Sustainable Cities™

Porto Alegre - Engaging citizens in city budgeting

Porto Alegre, one of the most populated cities in South Brazil, started a system of Participatory Budgeting in 1989. In this system, citizens present their demands and priorities for civic improvement and, through discussions and negotiations, influence the budget allocations made by their municipalities. Participatory Budgeting has lead to more equitable public spending and more extensive public knowledge about democracy and citizenship, bestowing an overall higher quality of life.

Porto Alegre skyline, 27. januar 2007, Af Eurivan Barbosa, Wikipedia, Creative Commons

How should the city spend its money? This is the question laid out for the citizens of Porto Alegre. Participatory Budgeting, in its most basic sense, refers to turning over budgetary decisions to the citizens impacted by the budget. Accordingly, the citizens of Porto Alegre are able to make real decisions, demand accountability, and monitor results. In this sense, Participatory Budgeting has come to act as a tool for learning about and spreading democracy as well as an entryway into civic life.

Developed through the efforts of the municipality of Porto Alegre, Brazil, the world's most well-known Participatory Budgeting process was originally introduced by the administration of the Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT) starting in 1989. The process was initiated as a part of an innovative reform program with the aim of overcoming severe inequalities in living standards amongst city residents.

Within Participatory Budgeting, the Porto Alegre city administrations turn over municipal budget decisions to citizens, through a series of local assemblies and meetings. This happens through a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, in which ordinary city residents decide the overall priorities and choices of new investments of the public budget.

 Porto Alegre City hall by Ricardo Andrè Frantz 13. June 2007 Wikipedia Creative Commens

Today, Porto Alegre spends about 200 million USD per year on construction projects and services, all of which are subjected to Participatory Budgeting. Usually, citizens prefer to allocate these monetary resources to street paving, sewage treatment, housing and supplying community equipment. Annual spending on fixed expenses such as debt service and pensions is not subjected to public participation. Around 3.5 % (50,000 individuals) of Porto Alegre residents take part in the Participatory Budgeting process, and the number of participants is increasing every year.

Participatory Budgeting has transformed the political system and nature of civic life significantly in Porto Alegre. It has brought more equitable public spending and greater government transparency and accountability. In addition, it has increased levels of public participation, especially by marginalized residents, though with a lack of representation of very poor people. Finally, in terms of citizen involvement, Participatory Budgeting has become a school of democracy.

The process of Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre

The process of Participatory Budgeting is one of democratic deliberation and decision-making, in which ordinary city residents decide how to allocate part of their public budget through a series of local assemblies and meetings.

The process begins with neighbourhood assemblies in each of the city's 16 regions and non-territorial thematic assemblies that discuss issues such as the environment or transportation. Any city resident may participate in these regional meetings, where local government officials present general information about the city budget. The purpose of these meetings is to enable residents to voice their concerns with the municipal government and deliberate over the most pressing needs. To conclude the process, these assemblies rank the top three needs and elect delegates to represent the region at the citywide level in the Participatory Budgeting council.

Additional preparatory meetings are held in the different neighbourhoods of the city, where residents draw up their list of priorities for investment in infrastructure. The municipal government does not participate in these meetings.

Next, an assembly with delegates from across the city meets to decide which needs are most pressing and which region lacks the most services in question. Delegates from the different neighbourhoods and themes present their top three needs and the Participatory Budgeting council deliberates to determine a ranking of priorities for the entire city. The delegates make trips to the sites determined as most needy and technical experts help to make sure funding requests for specific projects are feasible. In the second round of assemblies, each district elects two members and two alternates to the citywide municipal budget council.

The municipal budget council determines how to distribute funds for each priority among districts and applies each district's quota following the priority list of the district. After the completion of the year's Participatory Budget, it is integrated into the Mayor's budget proposal and then submitted to legislative bodies. At the beginning of each fiscal year, a review of the past year occurs in order to alter procedures or criteria to increase fairness or efficiency.

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014