24 October 2023

As participation moves further into the political mainstream, a reversal is underway. Early participation projects tended to be driven by civil society organisations looking to give local communities a voice, or influential elected officials who succeeded in mobilising the electorate. Yet increasingly, governments are beginning to impose participation from the top down. 

This is most apparent in the case of participatory budgets (PBs). A whole host of countries – from Poland to South Korea to Uruguay – now require by law that municipalities and cities of a certain size hold regular PBs. 

Peru’s national government was the first to go down this path, introducing the world’s first participatory budgeting law in 2003. It mandates that all sub-national governments must conduct PBs to determine their investment spending.

While this trend can be seen as a sign of participation’s growing success, it raises some pressing questions. What happens when big government institutions impose participation from the top down? Can they succeed in engaging citizens in the same way that projects emerging from grassroots movements do? The case of Peru is telling, demonstrating that top-down participation can succeed – as long as a strong culture of bottom-up involvement is cultivated. 

A bottom-up history of participation

Historically, the emergence of participatory institutions was spurred by social movements and broad participation. Many participatory institutions originated in Latin America during the 1990s as part of a wider inclusionary policymaking process. The goal was to reach societal groups who had traditionally been marginalised from the colonial period down to the wave of military governments.

As a legacy of extreme inequality intensified with policies directed at market fundamentalism in the 1980s, disadvantaged groups demanded greater recognition and access to public resources. The endurance of the third wave of democratisation coupled with a left turn in Latin American electoral regimes created a thriving environment for politicians to respond to inclusionary demands. In most cases, influential political leaders promoted participatory budgeting as a way of raising their electorate’s voice.

In a few other cases, participatory institutions did not emerge from below but were instead nationally imposed by governments as part of an effort at decentralisation. These cases have generally been successful in promoting participation but have not necessarily included disadvantaged groups, increased political responsiveness, or reduced corruption. For example, in Dominican Republic or Angola, in the absence of sanctioning mechanisms, PB laws were not reflected in practice or did not prevent clientelism.

This is why most experts suggest that participatory institutions are more likely to have positive outcomes when they are implemented through a strong bottom-up pressure from civil society.

Top-Down PB

There are, however, examples of top-down implementations of participatory platforms that have led to positive results in the past. In Peru for example, government imposed PB has been linked with an increase in responsiveness and wellbeing.

The Peruvian PB law was part of a broader decentralisation reform aimed at resolving issues of transparency, corruption and concentration of power stemming from Alberto Fujimori’s ten-year authoritarian rule. The reform was largely carried out by members of Ministry of Economics and Finance (MEF) who advocated in congress for piloting a PB program in different cities. 

According to the research done by political scientists, the PBs imposed by the Peruvian government are associated with a pro-poor shift in municipal investment spending and with long-term improvements to the well-being of citizens. Investments in basic services such as health, education, electricity and sewage increased significantly after the top-down implementation of PB.  

The potential of politically autonomous agencies

Scholars suggest that the success of PB in Peru was “a consequence of increased information-sharing between government and civil society, made possible by the leadership of a powerful technocratic agency (the MEF).” The MEF’s central role in reducing hyperinflation during the 1990s contributed to the institution’s reputation and influence. As a result, the design and oversight of PB implementation by the MEF ensured compliance and sustained participation rates. 

In this sense, the authors conclude that “government technocrats, particularly those from an influential and politically autonomous agency, can play a similar role to the part played by civil society organisations or ideologically committed elected officials in cases of bottom-up implementation.”

Nonetheless, problems remain. Several analysts note that in Peru’s PBs, approved projects are not always executed, even though it is mandated by national law and promoted by a prestigious governmental body. Moreover, the positive influence of PB on citizens well-being only applies in cases where PB has already been running for at least 10 years. These facts point to the importance of bottom-up citizen engagement for ensuring the monitoring and longevity of PB.

Top-down Civic Tech

Government-imposed civic technologies could help achieve this condition of broad participation, monitoring, and information-sharing. In Mexico for example, the government PB program launched a monitoring platform based on crowdsourcing which enables citizens to observe in real time how selected projects are implemented. However, despite multiple cases whereby technological platforms have improved the performance of participatory institutions, there is only mixed evidence that it makes participation more inclusive.

One the one hand, platforms that provide online voting systems and community engagement have the potential to increase the participation of civil society by reducing its costs and making participatory institutions more transparent and accessible. The introduction of e-voting in southern Brazil, for example, increased turnout by 8.2 percent.

On the other hand, technology is more likely to increase participation among young, of higher income and educational attainment. As policy analysts suggest, “any strengthening of political engagement that digital platforms facilitate may be limited to those who are already engaged, and therefore may not reach those groups in society where the impact would be greatest.”

Other experts put more emphasis on the institutional design of participatory platforms in influencing their outcome. “Who participates and whether online voting is used doesn’t necessarily affect the redistributive nature of the projects that might be selected,” says Tiago Peixoto, a senior government specialist at the World Bank.

Active civil society

Regardless of the direction of implementation, sustaining an active civil society and a strong democratic culture in the long term is not only a driver of participatory institutions – it is also one of their key goals.

Societies that have traditionally presented increased levels of interpersonal trust and civic associations have an easier job to maintain broad political participation. Under these conditions, citizens can overcome collective action dilemmas that characterise the processes of participatory institutions. More trust and civic associations create opportunities for people to care about their communities, discuss civic matters and increase their awareness of political issues.

At the same time, participatory platforms such as PB can strengthen civil society and political participation. After the implementation of PB, citizens are encouraged to form or engage with civil society organization. PB can also increase investments in public infrastructure that facilitate environments for associationism.

In this way, a virtuous circle can be created whereby traditions of civic trust and associationism contribute to the maintenance of participatory platforms and simultaneously, participatory platforms promote trust and cooperation. A top-down implementation of PB could serve as a significant push towards this virtuous circle. However, strong bottom-up participation will still be indispensable to its success.  

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