The charm of participatory budgeting - opportunities and risks


Participatory budgeting may contribute to strengthening democratic legitimation, but various challanges may arise with regard to its implementation. 

On 27 September 2022, Petra Reszkető gave a presentation on the opportunities and risks of participatory budgeting at the "Dialogue on Participation at the Local Level" conference organised by the Motivácó Workshop in Szeged.

The main aim of participatory budgeting is to strengthen democratic legitimacy by involving citizens in the budget planning process, typically at the local government level. Over the past decades, the model has become very popular, with local governments in many countries around the world introducing participatory budgeting elements. In Hungary, Budapest (the Metropolitan Government and municipalities of several districts), Szentendre, Érd, and Miskolc, among others, are experimenting with participatory budgeting models. It is important to underline that participatory budgeting models are largely heterogenous in terms of aims, mechanisms, scope, etc.

Participatory budgeting can yield various positive impacts. In addition to strengthening democratic legitimacy, as already mentioned, participatory budgeting can contribute to mobilising local communities, increasing the knowledge of participating citizens about public finance and related dilemmas, understanding the roles, opportunities and responsibilities of local governments, providing disadvantaged groups with the opportunity to influence the public policy-making process, and to decreasing political apathy and disengagement from public affairs.

In practice, however, a number of challenges may arise with the participatory budget. A focal risk is that the local political leadership may use participatory budgets for political purposes (in particular, for building their image) without pursuing real objectives. Another major obstacle can be the overstretching of the municipal administration, and its lack of experience with project-based implementation. If the implemented model does not work well, it can create frustration among participants (both civil participants and administrative staff) and thus be ineffective. Thus, while community budgeting is a great way to strengthen local democracy –  as with many other promising community programmes – the devil is in the details.