09 November 2023

Democracy Technologies: Apart from currently holding the position at the National Secretariat of Social Participation you are also a political scientist and have done extensive research on democratic innovation. Can you share your evaluation of the first experience of the Participatory Pluriannual Plan?

Carla Bezerra: We were expecting to engage one million people to participate on the digital platform for the Participatory Pluriannual Plan. That was our goal, and we ended up reaching almost one and a half million people. So it surpassed our expectations.

We were also very concerned about the possibility of hate speech attacks and bot attacks. However, this almost didn’t happen, because we used a unique digital identity that the government uses for most of its digital services. This allowed us to ensure that each voter was a unique citizen and was not using a fake identity. We also had moderators of hate speech and proposals that contravene human rights. But of 8,254 proposals, only 40 had to be moderated. So we can say that the Participatory Pluriannual Plan was very successful in bringing participants to discuss, make proposals and vote.

I believe that the success lies in the face-to-face and online mobilisation processes. 27 large assemblies were held in the 27 units of the federation, bringing together between 800 and 2,000 people, always in dialogue with leaders of local movements. We also had an activation strategy on social networks with free communicators and influencers mobilising people to present their proposals.

DT: Many worry that unequal participation in these processes can lead to biassed outcomes. Was this a concern for the Brazilian government? What measures did you take to counter this?

Bezerra: Yes, we were concerned about that. From the very beginning, the idea was to have a combination of in-person and digital spaces. We have had a long tradition of in-person participatory spaces. But these are not enough to reach the whole population. The digital platform opens possibilities to reach people who do not normally participate in in-person spaces.

The idea behind combining in-person and digital processes is to try to overcome this unequal participation. We did in-person assemblies in all 27 states of the Federation. Those assemblies were organised by social movements leaders, and we tried to guarantee that all these movements would understand the platform and mobilise people to use it.

After analysing the participatory process, we noticed that more organised parts of the population, like people who participate in unions, were able to mobilise more people to vote than, for example, people who are from indigenous movements or indigenous communities who usually have less access to the internet. That’s a reality, and we are studying ways to overcome this gap. This requires more than just digital participatory platform efforts. It calls for combined policy action on the part of the whole government to overcome the digital gap in general.

In addressing the issue, we also thought about how we reduced unequal participation for other processes. This could be local mobilisation or doing special in-person sessions to communities that have limited internet access.

DT: Participatory processes such as participatory budgeting were already established at the local level almost three decades ago. What was the main motivation to extend these processes at the federal level? Was it an impulse from below, or from the Workers Party itself?

Bezerra: We don’t actually currently have participatory budgeting at the federal level. Although President Lula announced it during his campaign, the possible formats are still under discussion. There are several barriers to implementing national participatory budgeting: From budget availability to the tensions that this will generate within other powers of the Federation, like the Congress. 

So regarding federal participatory budgeting, there is a debate within the government on how to do it. But in any case, we’re following up on other participatory spaces that we already had. When we discuss the Participatory Pluriannual Plan, we are not actually discussing the budget itself. We are using this participatory planning tool to set the general policy priorities to be implemented. 

Regarding the impulse for this initiative, participation has always been a main guideline for the Workers Party in most of its governments, and Lula has always placed great importance on it. During the campaign, Lula has stated several times that his government would be open to civil society and social movements, and that he would be interested in building a version of national participatory budgeting, as well as enhancing and strengthening other participatory spaces. 

Civil society supported Lula’s ideas. So I would say that it was a process that was neither bottom-up nor top-down. Social movements were pressing for this space, but the Workers Party was also interested and has always defended this position. It was an interactive process.

DT: Back during his electoral campaign, Lula said that if he won, he would implement a national participatory budget to escape from the  “secret budget”. Could you briefly explain this issue and how it relates to the Brasil Participativo?

Bezerra: In Brazil, parliamentary amendments are used by members of Congress to make additions to the federal budget proposal and influence the allocation of public funds to specific projects or programs in their constituencies. 

During Bolsonaro’s government, the number of parliamentary amendments increased enormously. We always had group, individual or rapporteur amendments, but only during the Bolsonaro government did we see what became known as the “secret budget”. Following reforms to budgetary guidelines, parliamentarians were able to request funds from the federal budget via rapporteur amendments without providing any details, such as the identification or even the destination of resources. 

Before Bolsonaro’s government, this particular kind of amendment already existed, but it was only used on a small scale, and was not binding. Back then, parliamentarians made amendments and the executive power decided whether to release the funds requested. But during Bolsonaro’s mandate, the government was obliged to release the amount requested in rapporteur amendments. 

Eventually, the Supreme Court declared this secret budget unconstitutional, and redistributed these funds to so-called individual amendments. This means that today, members of Congress control more value in amendments than some ministries. This makes it difficult for the executive to govern, because parliamentarians won’t follow general spending guidelines. They allocate amendments to their electoral base according to random priorities. This makes it hard for the executive to think about larger and more significant policies. 

So, the idea would be to think about how we can involve society to provide more transparency to this process of allocating amendments. This was Lula’s proposal when he spoke in the campaign about the rise of the participatory budget against the secret budget. But I think that figuring out how to do this is very difficult. If parliamentarians already have control over this money, they won’t want to give it away.

How can we come up with other spaces for participation? How can we involve citizens in this process? These are all things that are still completely under discussion and open.

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