Integrating Participatory Budgeting and Institutionalized Citizens’ Assemblies: A Community-Driven Perspective

Back to Winter 2024: Volume 112, Number 4

By Nick Vlahos

There is a growing excitement in the democracy field about the potential of citizen’s assemblies (CAs), a practice that brings together groups of residents selected by lottery to deliberate on public policy issues. There is longitudinal evidence to suggest that deliberative mini-publics such as those who meet in CAs can be transformative when it comes to adding more nuance to public opinion on complex and potentially polarizing issues.

But there are two common critiques of CAs. The first is that they are not connected to centers of power (with very few notable exceptions) and don’t have authority to make binding decisions. The second is that they are often disconnected from the broader public, and indeed often claim to be making their own, new “publics” instead of engaging with existing ones.

In this article I propose that proponents of CAs could benefit from the thirty-year history of another democratic innovation—participatory budgeting (PB). There are nearly 12,000 recorded instances of PB to draw learnings from. I see value in both innovations (and have advocated and written about both) and would be interested to see some sort of experimentation that combines PB and CAs, from a decentralized, bottom-up, community-driven approach.

We can and should think about grassroots ways to scale and connect people across geography using combinations of democratic innovations, which along the way builds up (local) civic infrastructure by drawing from existing civic capital (resident-led groups, non-profits, service providers, social movements/mobilization etc.).

Moreover, there are many situations where an existing civic infrastructure is already in place regarding participatory budgeting. This brings an opportunity to learn from, build upon, and partner with already existing networks of people working on the ground (both in government and with the grassroots), and who are more likely inclined to want to see various types of innovation integrated in their communities.

In what follows, I outline some considerations of what this combination might look like, with the caveat that this is only meant to be the start of a conversation that will hopefully encourage debate about the contours of what this combination might look like, and if the connection of these processes are naturally at odds or if there is reason to mold them in ways that are mutually beneficial to the public.

Caption: British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.
Source: Participedia.com

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING AND CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLIES

Both democratic mechanisms aim to involve citizens in decision-making processes, but they differ in several key design features. Here's a brief contrast of the two innovations:

Participatory BudgetingCitizens’ Assemblies
Purpose and ScopeAims to involve citizens in decisions related to the allocation of public funds. It allows citizens to propose, discuss, and vote on how a portion of the municipal budget should be spent. Involve policy versatility, often convened to address a wide range of social, environmental, and governance issues, and are used to discuss and make recommendations on these complex topics.
Decision-Making ProcessCitizens/residents directly vote on specific budget allocation proposals. In the idea generation phase, community members brainstorm and propose project ideas that are then developed into technical proposals, aligning with the available budget. Community members vote on the project proposals. The decision-making process is often binding, with the winning proposals being included in the final budget; however, there are also formats where final decisions are left with a local government or directly elected mayor.Participants engage in phases of a deliberative process, including learning about a subject from experts, discussing, debating, and weighing different possibilities and options, followed by making recommendations on the given issue. These recommendations are mostly non-binding and are meant to inform policymakers' decisions, though there are examples of institutionalized processes with more authority.
Composition Participatory budgeting typically involves a broader and more open process, allowing potentially sizeable numbers of residents to participate through community meetings, online platforms, and other methods. Community involvement often begins with information and awareness campaigns. This may involve public meetings, online platforms, and communication through various channels. Community meetings are a central element.Often smaller (ranging from a few dozen to under two hundred people, sometimes more if hosted digitally) more selective participation, involving stratification and random selection to ensure diversity and representativeness (an example is the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on electoral reform, which was the first legislative body in Canadian history to have gender parity by design).
Facilitation and SupportRequires close work with local governments and community organizations. For the budgeting of capital designs, this requires working closely with procurement staff, urban planners, and architects.Involves professional facilitation often by an external agency in close collaboration with issue experts and bureaucratic or elected officials.
TimelineIf embedded and politically supported, these are recurring, operating on an annual budget cycle, with specific timelines for proposal submission, deliberation, and voting.Varied depending on the type of assembly model chosen, but range anywhere from one weekend to several consecutive weeks, or multiple months and not rigidly connected to budget cycles. These tend to be one-off occurrences, but a couple of recent examples indicate longevity through formalization.
Transparency and AccountabilityCitizens tend to see the implementation of projects they have directly voted on, though delays due to issues of procurement are notable.Tend to be more about participant accountability of the internal process (aspects of an agenda or how recommendations are made and presented), but decisions and outcomes are less visible to the public. Nonetheless, there is a heavy emphasis on if decision-makers implement recommendations.

Combining PB and CAs to build a more comprehensive approach to participatory and deliberative governance might follow a top-down or bottom-up path, corresponding to how deliberative projects and outcomes are initiated. While this article is focused on the latter (discussed in more detail below), a primarily top-down approach might give agenda-setting prominence to a centralized citizens’ assembly, but it would still need to place a strong emphasis on broadening participation to include:

  • Community input. Any project proposals/policies determined within centralized citizens’ assemblies need to be brought to the broader community for feedback and refinement. In this way, local and/or regional areas and residents can provide input on concrete projects.
  • Community voting. Where PB-style voting would determine how citizens’ assembly devised projects might receive funding, in alignment with community preferences. This ensures that residents have a direct say in the allocation of public funds while considering the informed recommendations of citizens' assemblies.

Caption: Participatory Budgeting, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Source: DemocracySpot.net

TOWARD A COMMUNITY-DRIVEN MODEL OF PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING AND CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLIES

What would a decentralized, bottom-up, community-driven approach to combining PB with CAs look like? In contrast to having a deliberative process start with the top-down selection of priorities for local communities to deliberate and vote on, the opposite would take place from a bottom-up approach. The process would start at the community level. Residents in specific geographical and spatial areas would take the lead in shaping the priorities that could then feed into a centralized assembly for further deliberation.

Here’s what a contiguous integration of popular and randomly selected participation and deliberation might look like, using adjoining, irregular forums, and assemblies to generate issues and problems to ideate, debate, iterate, and consolidate plans.

-Community Mobilization & Engagement
Mobilize the local community through grassroots organizing, community meetings, and outreach efforts. Aim to involve community leaders, activists, and organizations to facilitate, build momentum and interest in the participatory process. Reflect on local dynamics and lived experiences, use existing civic infrastructure to coordinate outreach efforts and build a strong geographic and demographic awareness. Along the way, create a more cohesive, place-based network of civic connections moving forward.\

-Community Ideation & Prioritization
In tune with open spaces of participation, hold initial community meetings/forums where residents can prioritize the (wide ranging) issues that matter to them and propose potential ideas to problem-solve addressing these issues.

-Form Citizens’ Assemblies
Have a mayor/council allocate a budget and formally empower communities to establish citizens' assemblies, encouraging residents to volunteer, electing delegates, or randomly selecting members from the community. Ensure assemblies include the community's diverse voices.

-Deliberation and Policy Recommendation
Citizens' assemblies can choose an issue or a set of related issues to deliberate upon. These topics should also reflect on the priorities and ideas previously identified by the community. Assemblies research, discuss, and develop policy recommendations related to their chosen issue(s).

-Refining and Costing Polices
Based on the policy recommendations made by citizens' assemblies, work collaboratively with local organizations, and government departments to create project proposals that involve budget allocations.

-Feedback and Iteration

  1. Present the project proposals developed by citizens' assemblies to the broader community. Residents provide feedback and further refine these proposals to ensure that they align with community preferences.
  2. Have one or more meta-level citizens’ assemblies responsible for considered deliberation about structural proposals for larger geographic areas and populations.

 -Community Vote
Organize a community-wide (or some higher political/geographical scale) vote, like in PB, to determine which projects receive funding. Consider potential city-wide votes on projects from an equity/structural lens. Residents directly decide on the allocation of budget resources to the proposed projects.

-Implementation
Create mechanisms for transparency and accountability that involve touch points and interactions between different levels of community and geographic involvement. There would need to be rotating chairs, with standard functioning and accountability used by respective fora, including norms of engagement, accessibility considerations, asynchronous opportunities to participate, minutes, archived materials, notes, and outputs. Delegates might meet regularly to reflect and coordinate support.

Discussion and Factors to Consider:
If this all seems to pie in the sky then we need only reflect on the fact that in its heyday, PB in Porto Alegre, Brazil, saw plenary sessions reach upwards of 16,000 local residents in attendance, not a small number by any means. It took the time to build that base, with consistency, real life results, and earnest efforts on the part of public sector staff and elected officials to support and provide the necessary resources year after year. At the same token, current digital resources like decidim and vTaiwan are broadening the asynchronous opportunities to debate policies online. And lastly, the tools for random selection of participants are increasingly being deployed to draw lessons for consistent public application. The one part of the equation here that we need to incorporate more fully are the on the ground community efforts we observe in thousands of volunteer and civic associations, neighbourhood groups, non-profit organizations. Encouraging the development of an innovative infrastructure is not the same as foregoing existing networks and platforms the public already use within local contexts. Here, we’d hope to see a communicative cosmos, with new and adjoining spaces, covering the local, subregional, regional, national, rural and urban, center and periphery.

I initially juxtaposed citizens’ assemblies with participatory budgeting for the sake of an analytical exercise, and ultimately, both processes have their strengths and their weaknesses. To achieve the best of both worlds there are several factors that would need to be considered.

  1. Continued engagement, allowing the community to be actively involved throughout the process, not just in a small way or at the end of a policy/budget cycle.
  2. Capacity building, ensuring there are mechanisms to train and educate, as well as have communities lead and evaluate processes, with the goal of building out civic infrastructure from the bottom-up.
  3. Balancing place-based community deliberation and deliberation at a meta-level (encompassing big, broad, and geographically connected ideas, issues, and solutions), thinking about a division of deliberative labour. Do community assemblies prioritize lived experience in their idea generation and deliberations, while larger regional assemblies focus more on considered deliberation based on professional facilitation, expert experience, and presentations? Perhaps there are ways to have both. In addition, design processes so that there are digital and asynchronous opportunities to participate.
  4. Inclusivity, prioritizing outreach to under-represented populations by drawing upon local service providers and community groups, tailoring assemblies to reflect demographics of specific areas, and not allowing power enclaves to dominate. Ensure there are multiple, overlapping, assemblies to make them locally accessible.
  5. Reflecting on the nature of budding politics, economics, division, polarization and specifically the role of social mobilization in determining new, if protracted, directions for democracy.
  6. Local and geographic focus, making sure the principle of subsidiarity is applied at the closest possible level to the public (neighbourhoods, districts, wards etc.), but also striving to connect people across geography. Mechanisms need to be in place for information sharing and collaboration across assemblies. Connecting local groups to regionally focused, and a centralized process would be vital to ensuring there is some type of balance between open participation and civic lotteries.
  7. Systematic decision-making, granting levels of authority to allocate money, in addition to making recommendations. Striving to have both local autonomy with a more distributed approach to proposing ideas and voting on projects, as well as a regional or centralized process with similar objectives and authority, could help with the systemic proliferation of engagement across various levels. Such an approach isn’t a complete devolution of authority to the community; there should be some centralized connections and accountability, what Archon Fung calls accountable autonomy and devolved discretion.

In closing, if the largest criticism of citizens’ assemblies relates to their lack of authority and connection to community, then why not think of a way to fuse them with participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting, by design, ensures that communities develop tangible (procurable) ideas, and then communities have the power to allocate a budget through a community vote. By contrast, citizens’ assemblies have the strength of bringing together cross-sections of community members from across geographical areas. They then learn for extended periods of time about some of, if not the most, important issues we face, problem-solving and deliberating about a course of action. Combining two of the most promising democratic innovations creates new prospects for a comprehensive connection between open forums and smaller deliberative bodies that practitioners have yet to fully grapple with.

We can think of ways that both PB and CAs can be used to discuss important social policy issues as well as allocate operational and capital funds towards meaningful projects. And if we were to have the ability to design these processes, why not build the civic infrastructure from the bottom-up, and ensure it is embedded within communities drawing from local social capital, rather than strictly have this as a centralized, top-down, institutionalized application.

I’d like to thank Simon Pek for his detailed comments on a previous draft. I’m also grateful to Marjan Ehsassi, Joshua Peterson, and Mike McGrath for their helpful thoughts on the ideas presented here.

Nick Vlahos is the Deputy Director of the Center for Democracy Innovation at the National Civic League. Nick writes about deliberative and participatory governance and collaborates with community and local governments to enhance citizen and resident engagement.

More from the issue

The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

View All

Thank You to Our Key Partners