“To bring people closer to politics, as well as promoting a deeper connection and integration between territories through projects at national level.” This is the ambitious objective of Portugal’s nation-wide participatory budgeting initiative, the first country to take this form of engagement to a country level. We talked to Graça Fonseca, Secretary of State Assistant and of Administrative Modernisation to see what others could learn from their experience.
Lena: Tell me about participatory budgeting – what is it exactly?
Graça: Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic, direct and universal process that allows people to decide on public investments in different governmental areas. In Portugal, PB has a particularly strong history: Since the early 2000s, we’ve seen a significant number of municipalities successfully leverage it as a mechanism to challenge citizens to get involved in local decision-making. I was running Lisbon’s PB for six years, developing it in discussion with colleagues from Paris, New York and Brazil. The success of our local initiatives has given those of us who work in government confidence about the process, and it has also helped us to built citizens’ trust.
Lena: Why introduce a nation-wide participatory budget?
Graça: One of today’s biggest challenges for governments all around the world is related to the loss of trust. All of us who work in public administration have heard statements like “I won’t vote, because nothing will change.” We want people to see change which is why the XXI Government Programme, approved by the Portuguese Parliament, includes our commitment to PB. Implementing PB has accelerated in several parts of the world, and it is an important counterbalance to citizens’ indifference towards politics and democracy. By engaging citizens in a nation-wide PB, we aim to create national networks, and show citizens that it is worth to vote on an issue that they care about.
Lena: How do you go about launching a nation-wide participatory budget?
Graça: We launched the first edition of our nation-wide PB in 2017, focusing on four policy areas: culture, agriculture, science, education and adult training. Our team travelled through the whole country, including the autonomous regions and held 50 participatory meetings which were attended by more than 2,500 people, with more than 1,000 ideas. Following a technical analysis of the submitted ideas, a total of 599 projects were put to vote – and we are excited that this first edition of the PB registered 78,815 votes! We are now in the process of planning implementation of the 38 most voted projects – these are distributed across the four policy areas and across regions.
Lena: What are the most important lesson learned?
Graça: There is one single rule that we set up early on in the project: to get out, leave the office and meet people, co-create ideas. Bringing people together also means to overcome physical distance and engage citizens face to face. For this reason, we went to the places where people live, and not just to Lisbon and Porto, but also to the very small villages. We talked directly to people who submitted the proposals, enabling them to take full ownership of their ideas.
This rule is also driving the current, second edition of our PB – we are committing to an even larger amount of money and are inviting proposals from all policy areas. And again, we are investing time and resource for our teams to go out and meet citizens, speak to them and help them develop their ideas and proposals.
I’m often asked whether the size of Portugal is what has made PB so successful here. And while it is certainly true that being a small country makes the process and administration less complex for us, size should not be a barrier. Our experience has taught us that one of the most important drivers of PB is the direct engagement with citizens, something that can and should happen in any country, and at any level of government.
Lena: Moving from planning to implementation: what makes for successful implementation?
Graça: Engaging people throughout the process is a key success factor in participatory budgeting initiatives. The PB team works closely with the proponents of the winning proposals for implementation to ensure that they meet their vision.
To give you an example, we are working with the proponents of the most voted proposal of last year free access to cultural events and equipments, like museums, theatres, opera, cinema and so on to those who complet 18 year this year – to ensure that the terms and timing of its implementation are aligned with the thoughts and wishes of the proponents. This project will be initiated by March.
I think that we will be able to observe the effects of PB on trust in government in 5-10 years. The hope is that PB’s co-creation spirit will become embedded in the way our government makes decisions and in the way people think of government.
What is legitimacy to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with citizens to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI.
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