budget graph and money bags

What is Participatory Budgeting?

Participatory budgeting is a way for citizens and community groups to have a say in how some of the government’s public fund money is spent.

Often focussed on a singular project, or initiative, participatory budgeting asks citizens to come up with ideas that require funding, and then vote on how the money is allocated. This can be done in local areas or across cities or counties; but in the UK, most participatory budgeting initiatives have been about small-scale grant allocations.

This process is meant to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, and that the spending decisions are fair and transparent to establish legitimacy in government practices. Ultimately, it’s about giving power to the people to decide how their community’s money is used to solve problems and make improvements.

Origins of Participatory Budgeting: Brazil Case Study

Brazil flag

Participatory budgeting was developed in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 as a way to increase citizen participation and give more support to poorer parts of the city.

Designed to encourage citizen participation from marginalised groups and tackle corruption in Brazilian politics, the city continues to use participatory budgeting year-on-year.

Across neighbourhood assemblies, thematic assemblies and delegate meetings they discuss funding across the city’s districts and decide a criteria for budget allocation.

The debates happen across the city and are open to all. Once decided, the proposals are provided to the government and tweaked were necessary.

Overall, women, ethnic minorities, low income and low education citizens are successfully involved in participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, resulting in a focus shift to the poorest parts of the city where funding was needed most.

To this day, Porto Alegre remains our best example of participatory budgeting in action.

How Does Participatory Budgeting Work?

three blocks with the words step by step and an arrow pointing upward

There are many ways participatory budgeting initiative can encourage citizen participation. If we were to take the example of Porto Alegre above, some of the most effective ways include assemblies split across the target area, assemblies that focus on larger city-wide issues, rather than those specific to a local area, and a council of delegates to feed back to the government.

There are several stages to effective participatory budgeting.

Stage One: Planning

It’s important government officials understand and effectively communicate the amount of budget on the table, and the desired outcomes.

They should then decide how they’ll encourage diverse citizen engagement with the participatory budgeting process, whether that’s setting up community groups, assemblies, discussions forums etc.

Stage Two: The Discussions

During these community group meetings, residents and citizens will propose ideas and budget allocations based on the needs of their local area. This could mean identifying low-income areas to support, focussing on spatial planning budgets, consulting on wider thematic issues such as education funding etc.

The best way to ensure participation is fair and easily accessible to all is to have a solid community engagement strategy that involves both offline and online components.

 A digital playground or centralised location to share opinions and use interactive tools provides both qualitative and quantitative data to analyse, making engagement more accessible to all.

This should be supported by in-person discussion forums and meetings to breach the digital divide between those who want to participate.

Stage Three: Proposal development

Developing a structure to submit a proposal for the desired budget allocations is the next step. This is best done in tandem with government or local authority delegates who can help formulate it in a way that clearly lays out feasibility, cost and expected impact.


Stage Four: Voting

The involved citizens then vote on the different budget allocations and desired outcomes of the participatory budget. The best way to ensure this process is fair and transparent is to make it accessible to all through online participation in a system like Citizen Space.  

Stage Five: Implementation

As with anything, the most popular wins. It’s then up to the government organisations or public sector bodies to put those plans into action.

But it should be done alongside the watchful eye of the chosen community members so that implementation occurs as expected.

Stage Six: Evaluation & closing the feedback loop

Define a set of metrics to assess the participatory budgets success. After implementation, monitor the proposal’s impact and feed back to the community.

This shows that their contributions were heard and meaningful and closes the feedback loop. Tools like Citizen Space’s “We Asked. You Said. We Did.” clearly lay out how citizens engagement and decision-making affected their community.

Benefits of Participatory Budgeting


Participatory budgeting lets citizens have a real say in changes made to places they work, live and play. Beyond that, it develops the relationship between a government and its citizens.

Much like other forms of community engagement, participatory budgeting has benefits that extend beyond the sharing of ideas.

Transparency & trust

Communicating openly with citizens and asking them to engage in measures where they have a real say and impact builds a relationship with different communities.

In asking them to actively contribute to changes in their neighbourhoods, officials are showing they care about the real-life impact of decision making.

Participatory budgeting also means government spending is fully transparent, citizens know exactly where the money is going, and why. You can’t argue with a budget allocation you had a direct hand in creating!

Better allocation

In listening to citizens, and targeting marginalised communities who are often unheard in the democratic decision-making process, funds are allocated based on real, actual need. This means underrepresented, low-income areas receive greater focus and funding than they otherwise would have.


Hand-in-hand with participatory budgeting directly impacting poorer communities positively, is the way it also allows underrepresented voices to be heard.

The better a local authority or public sector develops its participatory budgeting process, the more inclusive it becomes. That means creating online and offline components that are easily understood and accessible to all levels of society.


Participatory budgeting has been shown to be more efficient and effective in its use of public funds, leading to overall greater support.

This means over the long term the goals are more sustainably laid out with reasonable expectations at all levels of what can be achieved.

Challenges of Participatory Budgeting

two people outlining challenges for budgeting on board

As with any good initiative, there are obstacles to making it a reality. It’s why in the UK, participatory budgeting has traditionally focussed on smaller neighbourhood or community projects than larger city-wide or even county-wide goals.

There are a few reasons for this:


Ironically, part of participatory budgeting is budgeting for it. Creating these focus groups and assemblies ultimately takes up time, resources and funding themselves.


Doesn’t it all come down to politics in the end? Unfortunately, some stakeholders may be unwilling to yield to community groups as they have entrenched interests, or worry about the impact to their own power or influence.


We’ve talked about how to do it well: offline components like paper-based surveys, neighbourhood meetings, and forum discussion groups; and online components like interactive tools, surveys and feedback portals using a software like Citizen Space.

But not everyone follows these best practices; and when they don’t, the project ultimately becomes inaccessible for many, especially marginalised and underrepresented communities.


Although this isn’t a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, it can be a case of too many cooks arguing over the broth. Figuring out how to fairly lead discussions, ensure all viewpoints are heard and taken into account can be challenging.

Deliberative prioritisation takes time, but it’s time worth spending.