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Building Trust & Breaking Down Complexity: The Past, Present & Future of Participatory Budgeting

Dr. Tarson Núñez
Dr. Roslyn Fuller speaks with Dr. Tarson Núñez, one of the architects of Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil in the early 1990s, about how it all began, why PB has been so successful around the world and the key ingredients for an impactful PB exercise.

RF: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Tarson. I know you have been involved with participatory budgeting (PB) for a very long time, and I was hoping you could tell us a little more about that today.

TN: My trajectory with participatory budgeting started in 1991, when I worked at Porto Alegre city hall as an advisor to the mayor in the planning office. That was the part of the mayor’s office that dealt with the participatory budget. This was during the second term of the Workers’ Party in the municipal government, and I was in charge of relations between the participatory and financial components of the participatory budget. So, I started as a public official, I worked there for a couple of years and then I also worked for the State government when Olivio Dutra [previously mayor of Porto Alegre] was elected governor at the end of 1998. I was the Director of Urban and Regional Development at the Secretariat of Planning and we worked trying to upscale participatory budgeting to the state level.

So, I started more as a government official managing processes of participation. However, I think it is important to contextualize this involvement, which really started many, many years before. By the beginning of the 1980s, I was part of the democratic resistance against the military regime and the transition from dictatorship to democracy. I was part of the students’ movement that fought against the dictatorship until 1985 [when Brazil’s military dictatorship ended], so this issue of democratization was part of my civic life. After I graduated from university, I started working with the trade unions, where I was an advisor as a sociologist for a couple of years, and then I started to work in the municipal government. So, this discussion about direct participation, social organization, and democracy in practice was part of my trajectory prior to being a public official.

After working for the municipal and state government as a manager of participatory processes, I went back to university and did my masters and doctorate in political science, studying these processes. So, after being a practitioner for 10 or 12 years I started a more theoretical reflection about these topics.

Those reflections started when I was in the government, but continued afterwards. I struck up relationships with international networks of actors and researchers on participatory budgeting. Parallel to my life as a public manager and academic researcher, I was also engaged in many international initiatives about participatory budgeting. I was engaged with the World Social Forum which was one of the strongest initiatives that spread participatory budgeting all over the world, but I also met with the World Bank and other international institutions, for example, the habitat agency of the United Nations. I was often invited to talk about Porto Alegre and our experiences with PB. My trajectory with PB has to do with my political militance for democracy, it has to do with my professional experience as a public manager, and then as an academic researcher on the issue.

RF: We would say over here that the idea of participatory budgeting originates in Porto Alegre, but as a person who worked on the original participatory budget there, I’m interested in where you got the idea from. Did it originate in the democratization movement you mentioned before and you had a chance to put it into practice in Porto Alegre, or was it something that originated in the specific time and place of 1990s Porto Alegre?

TN: It is very complex. On one side, the democratic movement was highly concerned with democratic processes like horizontality, and a voice for everyone. We were very influenced by the thoughts of Paulo Freire who was a pedagogue, and whose theory of pedagogy was very much linked to participatory processes and personal autonomy. So, we already had a culture of bottom-up initiatives and we always saw the value of democracy beyond elections. All the efforts of the movement were to recover the mainstream parts of democracy – free elections, freedom of speech, freedom of organization – but we also very much identified democracy with the process of democratization. We didn’t want only to have elections and political parties competing around power. We really thought that democracy was part of everyday life in a bottom-up construction that goes way beyond elections. So, in that sense we already had a very strong culture of participation among the political actors that were involved in the process.

However, there is also another important factor: the demand for participation and for discussion on the budget was already present because of the social movements. Porto Alegre’s first post-dictatorship mayor was from the Democratic Labour Party, a centre-left party that was very open to the demands of the citizens. But at the same time there was a fiscal crisis that was affecting many third world countries at the time, so they would usually say to the people, when the people were demanding something from them, ‘Oh, we would like to do that, but we don’t have the money’.

A very important factor was that the neighbours’ associations of Porto Alegre were a very strong movement at the time. These community associations in different neighbourhoods of the city were already demanding to discuss the budget because of this situation, because the politicians were saying ‘I would like to do that, but we don’t have the money’. In the Congress of the Union of Neighbours’ Associations in 1987 there was already this demand to discuss the budget. So, although we had this political culture of participation, although we really thought that democracy was something that went way beyond elections, we didn’t have the idea of participatory budgeting. We wanted to expand democracy beyond elections and this converged with the demand from the neighbours’ associations to discuss the city budget. And in the case of Porto Alegre there was already a huge fiscal crisis. When Olivio Dutra was elected mayor of Porto Alegre in 1988, when he got to office in 1989, the expenditures were already 20% more than the revenues of the city hall, so we didn’t have money for anything. The solution to that was to open the discussion about the city’s budget. This was something that came from the bottom up and wasn’t a proposal of the Workers Party prior to the election. It was something that was built because we had the political will to open and accept spaces for participation. This was very important. It was something that came from outside into the state and from the bottom up because of the demands of the social movements and the neighbours’ associations and all these pro-democracy activities that were present.

RF: Are you ever surprised how much participatory budgeting has caught on around the world? It is used in many different countries now, to a greater or lesser extent, and we can dig into that in a few moments, but it is obviously an idea that has travelled. Is that something that has surprised you, or is it something you think is obvious and that doesn’t surprise you at all?

TN: It is not obvious at all. According to the last figures I had, we have more than 11 000 different PB processes all around the world. They have very different, distinct features. They all have the same basic ideas that open the space for the citizens to decide, but they are very different models and institutional designs. I actually wrote an article on the international diffusion of participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting is just a tool that can be used, either in a more transformational manner, with the idea of democracy as a tool to transform society, or as a political tool to have better governance under a very neo-liberal government. We can do it either way.

One way the idea travelled was through the World Social Forum which has the message ‘another world is possible’. This is a very radical democratizing perspective. The World Bank point of view is that participatory budgeting is an important tool for the citizens to control the state with the goal of achieving a better and more effective governance, more accountability and transparency, but without substantially changing the political and social relations. So I think that’s why PB got so popular, because it can be appropriated by very different perspectives. When I first went to New York – they do participatory budgeting in the councillors’ districts there – there were two councillors from the Democratic Party doing PB, one was Black, the other was Latino, and they were very left-wing and radical. But there was also a councillor from the Republican Party who was very conservative, but liked to have a dialogue with his constituency and used participatory budgeting as the tool for allocating his resources. PB can be used either way, according to the political will of the one who is doing it. There’s an article from Yves Cabannes and Barbara Lipietz about these different perspectives under which participatory budgeting can be used.

RF: I think you really hit on an important point there, because in most Western countries, usually participatory budgeting is focused on somewhat peripheral issues like arts and sport. Those things are nice, but at the same time, it isn’t having a really decisive impact on the budget or on people’s lives. The concern I would have with that is that I would worry that if participatory budgeting doesn’t really grip people’s lives in a way that it is important to them, do they keep coming out to vote? How easy is it to get people to come out to vote on issues that don’t really affect them and how in your view can we avoid problems of demotivation?

TN: There are two things. One is the intensity of the process. For example, in the case of Porto Alegre during the 80s, 90s and beginning of this century when the Workers’ Party was in charge, the participatory budget discussed 100% of public capital investment. We had two rounds of deliberation. In the first round, people voted on priorities, so people could vote on health, education, or paving streets or sewage or whatever. This determined the allocation of resources according to function. Only in the second round of deliberation did people decide on specific works in their neighbourhoods. When the Workers Party was in power in Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting was about discussing the entirety of public investment rather than one discretionary part. So it was very effective and changed people’s lives. It allocated lots of money to the poorest regions of town, built schools, built health facilities and so on, because there was a strong political commitment to participatory processes and a strong pressure from below demanding these things. I think this is the best design of a participatory process, because you are right: if you only discuss things that don’t matter too much to the bulk of the population, why would people participate?

I know some processes like in St. Petersburg in Russia, for example, where they discuss punctual urban initiatives, like reforming a square, doing a garden and things like that. This is cool, and involves people discussing the city, but I think processes that don’t influence a large part of public investment are weaker processes. Even though this kind of very localized urban transformation does change people’s lives, at least the people who live in that area. I don’t think it is a bad thing, I only think that bigger and more meaningful participation is better than these more limited processes. But even limited processes are better than technocratic decisions or decisions without participation at all, because participatory processes, regardless of the material impact, have personal or individual effects as well. People learn to participate. People get more concerned about public issues. It helps to foster a more civic culture. I think that even these limited processes have a role in democratizing society. They are only weaker than an ideal process of people deciding the whole budget and supervising the whole financial movement of municipal or local government. I think this is better. But I think that in any case participation is always a good thing even in limited processes, because you deal with listening to the people, teaching people that collective action is more important, making people see beyond their particular demands and listening to the demands of others, and deciding collectively where to start. I think this is always a good thing regardless of the quantitative impacts.

RF: Something you said there really captured my interest. We often, at least in my part of the world hear that people need to trust their government more. But it seems to me that governments don’t trust their people, and as a result are very wary of opening up processes like PB. There was a case here a few years where a British government agency asked the public to name a research vessel via an online vote. It became kind of a viral internet joke and people voted to call it ‘Boaty McBoatface’ just to be silly. Even though that happened quite a few years ago now (and in my view was actually just funny), it’s still sometimes mentioned as a reason for not trusting people and not doing anything online. It’s said that, when given the opportunity, people are just immature and irresponsible and do silly things like this. So, we have a lot of talk about how people need to trust government, but at the same time a real disinclination for governments to trust people.

How does this play out with participatory budgeting? Do governments not trust people because they are worried that people will be irresponsible or are they afraid of the kind of changes people would want to make?

TN: Politics is about power and nobody wants to share power once they have it. There’s a whole technocratic discourse that justifies governments not trusting people, for example, because they put a silly name on a boat. Behind this all I think it is a matter of power. Governments don’t like to share power. Normally a good participatory process in my point of view is always something that people conquer in a bottom-up fight against their governments. So normally the best participatory processes are those that are generated by a huge pressure from below.

But I would go even beyond that. This matter of trust is not only about building trust. There are a lot of academic studies showing that people don’t trust government, and in my point of view in most cases people are right and the governments are wrong. All over the world we have – and this is part of the crisis of liberal democracy – a total divide between the demands of the people that vote and the decisions of the people that are elected. The latter, the decisions of the people who are elected, are normally hijacked by financial and technocratic interests. Politicians usually only relate to people during election time and usually forget the electors and do other things at all other times. So, people, in my point of view, are totally right not trusting governments.

I think that my personal experience shows that PB is a really good way to build trust. If you demand something and if you are engaged in a process of decision-making that people see as legitimate and effective, people start to trust the government more, and this is what has happened here in our case at least. But, as I said, I would go even beyond this matter of trust.

At least here in Brazil, we’re a country where we have a very authoritarian political culture. Brazil was one of the last places in the world to abolish slavery, we have a very hierarchical society and poor people have little sense of their rights as citizens. In this very difficult scenario, a good participatory process doesn’t only create trust between the citizens and the government, but also breaks with our authoritarian culture. It makes people see the mayor or a public official not as an authority or someone who is above them, but as someone who is there to serve you. This was really nice to see in the case of Porto Alegre – how citizens started to talk directly to the mayor, because the mayor attended the meetings. All the secretaries of the government also had to be at the meetings, and people started to have access to the actual individuals who were in power and started to see them as somewhat equal. I don’t know what the case is in Ireland, but in the case of Brazil that was very transformational, because here poor people usually see middle class and rich people as superior. We don’t have this culture of citizenship that everyone is equal here. PB was a moment where people could see the mayor there answering their questions, the mayor as someone you can talk to without having an appointment and going to the palace, but here in your neighbourhood. The guy is here, listening to your demands, answering to you, and this was very transformational in the case of Brazil, because this was a change in the political culture of a big part of the population that was very positive in democratic terms in terms of building a democratic culture.

RF: Just building on that, firstly I am curious how you would describe political polarization in Brazil. Is it the case that citizens themselves are deeply polarized or that the political landscape and political parties are polarized, or is it none of the above? And the second question I have is how that plays out with participatory budgeting. Something I have struggled with myself is this difficulty in asking: should we promote PB as something that is neutral and doesn’t come with any guarantees, since no one can say with certainty what the outcome of a vote is going to be? Or do you think it works better, and this is kind of the impression I got from some of the things you were saying earlier, that it works better when it is something people see as a way of achieving goals they have as a movement?

TN: To begin with, I think because the PB discussion centers on very practical issues that it helps to evade political polarization. You are not discussing ideology. You are not discussing if I’m more pro-State or against State or if I’m a liberal or if I’m a socialist. You discuss which street you are going to pave, whether you are going to build a school, how much money you have to put in health facilities. I think that defining a scenario where you are not discussing along party lines, but rather very objective questions, really helps to break polarization. I think in that sense this was one of the reasons PB is so popular, because in my opinion it moves the discussion of democracy away from the abstract or subjective ideological questions into a very practical question: Who decides how we will decide about what we will decide? So you will learn about democracy in practice and in a very pragmatic and practical way, not in a theoretical way.

But in the case of Brazil these days, political polarization is one of the biggest problems that we have and it is really causing political participation to decrease. I think it is not because people are grouping around different opinions, but rather that most of the people are skeptical and fed up with a political dispute in which the real differences are not completely clear to them. So political polarization is more a matter of the political actors or something that happens in a separate structural dimension of social life, removed from most people. In the political field it is very polarized, but it is not something that you can see on the streets. Although with the President we have now [Jair Bolsonaro] we have lots of situations that have been provoked by this kind of xenophobic, misogynist and anti-intellectual climate. So we have a strong force towards polarization coming from the federal government that contaminates the whole political environment, but I don’t think it is present in the everyday life of the citizen.

However, this kind of political polarization is a real problem if you want to launch a participatory project. At the moment, even liberal democracy is at stake in Brazil and participatory democracy is way beyond that so it makes it more difficult. So, on one side political polarization is a real problem, but at the same time participatory budgeting could be a good instrument to break with that polarization because regardless of whether you are from the left or from the right, we’re discussing very objective matters.

RF: I don’t want to keep you too long, but before we go, I wanted to ask your advice on two points. If you were giving people advice today on designing a participatory budgeting process, what would you say are the most important things to do and the most important things not to do? And the same when it comes to have a movement for democracy. What would be the important things to do and what would be the important things not to do? In my view, and I mentioned this in the email to you when we set up this interview, we seem to have created more of an industry than a movement, where there is a lot of talking and a lot of effort to quantify things. It’s not that that is not important, but at the end of the day participatory budgeting is actually a very simple idea, it’s very practical and it is not controversial in the sense that it really fits seamlessly into our concept of democracy and to the best of my knowledge has never led to any completely unexpected results. Do we focus too much on scientizing this rather than in building the political will of a movement to get it done?

TN: Wow. To begin with I agree with you that we have these two components that are both part of reality. Yes, we have a very strong democratic movement coming from the bottom up and all these initiatives that converged around the World Social Forum were very important in terms of disseminating participatory practices all around the world. But at that same time, we have this ‘industry’ as you called it of advisors and NGOs that offer their services as experts in participation and often deal with low-level participation and not radical participation, for example, using some technocratic instruments that can make government more accountable and transparent. I don’t think these two trends are antagonistic or that they totally diverge from one another. In real life we have both of them. I have been invited by the World Bank to talk about PB many times, and although I am very critical about washed-up versions of participatory budgeting that can be very technocratic and very apolitical, I saw it as a space where I could talk about my ideas and it was very nice. So I don’t think that those two ways of seeing the issue are totally antagonistic. I think every time I have spaces in the big multilateral institutions to talk about this issue, I go. I don’t say no, because they don’t deal with the kind of PB I like. I’m there. At the same time they learn a lot from what we do. Definitely in my point of view participatory budgeting is a way to radicalize democracy and transform society. But I like the idea of citizens’ participation even if it doesn’t extend that far. As I said earlier, I always think that the more people participating the better, so I think that even a limited process is better than no process at all.

What we see today and this is what we see in the discussion of the crisis of liberal democracy is that people don’t trust governments, people don’t feel that democracy is something that helps them. We are in a moment where we have to make a strong effort to democratize society. In my view, it goes way beyond elections. It has to do with democratizing all aspects of life. Not only the political space but also the economy must be democratized. I just read an old book by Robert Dahl about economic democracy which I find really, really interesting.

So all parts of social life can be democratized, families must be democratized, business must be democratized, the economy must be democratized, and participatory budgeting can be one tool in that direction. And to answer the beginning of your questions, I think the main point is the basis, and not the deliberation. Voting and deliberation about one issue is a tiny part of what democracy means. The process of recognizing each other, including more people in a debate, amplifying the space of deliberation to everyone to level-up the power relationships, all this is more important than the voting itself. The voting is only the end and my ideal of democracy would be to have such a good process that all people would agree on the decisions without having to vote. This is my dream idea of democratizing – having space for the voices of everyone.

When you design a process you have to pay a lot of attention to the process. You have to share information, be transparent, discuss the rules. You need to have an institutional design to foster participation, and give instruments to people to understand the information that they have. All these little procedural things that can help to foster participation are, in my point of view, much more important than the final outcomes. Because the outcomes can be less important than the transformation in the perspective of each one of the participants. I really like Carole Pateman’s book Participation and Democratic Theory. I think that participation is a learning process and by participating you learn to be a good citizen, and I think this is the more important outcome of participatory budgeting, not the work that is done. That is also good, especially if you can give money to poor neighbourhoods, but beyond this outcome of the process, the learning process and the experience of a democratic process is the most important. Being related to one another, feeling part of a community, feeling that you have your own personal demands, but you have to cope with the demands of the others and building something collectively is I think the most important part. In Portugal, for example, some of the participatory budgeting experiences do not use a big Assembly, but instead split the Assembly into tiny groups in order to have more people talk. I think this is a good example of how the design can help to have a better quality process. You have to always concern yourself with how the procedures that you decide on for a participatory process can help people to have an autonomous informed opinion and decision-making process.

RF: How did you get everyone to understand the budget of the entire city of Porto Alegre? Personally, I think that is far from impossible, but it still sounds like a significant task, as budgets can be quite complex and you’d have to get everyone up to speed with it.

TN: Yes, and one of our biggest flaws in the case of Porto Alegre was that we did not pay enough attention to that, because budgetary information is very complex. Even I, who have been doing this for forty years, sometimes get amazed at how complicated and difficult it is to understand. This translation of complex financial information into a simpler design that can be understood by the average citizen is one of the great challenges of participatory processes. There’s also a huge need for something that our friends who are doing participatory processes in Russia call budgetary literacy. You have to teach people about what they are discussing in order to have a discussion that is not about what work I want to have done in my neighbourhood, but about discussing the entire revenues and expenditures of the city. And this ‘upscaling’ in the citizen’s mind is very important. You go to participatory budgeting in order to get your demands done, but when you go there you see the demands of others and the problems of others and other kinds of questions around the public budget that teach you that your personal demand is only a tiny fraction of what the city as a whole needs. You jump, and we have many cases here in Porto Alegre of this, from an individualistic demand to discussing public policies. There is a very anecdotal, but impressive, case of a lady who went to the participatory budget here because she had a nursery in her neighbourhood and she needed money for that. But by starting participating in PB she started to see that the problems of her children were the same as the other children in the neighbourhood and the same as the children in other neighbourhoods and in the whole city, and after some years of participation she became the head of a public institute that discusses public policies for children. She started from a very egocentric point of view and then she learned that her problems were not personal, they were social and she evolved from discussing her own personal problems to a public policy issue. I think that participation is a very important way of learning how the public sector works, how the society works. You cannot measure this as a number as you, for example, measure how many schools were built or how many miles of roads were paved, but you can qualitatively identify a change in the mindset of the citizen.

RF: Thanks so much for sharing your insights and experience. Is there anything else you would like to add?

TN: No, I think I talked a lot! But it was a pleasure to discuss this with you.

RF: Me too!

Dr. Tarson Núñez is a social researcher at the Department of Economy and Statistics at the Secretary of Planning of the State Government of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. At the beginning of the nineties, he worked at the Porto Alegre Municipal government, as the head of the Planning Office, in charge of the Participatory Budgeting process in the city. Later, as director of the Urban and Regional Development Department of the state government, he helped launch PB at the state level. In the same period, he worked as a volunteer in the first versions of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre.


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