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Home arrow Political science arrow Evaluating Democratic Innovations: Curing the Democratic Malaise?
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Co-governance innovations and representative democracy: a new division of political labour?

Whilst co-governance institutions share many features, they take very different procedural forms. Three will be presented here; each embodying a paradigmatic example of empowered innovation. The three institutional forms, despite the differences of context, were all created and supported by strong political will on the part of elites. They could also count - when they were successful - on the decisive mobilization of civil society organizations, working as a ‘countervailing power’ (Fung and Wright 2003), insuring a greater autonomy to these institutions.

Participatory budgeting: empowered urban democracy

A participatory budget (PB) can be defined as the institutionalized inclusion of lay citizens and civil society organizations in the budget decision-making process of a public administration (typically at municipal level, although it has been implemented by a small number of regions). PB, therefore, shifts decisions over the investment side of the budget from the city’s elected officials to a system of neighbourhood and city-wide popular assemblies. Sharing some features with town meetings (Mansbridge 1983; Bryan 2004), participation is more formalized in PBs and the link with decisions more direct, as embodied in a voting procedure in most of the cases. PB’s paradigmatic experiment emerged in Brazil. Since

1989, the city of Porto Alegre, led by the (then recently elected) left-wing Workers’ Party, has implemented a very ambitious mechanism of participatory budgeting. Created as a top-down innovation, by liberal political elites aiming at ‘democratizing democracy’, the creation and institutionalization of PB owes a lot to the pressures coming from civil society, asking for greater participation and democracy. Procedurally, the PB process is divided among different institutions at the neighbourhood, district and municipal levels (Abers 2000; Avritzer 2002; Gret and Sintomer 2005; Baiocchi 2005). Popular assemblies are organized at the neighbourhood level, and are open to all volunteers. People can make proposals, which are then ranked through popular vote. Delegates - for the district and city levels - are also elected to promote the priorities of the neighbourhood at the higher stages. Through a complex system of socio-demographic criteria, the most marginal neighbourhoods and categories of the population tend to receive more public funding than others, following a form of ‘territorial affirmative action’. Whilst its impact will be evaluated later on, it can nevertheless be stressed that PB’s ability to involve an impressive number of citizens in its assemblies, and especially from the poorest classes, as well as its impact on public policies - its ability to ‘invert priorities’ towards the most deprived neighbourhood of the city - has captured the imagination of both social scientists and political activists, who have then tried, with varying success, to export the model.

Since its successful establishment in Porto Alegre, PB has spread widely, first in Brazil, then across Latin America, and more recently in Europe. The World Social Forum - created at the initiative of the anti-globalization movement to coordinate actions and share experiences (Della Porta et al. 2006; see Rucht in this volume) - organized in Porto Alegre since 2001, played a great role in the diffusion of the experience (Sintomer et al. 2008a). By 2008, several hundreds of cities in the world had adopted a participatory budgeting mechanism. Apart from Porto Alegre, several hundred PBs have been created in Latin America in the last decade and more than a hundred in Europe. Porto Alegre’s paradigmatic example goes far, however, in encompassing all the procedural diversity of participatory budgets across the world - so well that Sintomer et al. (2008a) constructed six ideal types to describe the European cases.2 It must be stressed that in contrast to Porto Alegre’s case, European PBs only deal with a fraction (1-20 per cent) of the administration’s budget. The ‘Porto Alegre PB adapted for Europe’ model follows, to a great extent, the Brazilian city procedural design, and is well represented in Spain (where about twenty PBs are currently functioning), and to a lesser extent in Italy. The cities of Cordoba and Seville (which embodies the biggest European PB experiment in this city of 700,000 inhabitants), with the emphasis they put on social justice and the allocation of funds towards the most deprived neighbourhoods, are good examples of this model. The ‘proximity participation’ PB model is mainly present in France (with about ten cases)3 and in Italy. In these cases, PBs are less autonomous from the administration, with direct participation of elected officials in the process, and decisions taken by consensus rather than vote. Here, the aim is mostly to bridge the gap between politicians and citizens and thus to solve the ‘crisis of representation’. As a consequence, some of these experiments are merely consultative, with elected officials ‘cherry-picking’ the ideas and proposals they find interesting. ‘Consultation on public finances’ is the most common PB model in Germany. It mainly consists of information and transparency on the city’s budget and financial decisions. Citizens can give suggestions - usually made individually rather than through collective deliberation - on how to modernize public services. Finally, ‘community funds at the local level’ is the most common PB model in the UK, with examples in cities such as Bradford and Salford. In this case, local authorities generally engage non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community organizations to allocate financing coming from urban renewal programmes (Lavan, 2007). PB has indeed generated a great deal of interest in the last decade in the UK. During the Blair administration, the then Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, promoted the establishment of PBs - mostly understood as in the ‘community fund’ model - across most British local authorities.

The overall development of PB has been impressive in the last decade, with the World Bank even recommending this democratic innovation as a model of ‘good governance’ to be encouraged, especially in Asia and Africa. PBs appear in some regards as embodying one of the most widespread experiences of co-governance innovation across the globe. From this perspective, it seems that despite the variations of PB’s procedural form according to the context, it is adaptable to very different circumstances and mostly depends on the political will of its initiators.

 
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