Participatory budgeting

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Mixed Evidence

Strategies with this rating have been tested more than once and results are inconsistent or trend negative; further research is needed to confirm effects.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential for mixed impact on disparities

Strategies with this rating could increase and decrease disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence or expert opinion.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a process to give community members input in how public budgets are spent. PB is usually adopted by municipalities, although it can be used at the neighborhood, district, regional, or even national level. The process is usually run by government officials and administrators, with non-profits or local organizations consulted in PB’s design and promotion. Approaches vary, but in general community members (often described as participants) develop proposals for how to allocate a portion of the budget, often with designated community representatives to refine and advocate for the proposals. Proposals are often developed and selected at public meetings, although settings can also include focus groups or citizen advisory boards. Surveys and digital tools like online forums and voting can also be part of the process1. To be distinct from other democratic innovations and budget-related processes, final decision-making authority should belong to community members who are not PB’s governing officials2, 3. However, in some adaptations, officials and administrators have the final say as to which proposals are selected1. PB can also be used to give community members input in budget cuts or in choosing new methods to raise revenue, such as taxes, though these approaches are less common1.

PB began in Brazil and has been adopted and adapted around the world, including in the U.S.1. Ideally, budget allocations focus on improving neighborhood or municipal conditions, such as in housing, sanitation4, or projects related to public facilities like schools, parks, or libraries2. Sometimes social policies are the focus, such as policies for youth or to increase gender inclusion1. The original PB model prioritizes participation by all community members in a process combining direct and representative democracy and aims to promote high-quality deliberation, and ultimately to direct more resources toward individuals living in poverty and to reduce inequality. However, adaptations often differ from this model and its goals, focusing foremost on giving community members an opportunity for budget input1.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased equitable distribution of public funds

  • Increased civic participation

  • Increased government transparency

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased civic knowledge

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is mixed evidence regarding participatory budgeting’s (PB’s) effects on the equitable distribution of public funds, promotion of government transparency, and civic participation1. Available evidence from the U.S. suggests PB does not redirect funds to neighborhoods with the lowest incomes5 and appears to allocate only a very small portion of budgets to project areas where funds would have been directed otherwise6. There is also mixed evidence, mostly from outside the U.S., regarding PB’s effects on health and social outcomes4. More rigorous evidence, from more settings, is needed to determine effects1, 4.

PB in the U.S. New York City-based studies suggest PB may influence where projects are funded geographically but may not change how funding is allocated. For example, districts in NYC which have adopted PB appear to increase funding in neighborhoods with the next-to-lowest incomes, but not in those with the lowest incomes, compared to districts without PB5. PB also may not significantly change how budgets are allocated by category (such as education or housing), though data was not available to determine the effects of PB on funds allocated within categories6. U.S. models of PB may not be transparent about how proposals and projects are selected6, despite criteria which distinguishes PB from other budget processes by calling for citizens (i.e., not governing officials) to have decision-making power2.

Civic outcomes. PB theory suggests that its approach to participation can enhance citizens’ empowerment, activism, and broader social justice, but experts note that recent research casts doubt on whether transformative outcomes are achieved1. Case studies investigating citizens’ empowerment, initiative-taking, and ability to increase government accountability suggest that often these individuals are not empowered through PB7. PB theory also suggests that including and empowering individuals from under-represented groups is key to how the process distributes equitable public funding, but existing evidence suggests such groups are not well-engaged and evidence is too limited to support claims of empowerment2. Proponents also assert that PB educates participating community members about the budget processes, but no studies rigorously evaluate whether this occurs1. For example, in Germany, PB is a consultative process used mainly to identify infrastructure problems, and reviews find little evidence to suggest PB is achieving citizen empowerment, improved transparency, political knowledge, or civic education. PB’s use has been declining in Germany since 20108. More rigorous research is needed on the civic participation and educational outcomes of PB6, as well as regarding how PB promotes social equity2, especially as the U.S. expands its use6.

Health and social impacts. Research on PB’s effects on health and social outcomes is primarily from South America and Europe, where PB has been more widely adopted and evaluated, mostly at the municipal level. PB’s effects on infant mortality are mixed, though some recent studies suggest PB may reduce infant mortality4, 9. For example, a longitudinal study based in Brazil finds PB adoption is associated with decreased infant mortality rates, increased spending on health care, and increased numbers of civil society organizations, with associations strengthening over time and when the governing party supports PB (e.g. the Workers’ Party)10. However, some experts attribute decreased infant mortality rates to Brazil’s universal free health care system, established in 198811 and to a subsequent federal program focused on health care provision to individuals with lower incomes, though eligibility and benefits vary across municipalities9. Notably, in Brazil, capital spending allocated through PB typically represents 15% of cities’ overall budgets10. Two other Brazil-based studies suggest PB could reduce poverty, while evidence is mixed regarding PB’s effects on education (e.g., literacy or school attendance). PB may increase access to improved sanitation, water, and sewerage4. In theory, PB affects health, social, and economic outcomes through its direct effects on participants as well as through improvements to government accountability, funding distribution, or category1 (e.g., municipal or health services)4. More research and stronger evidence are needed to justify PB’s implementation as a tool for improving health4.

Design, intentions, and political power. Experts emphasize that different circumstances affect PB’s outcomes, such as geographic location, whether the process is direct democracy or merely consultative, and whether the budget amount in question is large or small6. PB adaptations may therefore differ in their design and power to redistribute funds more equitably. The Porto Alegre model in Brazil allotted 20% of the municipal budget to PB, while NYC allots 0.6% of its budget, and then limits it to capital and discretionary funds. Even though NYC districts’ economic statuses vary, city council members allot the same dollar amount to PB in each district. Almost 100,000 individuals voted in NYC’s 2018-2019 PB cycle, or around 1% of the city’s 8.4 million residents2. Studies from Brazil suggest that governing officials’ and administrators’ intentions are also important; for example, their interest in making PB an inclusive process and the way they intend to exercise authority or promote high-quality deliberation. Political or electoral systems, resources available for PB, and engagement of other stakeholders (e.g., local businesses or relevant sectors) also affect the design of PB and its impacts. How PB is presented in outreach also influences who is willing to participate in PB; for example, groups who are under-represented may desire increased representation, while individuals with higher incomes may view PB as a way to increase government efficiency and transparency in spending tax money7.

Research suggests PB is mostly being used to gather budget input, and experts warn that the process can be used to lend legitimacy to officials’ preferred projects and to gain partisan advantage1. For example, a New York City-based study suggests officials may use PB to gain favor with voters and other stakeholders by simply shifting the location and number of projects funded, not to advance innovative policies or types of projects6. If PB only utilizes a small portion of the budget, it may be perceived as an empty symbolic gesture1. PB can also be exploited to reinforce systems of power and political dominance, such as when officials select their preferred proposals, with unclear impacts on public trust1. Another NYC-based study finds that officials used a “managed participation” model that minimized participants’ input and limited deliberation as part of the process7, 12. Experts argue that meaningful civic participation through PB requires engaging participants sooner and in more than voting on projects previously approved by government official/politicians6.

Best practices. Experts suggest minimum criteria for participatory budgeting and evaluation should include: all adults can participate and under-represented groups are explicitly invited and included; deliberation must be part of the process; participants (not officials or administrators) lead agenda-setting, priority-setting, and project creation, and then collaborate with supporting organizations; and participants retain most or all decision-making authority3. Best practices for PB also include dedicating adequate funds to the PB process including providing funding that can be spent on more than infrastructure development, prioritizing inclusion of under-represented groups as participants and representatives, paying individuals for their time, and providing multiple ways to deliberate and vote. Additionally, experts recommend ensuring PB educates participants about the budget (including issues larger than the PB process) and embedding evaluation in PB from the beginning4, 13 including follow up with participants throughout the process and to track outreach and inclusion efforts. PB legislation should be designed based on successful PB pilots13. PB designers and implementers should pay extra attention to factors that make participation challenging for marginalized populations7, 14 and to how different technologies can affect the quality of deliberation and participatory experiences1. Training activities for participants and officials and administrators in how to manage conflict and build commitment can lead to better conditions for the PB process. Officials and administrators’ professionalism, training in PB, and open-mindedness may improve PB outcomes, while their reluctance may negatively affect the process1. PB may be more successful when promoted alongside other civic engagement and tools and may attract participation in other avenues1.

Experts note that PB may be useful during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic if governments need to re-allocate budgets or reduce spending; however, PB may not be as practical in allocating emergency funding, since uses may be restricted1.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential for mixed impact on disparities: suggested by expert opinion.

Participatory budgeting has the potential to either increase or decrease disparities in civic participation and the distribution of resources across diverse socioeconomic, racial, and gender groups. The early, more transformative results from Brazil may not occur in settings where models place less emphasis on social justice4, allocate only a small portion of the budget2, and do not significantly shift how budgets are allocated1, 6. More research is needed to substantiate PB’s theoretical positive effects on disparities as well as to understand ways it may increase disparities, depending on how it is designed and implemented7.

Disparities in participation. Available evidence suggests PB has mixed impacts on disparities in civic participation among under-represented groups, such as individuals with lower incomes, individuals identifying as racial or ethnic minorities1, 20, and women7, 14. Wealthy countries appear to experience challenges engaging individuals from diverse backgrounds1. Chicago-based case studies find that individuals who are white, are wealthy or have higher incomes, are homeowners, and are college-educated were overrepresented throughout the PB process20, 21. The time commitment to serve as a community representative was a barrier to participation for individuals with lower incomes, and as the budget’s focus (capital works projects such as street resurfacing and sidewalk repair) did not address the priorities of those belonging to minority groups or communities, some groups chose not to participate20. Studies from Brazil, Indonesia, and Argentina find that individuals from neighborhoods with lower incomes are less likely to submit proposals, under-represented groups struggle to have their priorities represented, and PB’s power dynamics may mean under-represented groups are put on the defensive, which may contribute to division among participants and may reinforce inequality7.

Impacts on women. Brazil-based studies suggest women (especially those with lower incomes) are often excluded and experience barriers to participation, including being unable to afford transportation to meetings and social pressure to focus on domestic duties. Women’s underrepresentation may mean their priorities go unaddressed7, 14; when women are able to participate in PB, they may be empowered if participation improves conditions and expands their freedom in domestic and public life14. To better include women in PB, recommendations from experts include creating gender quotas for PB governance and participation; educating governing officials, administrators, and consultants as to why women’s inclusion is important and what projects may benefit women; meeting and collaborating with organizations representing women, including to train and recruit their members; and ensuring women can engage equally in proposals and deliberation. PB should always include outreach to communities that have been historically marginalized14.

Power and bias considerations. PB can be designed and managed to allow participants to challenge power structures and patterns of exclusion7, and experts suggest PB can lead to empowerment if challenging existing power structures is encouraged. However, PB also has the potential to reinforce oppressive power structures and increase disparities if under-represented groups are not able to participate, and to challenge how the process is run, its defined goals, and the proposals and projects selected – problems that have been seen in some case studies7. To be explicit, PB’s supporters’ and officials’ political ideology may prevent ideas from being proposed or accepted; the defined ‘public interest’ may ignore or misrepresent those typically excluded from participatory processes (e.g., individuals with low incomes, individuals of racial and ethnic minorities, Indigenous people, women); and community members may find that officials view their participation as symbolic7. Globally, PB is promoted by a wide range of actors, whose goals may not necessarily be advancing political equality7.

Designers should recognize that participation in PB is easier for those with more resources (e.g., civic knowledge, time, belonging to the advantaged racial group) which better position them to mobilize others and participate throughout the PB process. Poverty-related bias may be present in PB, and it is recommended that PB designers consider social, cultural and economic factors’ impact on participation, as well as structural constraints (e.g. gender, disability, race, language and wealth)1. More research is needed to understand why some individuals or groups wish to participate but do not1 as well as what aspects of PB models produce the most equitable spaces and outcomes7.

Technology in PB. New digital tools and technology for PB outreach, deliberation, and decision-making appear to make information easier to track and manage, and theory suggests such technologies could include more participants overall and potentially better include participants from diverse backgrounds1. However, in practice studies do not suggest such technologies shift how funds are allocated and experts note concerns about effects on participation quality and inclusion1, 22. Individuals with lower incomes appear more likely to learn about PB via word of mouth, whereas individuals who are white and have higher incomes appear more likely to learn about PB online and to utilize online engagement methods. NYC-based research suggests that online participation may advantage those with more education and who are more comfortable deliberating in English. Experts recommend PB technologies use public infrastructure, methods that are widely used (such as SMS text messaging), and that materials be tailored according to context and population needs22.

What is the relevant historical background?

Participatory budgeting (PB) began in the urban city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1990, created by activists and government officials with ties to the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT)23. Early PB efforts engaged individuals with lower incomes in Porto Alegre in re-allocating a portion of the city’s budget to infrastructure improvements, particularly water and sewer connections24. While PB was implemented by other political parties it remained associated with the Workers’ Party (PT) and adopted in most municipalities where the Workers’ Party (PT) had electoral wins between 1992-200023. In Brazil, public assemblies or hearings appear to have been a novel and important part of PB’s power to mobilize individuals and strengthen democracy1.

PB adoption in Brazil peaked when the Workers’ Party (PT) was elected to the federal government, for the 2003-2006 term forming a coalition with opposing political parties. Afterwards, PB’s use declined, perhaps due to the Workers’ Party (PT) shifting to a broadened ideology less receptive to PB and its goals or because PB was no longer a necessary political strategy. In addition, the amount of local discretionary spending was reduced (although mandatory spending in health and education increased) and bureaucratic hurdles emerged, as projects took longer than elected officials’ terms or required multiple sectors’ involvement. These constraints at the local level meant that governing officials and participants were unhappy with their inability to carry out larger-scale or more complex projects, so PB was no longer leading to significant improvements in living conditions23.

Outside of Brazil, PB was quickly hailed as a democratic innovation7. UN Habitat described PB as a ‘good practice for urban governance’23 and the World Bank and other international organizations endorsed the practice in the mid-1990s3. Some flaws did emerge early on, as a World Bank report from 2003 notes that the poorest individuals in Porto Alegre were not engaged in PB, and that this remained a future goal24. PB was adopted in other parts of Brazil, South America, and Europe, though adaptations differ from the original Porto Alegre model and in some cases other budgeting practices have been rebranded as PB3. Experts note that at present, PB can describe a variety of processes1, which may or may not fulfill the Porto Alegre co-governance model or established criteria for PB best practices.

In the U.S., PB was adopted later than in other countries, first being used in 2009 in Chicago, perhaps because direct public and citizen participation are already incorporated in other budget processes2. In 2013, the White House named PB a best practice for improving government’s openness and accountability20. In the U.S., public assemblies or hearings were already popular because they are simple to organize and are valued by elected officials who want direct interaction with community members1.

Equity Considerations
  • What is PB promoters’ approach to design? Implementation?
  • What criteria will be used to evaluate PB? How will evaluation be funded?
  • What underlying values are motivating organizers to implement PB? How are the goals, or shared goals of PB, being identified or defined?
  • What proportion of the budget will be allocated through PB? Who will have final decision-making authority over how resources are allocated?
  • How are barriers to participation (economic, societal, institutional, political) being considered and addressed for individuals belonging to social categories that have been historically marginalized and under-resourced? For women?
  • How are participants allowed or encouraged to contest if they disagree? At what stage of the process? Are concerns from all participants accepted and weighted equally?
Implementation Examples

Participatory budgeting (PB) has been implemented in at least 18 cities and over 40 sites in the U.S.; New York City is the largest2. The People’s Money is a city-wide PB process in NYC, run by the NYC Civic Engagement Commission. New Yorkers are welcome to participate, regardless of citizenship status, and process goals include utilizing residents’ lived experiences in proposals, increasing civic learning and engagement, promoting direct democracy, increasing civic trust, and advancing equity through proposed projects15. The U.S. nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project offers paid technical assistance and other resources to communities to implement participatory budgeting and has supported work in cities including Chicago and NYC16.

Participedia is a database with case studies, methods, organizations, and teaching resources about public participation and democratic innovation worldwide, maintained by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Case studies describe PB in many U.S. cities, including Vallejo, California, which was the first U.S. municipality to implement PB city-wide, in 2013. The City Council in Vallejo manages the process, with community members recommending how to spend the portion of the budget allotted to PB and the City Council making final decisions17.

Central Falls Public School District in Rhode Island used a PB process in 2021, called Voces con Poder (Voices with Power), with support from the Mayor’s Office, City Council, and Brown University, to allocate $100,000 of federal grant dollars from Elementary and Secondary School Relief (ESSER) funds18. The National Association of County and City Health Officials’ (NACCHO) review of innovative financing approaches used by local health departments and partners includes PB and describes its benefits, challenges, and best practices19.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

Participedia - Participedia. A global crowdsourcing platform for researchers, activists, practitioners, and anyone interested in public participation and democratic innovations.

NACCHO-Public health finance - National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). Public health finance.

Brookings-Collins 2022 - Collins JE, Bessinger J. The case for participatory democracy during educational crisis. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2022.

Participatory Budgeting Atlas - Participatory Budgeting World Atlas.

People Powered - People Powered: Global hub for participatory democracy.


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1 Bartocci 2022 - Bartocci L, Grossi G, Mauro SG, Ebdon C. The journey of participatory budgeting: A systematic literature review and future research directions. International Review of Administrative Sciences. 2022.

2 Kuenneke 2021 - Kuenneke A, Scutelnicu G. How successful is participatory budgeting in promoting social equity? Evidence from New York City. Public Administration Quarterly. 2021;45(4):370-391.

3 Miller 2019 - Miller SA, Hildreth RW, Stewart LM. The modes of participation: A revised frame for identifying and analyzing participatory budgeting practices. Administration and Society. 2019;51(8):1254-1281.

4 Campbell 2018 - Campbell M, Escobar O, Fenton C, Craig P. The impact of participatory budgeting on health and wellbeing: A scoping review of evaluations. BMC Public Health. 2018;18(1).

5 Shybalkina 2019 - Shybalkina I, Bifulco R. Does participatory budgeting change the share of public funding to low income neighborhoods? Public Budgeting and Finance. 2019;39(1):45-66.

6 Calabrese 2020 - Calabrese T, Williams D, Gupta A. Does participatory budgeting alter public spending? Evidence from New York City. Administration and Society. 2020;52(9):1382-1409.

7 Holdo 2020 - Holdo M. Contestation in participatory budgeting: Spaces, boundaries, and agency. American Behavioral Scientist. 2020;64(9):1348-1365.

8 Schneider 2019 - Schneider SH, Busse S. Participatory budgeting in Germany – a review of empirical findings. International Journal of Public Administration. 2019;42(3):259-273.

9 Wampler 2019 - Wampler B, Touchton M. Designing institutions to improve well-being: Participation, deliberation and institutionalisation. European Journal of Political Research. 2019;58(3):915-937.

10 Touchton 2014 - Touchton M, Wampler B. Improving social well-being through new democratic institutions. Comparative Political Studies. 2014;47(10):1442-1469.

11 Roman 2023 - Roman A. A closer look into Brazil’s healthcare system: What can we learn? Cureus. 2023;15(5):e38390.

12 Su 2018a - Su C. Managed participation: City agencies and micropolitics in participatory budgeting. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 2018;47(4S):76-96.

13 Urban-Stacy 2022 - Stacy CP, Fedorowicz M, Dedert R. Best practices for inclusive participatory budgeting. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute; 2022.

14 McNulty 2015 - McNulty SL. Barriers to participation: Exploring gender in Peru’s participatory budget process. Journal of Development Studies. 2015;51(11):1429-1443.

15 The People’s Money 2022 - NYC Civic Engagement Commission. The People’s Money (2022-2023).

16 Participatory budgeting-What is PB - Participatory Budgeting Project. What is PB?

17 Participedia-Vallejo - Participedia. Case: Participatory budgeting in Vallejo, California.

18 Brookings-Collins 2022 - Collins JE, Bessinger J. The case for participatory democracy during educational crisis. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2022.

19 NACCHO-Public health finance - National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). Public health finance.

20 Pape 2019 - Pape M, Lim C. Beyond the “usual suspects”? Reimagining democracy with participatory budgeting in Chicago. Sociological Forum. 2019;34(4):861-882.

21 Stewart 2014a - Steward LM, Miller SA, Hildreth RW, Wright-Phillips MV. Participatory budgeting in the United States: A preliminary analysis of Chicago’s 49th Ward experiment. New Political Science. 2014;36(2):193-218.

22 Su 2016 - Su C. Re-engaging the disenfranchised: Participatory budgeting in the United States. National Civic Review. 2016;105(4):23-28.

23 de Paiva Bezerra 2022 - de Paiva Bezerra C, de Oliveira Junqueira M. Why has participatory budgeting declined in Brazil? Brazilian Political Science Review. 2022;16(2):e0002.

24 World Bank Group-Bhatnagar 2003 - Bhatnagar D, Rathore A, Moreno Torres M, Kanungo P. Participatory budgeting in Brazil (English): Empowerment case studies. World Bank Group. 2003: Working Paper 51418.