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The University of Southampton
Centre for Democratic Futures

Global perspectives on participatory budgeting

On the 24th of January 2022 the Centre for Democratic Futures welcomed the authors of two recently published books -“Participatory Budgeting in Global Perspective” by Prof Brian Wampler, Prof Stephanie McNulty & Dr Michael Touchton, and “Why Citizen Participation Succeeds or Fails” by Dr Matt Ryan. Discussion of these books was led by two distinguished discussants, Dr Carla de Paiva Bezerra and Dr Maggie Shum and chaired by Dr Paolo Spada.

Book cover
Book cover

In “Participatory Budgeting in Global Perspective” Wampler, McNulty and Touchton present a unique “theory of change” to account for how participatory budgeting programs theoretically produce social and political change, as well as provide explanations of different program designs, typologies, and cross-regional comparative analysis with a global perspective. Comparative analysis is also carried out in “Why Citizen Participation Succeeds or Fails”. In this book, Matt Ryan reveals the factors behind the success of this form of democratic engagement with guidance for future public involvement in taxation and spending.

Commenting on the books both discussants emphasised the complementarity of approaches.

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Dr Carla de Paiva Bezerra (she/her), is a researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and at Cebrap (Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning) with expertise in comparative politics, participatory democracy, civil society, political parties and public policy in Brazil and Latin America. She summarised the key qualities of the books, emphasising the reviews of empirical research, principles for defining PB, and explanatory theories for PB processes linked to clear social and democratic outcomes. Drawing on her work on PB, Dr Bezerra also highlighted the unresolved issues of understanding long-term effects of PB including discontinuity and resilience of PB. She pointed to a need to address the multidimensionality of concepts like political leadership to allow for dynamic comparison of divergent cases.

Dr Maggie Shum, is research and program associate of the Global Policy Initiative (GPI) in the Keough School of Global Affairs, specialising in comparative politics of participatory policies, policy diffusion, and party organizations, as well as contentious politics in Asia at the University of Notre Dame. Dr Shum underlined the future research and implementation agenda that the books both help develop through methodological and theoretical innovation. She argued that the books make it possible to better test several research hypotheses. Dr Shum also entreated scholars to look to explain failure and abandonment of PB processes as well as understand how and why different regimes implement different PB types allowing us to better assess the legitimacy of their efforts.

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In inviting contributions from the authors and other participants Dr Paolo Spada, Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Southampton and a leading expert in Participatory Budgeting, highlighted the coverage of breadth and depth of work on PB in the books, bringing order to a now somewhat vast and chaotic literature.

During discussion colleagues in the audience asked questions regarding the extent to which NGOs are co-opted or ‘sell out’ in PB processes; whether social justice remains a characteristic of PB or whether it was lost in diffusion; the bias in the case studies that are reported on towards urban and relatively high-resource settings; and the role of civil society and political leadership in explaining PB outcomes.

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In authors responses, Dr Brian Wampler, Professor of Global Studies and Political Science at Boise State University and author of several books on democracy, highlighted the importance of identifying when PB confers burdens as well as empowerment in allowing participants channel demands. Prof Wampler suggested that a frontier for PB work was to improve case selection to better understand government motivations, and evaluate programs based on clear expectations. Wampler also commented that we need to understand when PB-style reforms need to follow or be buttressed by party system and campaign finance reform.

Dr Stephanie McNulty, Professor of Government at Franklin and Marshall College is an expert on participatory development models, Latin American politics, decentralization, and gender. She reflected that it would be important in future work to systematically link motivations to PB types in order to evaluate inclusive democratic potential in the context of democratic backsliding, and digitalisation necessitated by the pandemic. Prof McNulty suggested that the scholarly and activist community ask where PB is headed, and ascertain where it remains a radical democratic programme or a peaceful technocratic one.

Dr Michael Touchton, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami studies the political economy of development and underdevelopment in a comparative setting. He focused his comments on the need for greater testing and evaluation to inform rounded understanding of PB. Dr Touchton pointed out that our information is dominated by data collected in a small number of countries over a relatively specific time period. He cautioned that we should not expect immediate changes from PB, and that improved data collection can help articulate what is inherent to PB separated from the outcomes it is supposed to achieve.

Dr Matt Ryan, Associate Professor in Governance and Public Policy at the University of Southampton has research interests crossing the boundaries between political theory and comparative politics, with a strong focus on innovative research methods. In responding to questions he expressed a desire for further granularity in accurate description, conceptualisation, and comparison. Dr Ryan argued that it was important to remember that instances of PB had inspired true autonomy for citizens, but in order to convince politicians to do radical democracy we need to persuade them using clear evidence of what the risks of failure are.

We look forward to engaging together again on these important topics in the near future and you can watch the recording of the session here…

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