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March 31st, 2021
Energy • Infrastructure • Innovation

Green Participatory Budgeting: Lisbon, Portugal

In 2008, Lisbon was the first European capital to adopt participatory budgeting at municipal scale, empowering its citizens to use parts of the Council’s budget each year for projects that benefit their community.

In line with Lisbon’s increasing interest in environmental goals, and following its recent win of the European Green Capital Award in 2020, Lisbon decided to transform its participatory budget into a green participatory budget which would focus exclusively on proposals for a more sustainable, resilient and environmentally-friendly city.

The Lisbon Green participatory budget uses a hybrid model of citizen engagement, focusing on in-person engagement for discussion and debate and web-based platforms for voting and proposal submission. The annual process culminates with the integration of the winning projects in the City Council’s Plan of Activities and Budget, which are approved by the City Council and the Municipal Assembly, and subsequently implemented.

Background and Context

The focus on tackling climate change across EU countries began two years before the Lisbon Participatory Budget (PB) process was set up, when the European Council set specific areas for priority actions in its 2005 revision of the Lisbon Strategy, its action and development plan for the EU economy.1 One of the priority areas specified was ‘climate change and energy policy for Europe’, which led to a number of climate-based targets being enacted in the legislation of European countries by 2009.2,3,4 

Lisbon has a strong track record in achieving ambitious sustainability targets, having managed to reduce CO2 emissions by half between 2002 and 2014, and energy and water consumption by 23 percent and 17 percent respectively between 2007 and 2013. This achievement resulted in Lisbon becoming the first capital in Europe to sign the New Covenant of Mayors for Climate Change and Energy in 2016, incentivising further climate action from the city.5,6 An added incentive on improving climate targets came when it was announced that Lisbon had won the European Green Capital Award for 2020.7,8

The Initiative

Lisbon introduced PB at municipal level in 2008; the first European capital to do so. The PB process allows the city’s inhabitants to annually discuss, propose and vote for how a portion (the specific amount is clarified annually) of the City Council’s budget is to be used. The PB process is open to everyone in the municipality of Lisbon over the age of 16 years, including officials/representatives from companies, charities and non-governmental organisations in the city.9,10 The PB process is also open to non-residents who visit or work in the city, and nearly a quarter of the votes are from this group.11 

Following Lisbon’s win of the European Green Capital Award 2020, the City Council decided to focus its PB process “exclusively on proposals that contribute to a more sustainable, resilient and environmentally friendly city” - a Green PB. The Green PB, which follows the existing Lisbon PB approach, is supported and managed by the consultant firm South Pole and EIT Climate-KIC's City Finance Lab, a body of the European Union.12,13,14 In 2018, a pilot ‘Green PB for Schools’ project involving 5 schools from 5 regions in Lisbon was carried out, to learn how to best apply an environmental lens to PB, and also learn how to roll out Green PB across all Lisbon schools. The city also established the Lisbon Commitment, in 2018, which invited over 200 local Lisbon companies that had already made green commitments, to make further commitments for the period 2020-2030.15 

The total budget for the Green PB process is EUR 5 million, which was divided into two project types - ‘Structural’ (EUR 150,000-500,000) and ‘Local Projects’(EUR 50,000-150,000).16 The PB cycle opens in May, with several decentralised sessions and online engagement processes held across the city, inviting project proposals. In July, a technical analysis of the proposals is carried out by the municipal team, to narrow down the proposal list. A Provisional Project list is then published, against which voting commences in October. At the same time, a week-long complaints process is opened to register and address any complaints on the technical analysis process. In November, the annual cycle closes with a public presentation of the winning projects. This is followed by an evaluation, feedback and redesign process for the next cycle between January to March.17

NB: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Green PB was not implemented in 2020 and is likely to restart in 2021. The rollout of the wider schools PB has also been delayed.18 However, since the Green PB process is expected to replicate the current Lisbon PB process, the sections below analyse the current Lisbon PB, including details on Green PB where available.

How was the need for (green) participatory budgets presented and communicated?

Before the initiative

Between 2008 and 2019, the participatory budgeting opportunity was communicated to Lisbon residents mainly through ‘word of mouth’ (42.7 percent through family and friends).19 Further, as an on-going annual process widely covered by traditional and online media, the public in Lisbon were well-aware of the PB process timelines, how to participate, and also how to oversee the implementation of civic projects identified through the process.20 

During the initiative

Communication strategies inviting participation in the Lisbon PB have been redesigned and improved over time, in keeping with regular self-evaluation results and feedback from its participating residents.21 Initially, to promote participation, the Council built an internet portal, through which citizens could receive information, and eventually also submit proposals and vote. Several online awareness and information campaigns were also run on the Lisbon PB process, inviting participation. However, as noted in the 2018/19 annual report of Lisbon PB, participation was seen as being dominated by a specific age-group of citizens. Therefore, more recently, the aim has been to make the Lisbon PB ‘more transversal and inclusive’ with several initiatives carried out in order to involve population groups traditionally further removed from this type of active citizenship process, namely, youth, seniors and migrants. (translated from Portuguese).22 This includes a ‘de-digitisation’ of processes, with the establishment of several in-person, physical meeting opportunities for citizens, such as workshops, Participation Assemblies and polling stations, to avoid excluding those without access to phones, computers or the internet. Awareness was also driven through traditional news media and SMS campaigns, with proposals and voting also invited through SMS.23

Other communication strategies used during Lisbon PB were developed over time and included:

  • Communication Kits - templates to use when promoting projects or information about the Lisbon PB, made available to download on the website 

  • Websites - Lisbon Green PB website (3000 registered), Camara Municipal de Lisboa (CML) website (4800 subscriptions)

  • Media outlets (articles and advertisements in local newspapers) and social media.

  • Leaflets/information distributed via GP surgeries and sports events

  • Lisbon PB Bus, to drive around Lisbon and offer information, discussions and voting facilities, recently replaced by a ‘Bike PB’24,25

In the ‘Green PB for Schools’ pilot in 2018, the students were engaged on the topic of climate change and environment issues through messaging around the intergenerational nature of the challenge.26,27 The message was presented and communicated through the curriculum and active learning sessions led by teachers, professors and PB staff. For example, games were used to show students how to save water and protect water resources.28 The students were given 12 pre-chosen eligible projects which came under 6 themes.29 The final projects were chosen after a voting process in which all the students participated.

After the initiative

After the annual close of the Lisbon PB process, the CML website provides information and updates on the development of projects selected, enabling citizens to monitor implementation. The portal also provides reasoning behind delays, if any.

What was the extent and nature of citizen collaboration in the PB process?

In terms of enabling citizen collaboration, The Lisbon and Green PB processes have designated Participatory Assembly sessions to discuss proposals and cast votes on eligible projects. Here, citizens are organised into several smaller discussion groups at random. Each discussion group is joined by a moderator from the Council, who facilitates discussion around the quality of the proposal. Only proposals that are voted for by the discussion groups are put forward for technical eligibility checks by the Council.30 However, since there is no limit to the number of proposals that can be submitted at this stage, there is a tendency for most proposals to be put through to the next stage by the groups. Each proposal is appraised on quality, with discussions around its individual merits and demerits, but does not involve discussions around trade-offs between proposals nor are prioritisation decisions made between them.31 

All proposals that come through the Assembly process, including the ones that are submitted online (which do not go through a process of deliberation), are shared with the Council’s PB team. The PB team takes the proposals through a process of filtering, analysis and merging, relisting them as specific ‘civic projects’, and inviting public voting on them. As this filtering process is conducted by the Council rather than the citizens, the process was initially viewed as discretionary, and was prone to wide-ranging complaints. To counter this challenge to its legitimacy, since 2012, the Council PB team has contacted citizens who submitted proposals to check with them before merging proposals. In addition, the Council also opened up a complaints forum alongside releasing the Provisional Project list to allow citizens to raise any issues with the rejection or mergers of their proposals. Once the process of voting closes, the projects with the most votes are presented at a public ceremony.32

What was the level of action addressed by the public engagement?

The public engagement was targeted primarily at individual and community-level, with the onus placed on individuals to engage further at community-level in order to gather votes on important civic projects.

The objectives of the (Green) Lisbon PB are to promote citizen engagement and participation in city decision-making processes; accelerate awareness and investment in (sustainable) local projects; encourage greater dialogue between citizens and officials and enhance transparency and accountability around the Council's activities.33

The Public Impact

The evidence suggests that there is active citizen participation in the Lisbon PB process, leading to the commissioning of projects also related to sustainability and the environment among others.

  • Between 2008 and 2018, 303,208 citizens voted in the Lisbon PB, and 36.3 million euro was invested through 11 Participatory Budget cycles.

As of 2019, 25.2 million euro worth of projects have been concluded, or are at implementation stage.34

Further Considerations and Learnings from this Case

From CPI’s extensive work on public engagement, we have found three important drivers to public impact that are relevant to discuss when designing public engagement processes around climate change: Enabling Adaptability and Learning; Designing for Inclusion; and Embracing Complexity. We discuss the relevance of each to the case study below:

Enabling adaptability and learning

The Lisbon PB process has gradually evolved over the years, in response to citizen feedback and annual self-evaluation processes, a significant benefit to it being a long-running annual process. The learning process has led to a) changes to the public engagement and awareness-building process around Lisbon PB to include different community groups and create more avenues for in-person engagement; b) changes to the proposal filtering process conducted by the Council, and the introduction of the complaints and review component; and c) changes to simplify the rules of participation with active efforts made to reduce barriers to participation.35 The range of changes speak to the benefits of long-term sustained public engagement with robust feedback and evaluation loops in improving programme processes and outcomes. The constant adaptation also builds flexibility in the programme, making it simpler to introduce new mandates to the existing PB model, such as the recent prioritisation of sustainable, resilient and environmentally-friendly projects through the Green PB initiative. By adapting and building on an existing institutional structure, the ability to engage with citizens and sustain the urgency and momentum for green projects long-term is likely to be stronger than if a completely new initiative had been launched separately.36 

In addition, the Lisbon PB is widely discussed across the country, with lessons shared among several other Portuguese municipalities. In many cases, these municipalities are actively looking to counter some of the challenges encountered by the Lisbon PB process by experimenting with how they design and set up their own PB processes. For example, Condeixa and Trofa have designed a multiple vote system that encourages citizens to read and discuss all the projects submitted before the final vote, rather than merely voting on their own project.37 The Lisbon PB process has also heavily borrowed experiments from its neighbours, while adapting them to suit its needs. For example, inspired by the Cascais PB, the Lisbon Council adopted the use of SMS as a primary voting tool, although it also introduced the PB Bus to reach more communities, when it was deemed impossible to reach an agreement with all telephone companies operating in Lisbon.38

Designing for inclusion

The Lisbon PB has made many efforts to democratise public engagement and participation in both the proposal submission and voting processes over the years. In the first two years, all participants - except the group that used the polling stations - had attained a degree in higher education. The age range of participants also shifted from 35-65 years in 2008 to 26-35 years during the 2009 and 2010 cycles. By constantly monitoring and evaluating the demographic characteristics of the participants, the City Council was able to actively identify new avenues to design in further inclusion. This involved a ‘de-digitalisation’ of the process and enabling the use of more in-person options to meet and discuss proposals. The objective was to reach out to senior citizens and those with limited access to computers, internet and smartphones, such as migrants and citizens from lower socio-economic backgrounds. To reach young people, the Lisbon Schools Green PB pilot was launched. In addition, some approved PB projects are in themselves designed to help with integrating disadvantaged groups into societies. Some examples include entrepreneurships and training courses for people with disabilities, or minority community groups.39, 40,41

It is important to note, however, that there are certain inclusion gaps in the way that the current deliberation processes in the Participation Assemblies are structured. Primarily, they do not push citizens to discuss key city-level priorities across the proposals, in acknowledgment of the limited participatory budget involved. This leads to limited discussions around the needs of different citizen groups, and trade-offs between prioritising one project over the other. These value-laden decisions are instead made by the City Council, in a technical evaluation process that only aims to check feasibility and reduce redundancy across proposals.42 It is unlikely that this process is conducive to true inclusion and the quality of deliberation among the public potentially needs to be made much more robust in subsequent cycles. While achieving this is challenging given the scale of the PB initiative, it can be addressed by involving and partnering with grassroots organisations, NGOs, Councillors and other community representatives. Partnering would also counter the current tendency to favour organised groups with greater mobilisation/voting capacity, by providing greater steer on how marginalised groups or unequal redistribution needs across the city can be prioritised. Overall, it is important to note, that a specific emphasis on issues related to social inclusion and redistributive justice would be critical to ensuring socially just outcomes from the Green PB process. 

Embracing Complexity

Participatory Budgeting processes, in general, are less well-placed to adequately address complex issues, as they tend to focus on short-term individual projects in disconnected sectoral realms. This narrowed objective prevents them from effectively addressing multi-sectoral issues such as inequality as well as long-term intergenerational issues such as climate change. Navigating past these challenges will require significantly more attention and resources. These can be dedicated to developing long-term communication plans around how citizens can be comprehensively engaged on issues of climate-focussed city planning and policy, through collaboration and deliberation. Further, the resources must also prioritise building the capacity of municipal staff/partner organisations to facilitate a more nuanced engagement process. As the Green PB process in Lisbon commences post the COVID-19 restrictions, it will be an interesting example to learn from in terms of how it navigates these challenges.


Engaging the Public on Climate Change

Our Case Study Compendium provides practitioners with a framework to unpack different approaches, outlining how public engagement can better embrace the complexity of climate issues.

Read the report