituted by the social relationships, institutions and organisations in which they live, work, establish friendships, raise families, grow old, and develop a multitude of collective and individual identities, along with associated freedoms and dependencies. By paying attention to how the social environment in which people live provides the conditions in which individuals can (or can’t) achieve well-being and develop their abilities and capabilities (or don’t develop them), social quality moves the concern with well-being from simplistic economic measures (such as GDP) to a holistic and philosophically more robust understanding of humans as social beings.

A central aspect of social quality theory is social empowerment, which refers to the extent to which participation in social relations can enhance personal capabilities and ability for people to act in society (Herrmann, 2012). My PhD research has explored the relationship between participatory democracy and social empowerment. It suggests that participation in specifically democratic relations in the workplace and in the local community can enhance social quality and may be a practical aspect of whatever form a new civic capitalism takes.

Two case studies provide evidence of this; a democratic co-operative (a business owned and run democratically by its workers) and a local government participatory budgeting initiative (a process in which citizens assume direct democratic power to vote on public spending priorities). Both case studies took place in Northern England and evidence a link between participatory democracy and social empowerment.

Power is decentralised in the worker co-operative by ensuring that an elected management committee acts on the democratic decisions of the 130-strong workforce. The co-op also evidences a strong culture of egalitarianism in the form of equal wages, equal votes and equal opportunities for all workers to develop their skills and experience different job roles. Multiple dimensions of social empowerment can be associated with the democratic structure of the co-op. Open access to financial information and collective control over financial decisions provides security and stability for the co-op members, which also helps to ferment a strong sense of collective identity. In an age of flexible labour markets and precarious jobs, this is a different basis from which workers can develop their abilities and be productive.

By virtue of membership of a democratic workplace, the workers have significant levels of autonomy (as there are no bosses or official hierarchies, this is premised on the principle of self-management), empowered flexibility in work (the opportunity to develop competencies in different areas of the business) and in-work welfare (decent holiday entitlements, the ability to personally shape their own working lives). While the existence of informal hierarchies and wider issues of class roles, education and skills were identified as problems, these are reduced by a democratic structure that decentralises power and increases opportunities for self-development through developing skills and democratic competencies.

A second case study of a local government participatory budgeting initiative also explores social empowerment. This process requires citizens to vote democratically for allocating public money to projects proposed by community groups to enhance well-being in the local area. Although social empowerment is less present here due to the once yearly engagement with participatory democracy, in comparison with the everyday engagement with it in the worker co-op.

Social empowerment in this case study is evidenced in the democratic vote, which encourages people to engage critically with social problems in the local community and proposals to alleviate them, along with encouraging participation in local voluntary and community groups. This has the potential also to increase social cohesion and social inclusion. In addition, empowerment in the form of self-development (increasing the confidence and assertiveness of citizens to formulate and articulate their demands and proposals to directly improve the local area) was present, along with increased awareness of the local community, and the chance for community groups to establish closer working practices.

This research suggests that participatory democracy may be important for social well-being, especially through increasing freedom, equality and solidarity and the capabilities and abilities of people to act. SPERI’s call for work on various fronts towards a new civic capitalism is of fundamental importance for the future of democracy and social well-being in Britain. I would argue that social quality and social empowerment must be at the heart of these proposals, including the deepening of genuinely participatory democratic and egalitarian social relationships in the workplace and local community. This would renew RH Tawney’s (1952, p.38) social democratic desire not for simple equality of incomes, but for equality of life chances and equality of ‘circumstances, institutions and manner of life’ for post-industrial Britain.

Herrmann, P. (2012) ‘Social Empowerment’, in Van der Maesen, L.J.G. & Walker, A. (eds.)Social Quality: From Theory to Indicators, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.198-223.

Phillips, D. (2006) Quality of Life: Concept, Policy and Practice, Abingdon: Routledge.

Tawney, R.H. (1952) Equality, London: George Allen & Unwin Limited.

Van der Maesen, L.J.G. & Walker, A. (eds.) (2012) Social Quality from Theory to Indicators, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


This post originally appeared on Sociological Studies Blog: