Participatory Budgets in Europe

Between Efficiency and Growing Local Democracy

9 March 2007
Giovanni Allegretti and Carsten Herzberg

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This briefing paper is a condensed version of more extensive study, with a lot more country studies, available in Italian: Tra efficienza e sviluppo della democrazia locale: la sfida del bilancio partecipativo si rivolge al contesto europeo New Politics Working Paper, August 2004

Participatory Budgeting experiments are blossoming all over Europe, inspired in large part by the fame of the success of Porto Alegre in Brazil and efforts to promote and emulate the process in Europe.

Amongst the objectives of the Participatory Budget may be the ethical development of institutions, an increase in civic spirit among residents, and an enhancement of citizens' ability to maturely interpret the complexity of administering a local area. It may also seek to address the distortions generated by the market society, extend ‘rights to the city' to all who inhabit it, and to spread forms of "negotiated solidarity" which allows for the fair distribution of public resources in favour of the most culturally, socially and economically disadvantaged categories. Whereas in Latin America, the motive force for experimenting with Participatory Budgeting are often socio-economic in nature, in Europe, it tends to be either political (as in the case of Latin Europe) or to do with the need to modernise or improve the efficiency of the public apparatus (as in the case of North Eastern Europe). Set against the context of neo-liberal economic policies, the financial crises of cities, intensifying urban conflict, struggles against privatisation and the deepening crisis of legitimacy of representative democracy, the briefing gives a rare and critical insight into different interpretations and experiences of Participatory Budgeting across Europe. Particular attention is paid to the cases of France, Germany, Spain and Italy, with the experience of Manchester in the UK being highlighted in the conclusion.

The author stresses Participatory Budgeting as a complement to representative democracy, noting that elected administrators, and organised associations like unions and employers' associations, tend to see it as a competitive process. At the same time, while organised civil society has actively contributed to the dissemination of the concept in Europe, it often shies away from direct engagement in the processes, leaving city councils to take the lead in creating them. Founded in 1974,TNI is an international network of activistscholars committed to critical analyses of the global problems of today and tomorrow. It aims to provide intellectual support to those movements concerned to steer the world in a democratic, equitable and environmentally sustainable direction.

March 2007