Using the Internet for collaborative local governance: the Digital Participatory Budget in Brazil

O artigo analisa experiências brasileiras sobre o uso de TI para governança local, especialmente no Orçamento Participativo Digital, nos anos 2000. Uma visão geral dessas experiências é apresentada, permitindo uma maior compreensão das abordagens do Orçamento Participativo e as formas como a Internet pode apoiá-lo. Três casos distintos são explorados em mais detalhes: o municípios de Ipatinga e Belo Horizonte, ambos no estado de Minas Gerais e Porto Alegre, no Rio Grande do Sul.

Este artigo foi elaborado como parte da pesquisa “Using IT for collaborative local governance – Latin American Perspectives”, promovido pela LogoLink – Learning Initiative on Participation and Governance, uma rede internacional de pesquisa sobre participação e governança local, apoiada pela Ford Foundation e pelo Instituto Pólis.

Foi apresentado no evento Minnowbrook III Conference: The Future of Public Administration, Public Management and Public Service around the World, Lake Placid, NY, 2008. As conferências Minnowbrook são realizadas uma vez a cada vinte anos, e são um dos principais eventos sobre Administração Pública nos EUA.

Clique aqui para ler o artigo.


Vaz, José Carlos. Using the Internet for collaborative local governance: the Digital Participatory Budget in Brazil. Minnowbrook III Conference: The Future of Public Administration, Public Management
and Public Service around the World, Lake Placid, NY, 2008.

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Using the Internet for collaborative local governance: the Digital Participatory Budget in Brazil

Using the Internet for collaborative local governance: the Digital Participatory Budget in Brazil (1)

José Carlos Vaz (2)


Vaz, José Carlos. Using the Internet for collaborative local governance: the Digital Participatory Budget in Brazil. Minnowbrook III Conference: The Future of Public Administration, Public Management and Public Service around the World, Lake Placid, NY, 2008.

This paper is part of the research “Using IT for collaborative local governance – Latin American perspectives”, promoted by LogoLink – Learning Initiative on Participation and Governance (, an international network on participation and local governance issues. The research intends to develop knowledge about the use of IT resources, especially e-governance tools, for promoting collaborative governance at local levels. The research’s main activities are focused on the Internet and other electronic resources for participative monitoring and deliberation on local government budgets or expenditures in different countries. This is a major subject for widening the reach of participative and deliberative democracy, strengthening its roots in local communities. The research is also an opportunity to bring together scholars from different countries to collaborate and exchange ideas and experiences on the subject.

In this article, we bring findings about recent Brazilian experiences on IT uses for local governance, especially in Participatory Budgeting (PB). An overview of these experiences is presented, allowing for greater understanding of Brazilian PB approaches and the ways the Internet can support them. Three distinguished cases are explored in more detail: the municipalities of Ipatinga and Belo Horizonte, both in the state of Minas Gerais and Porto Alegre, in the Rio Grande do Sul state.

Some local governments have been working on the use of the Internet to reinforce Participatory Budgeting initiatives, which give citizens an opportunity to participate directly on budgeting deliberation. Using the Internet, these local governments’ participatory budgets can reach wider audiences and thousands of people can deliberate over budget allocation. This paper presents how the most successful experiences have worked, and relates them to the main challenges for electronic governance so as to identify their real capability in building new political relationships in Brazil and other countries.

E-governance in the Brazilian context

Electronic governance is a notion in dispute. More conservative approaches tend to deposit in e-governance expectations of an increased efficiency, participation and social control along the lines in which society is already organized. This is, therefore, a modernizing conservative vision of the relations between civil society and governments, in which participation could be reduced through efficiency in allocation or the ideological construction of legitimacy for governments. Other views perceived as radicalizing democracy see electronic governance as a tool for shifting public interest towards a more participative decision-making process (VAZ, 2005).

The dissemination of information and communication technologies (ICTs), and especially the use of the Internet, impacts on social practices and citizenship relations. Following this notion, new social actors seek to appropriate themselves of the technology in their realms and in their relationships with others. In other words, a new field of social conflict and disputes is established, and the idea of “electronic governance” emerges. Disputes over the content involves the discussion of structures for the use of ICTs by governments to increase citizen participation and social control over government actions, as well as requiring the mobilization of civil society organizations around the theme.

It is only possible to speak of electronic governance if ICTs are applied to the relationtionships between government and organized civil society, taking into consideration the technological possibilities offered by the so-called “electronic government” resources. 2Despite their differing focuses, all the authors share the notion of electronic government as the intensive application of ICTs to the processes of service provision and to the relationship of governments with citizens via continuous and remote electronic mediation.

Some authors differentiated electronic government and electronic governance. For the purpose of this article, the electronic governance is contained in electronic government. In utilizing ICTs to relate to citizens, the actions of governments relate to the practices and visions of citizenship existing in society. This process is not mechanical, nor can it be considered in a deterministic manner. Nor is there neutrality in the relations that are established. Even when they make use of relatively similar forms, at the level of technical and technological apparatuses, the relationship between governments and citizens can assume different forms, and, thus, distinctly influence the processes of exercising citizenship. The quality and depth of the relations established, in both individual and collective terms, interact with broader social processes. The scope of these relations

extends from the individual relations of the citizen with the government, in seeking public services, to the governance relations between governments and organized society.

Electronic governance in Brazilian context combines availability of technology, resources and qualified labor with large social inequalities and acute social contradictions. Facing this context requires building alternatives to keep ICTs from deepening the gap of social exclusion that divides Brazilians into two very distant worlds, and transforming it into an instrument for promoting opportunities and access to rights. Access to the Internet is another major issue related to social and cultural conditions that keeps people away from technologies, and also explains the lack of infra-structure and services that most of citizens can afford.

This context forces us to think about how to work on technological subjects in countries where poverty and inequalities are strong enough to have an impact on political systems and political culture. At same time, Brazil is a very urbanized country and has many big cities, some of them with millions of inhabitants. These cities combine availability of technology, resources and 3qualified labor with social inequalities along with a strong presence of social movements and civil society organizations. This requires the building of alternatives to transform ICTs into an instrument for promoting opportunities and access to rights through new electronic governance resources that fit into the Brazilian context.

To understand technological possibilities and constraints to broadening ICTs applications to governance issues we should explore the linkage between ICTs and political rights.

Looking for a conceptual framework to the possibilities of deepening the relationship between governments and individuals or organized society through the electronic governance tools it is necessary to shift one’s view beyond the technological resources offered and look at concrete social processes in which citizens and society interact with the State in the struggle to building rights. One has to avoid reducing the theme to a merely technical object, which depoliticizes the problem. The solution is to establish citizenship

rights as the reference point for dispute over the content and forms of management of ICTs in the relationtionship between governments and citizens. In this sense, we should identify what rights can be fostered by ICTs applications, their role and ways government and civil society organizations can act to improve their reach. VAZ (2005) proposed a typology for these rights, identifying six rights:

 Right to information of particular interest;

 Right to public services;

 Right to one’s own time;

 Right to be heard by the government;

 Right to social control over government;

 Right to participation in public management.

The first three rights are related to the performance of public services and to the access to individual rights:

Right to information of particular interest: by providing general information (e.g. bus schedules) or customized information (e.g. tax payment status) to citizens, ICT applications can help them to access information need for personal purposes. These are information they have the right to access.

Right to public services: e-government applications help people to access

public services either providing it or making available information to help

people to access the services (e.g. service charters).

Right to one’s own time: providing people remote ways to get services and

information from government, e-government and e-governance applications helping people to save time and avoid going to government offices, so people can use their time in a more interesting way.

All six rights are connected: they reinforce one another, and can help to reinforce the access to other rights, especially the right to access of information by citizens. The first three have little relationship with political rights as seen below, so they can be considered as less related to political participation.

The last three are linked to the exercise of collective rights, and we need to give them special attention in order to understand electronic governance and ICT’s potential for promoting citizenship at this level.

a) Right to be heard by the government

Such a right presupposes a type of relationship between government, citizens and organized groups in society that is not exclusively one way. Such a relationship is based on the idea that citizens have the right to communicate with the government, guaranteeing them formal channels for communication and interaction.

The right to be heard by the government takes form both at the individual level, favoring contact of the citizen with the government, and also in collective terms, by means of contact channels with organized society. Its scope also ranges from particular demands to 5those involving collective and diffused rights.

To promote these rights it is possible to employ interactive resources, such as ombudsman activities through the Internet, electronic or telephone service centers, electronic forums, opinion polls and evaluation of public services via Internet.

The existence of permanent contact channels directed towards assuring the citizen the right to be heard is a resource that does not necessarily guarantee that the citizens and their organizations will intervene in government actions. It does, however, create preliminary conditions and a favorable environment for the exercise of the right to citizen participation and to social control over government to be effectively carried out.

b) Right to social control over government

Social control over government is directly associated to the promotion of transparency, by allowing citizens and their organizations to keep up with government policy formulation and initiatives. It creates conditions for establishing relations of confidence between the governed and the governors and legitimates the latter’s actions. On the other hand, it requires the existence of mechanisms for guaranteeing accountability in governmental actions. This right is related to the notion of openness as universal and free information provided by government (DEMCHAK et alli, 2000).

This category of rights, when promoted through use of the Internet, may include initiatives that allow for the rendering of accounts and its appropriation by society. It thus incorporates initiatives of access by citizens to information on government actions, founded on the notion of the right to public information that will allow it to follow, assess and control governmental performance, such as, for example: the publication of financial statements, reports of activities of public agencies, government plans, progress of public works and dissemination of the results of public bidding processes.

c) Right to political participation

In contrast to social control over government, with its basically collective character, citizen participation comes about through individual action by citizens or their organizations as social actors who have their own projects.

Interactive communication initiatives between governments and citizens that will allow the latter to, in some manner, intervene in the management of services and public policies, in theory can bring about and strengthen the right to political participation in the sphere of government. Here one may include the possibilities of participating in collective discussion processes through interactive resources present in the portals, the possibilities for giving opinions about government projects and even experiences in voting by Internet, which have not yet been disseminated.

We can also classify in this category actions for disseminating and stimulating activities in participatory processes promoted by the government, such as those of participatory budgets, public hearings and audiences and orientation as to the requirements for participating in such acts.

Some few local governments have been working on using ICTs, mostly the Internet, to reinforce participatory processes. By using the Internet, some local governments’ Participatory Budgets have reached a wider audience and thousands of people have been able to deliberate over budget allocations. Other initiatives on citizen-government electronic interaction, such as consultations, have been used in some countries.

Such experiences need to be better known to understand what their real impact on participation, democratic accountability and transparency can be. What are ICTs’ real possibilities for local governments to promote these values and make them effective? Are they a real new set of powerful tools or do they just serve as marketing resources for government? What are the lessons these experiences can teach us? How to use these to help governments, civil society organizations and donors to design and implement better policies for deepening democracy at local level?

Brazilian Participatory Budget and the Internet

Despite its political relevance and visibility, PB has only been adopted by a small number of Brazilian municipalities (only a few hundred in over 5 thousand municipalities). The first PB cases flourished in the late 1980’s, during the Brazilian re-democratization process. These experiences were promoted by first PT (the Workers’ Party) led local governments, at this time only a few dozen, but some of biggest and more politically relevant cities. PB faced strong resistance from City Councils and conservative sectors. In most cases, local governments from other parties that replaced PT governments interrupted PB, making discontinuity a major constraint to developing PB. In recent years PB got international visibility and is no longer an exclusive PT proposal, having been adopted by many local governments from various political parties. Some degree of public deliberation and participatory decision-making has become more common and doesn’t sound like a leftist risk as it used to in the 1980’s.

AVRITZER (2006) detaches the role of existing civil society associations in the emergence of participatory budgeting, as well as in its institutional format. Usually PBs are based on a series of popular assemblies made up of delegates from the city’s neighborhoods and regions. Municipal government reserves some amount of the city budget for these assemblies, in one or more levels, discusses and decides which local public development projects will be carried out. Decisions are enforced by the municipal governments, which include them in the following year’s municipality budget proposal to be sent to city council.

Assemblies at lower levels (neighborhood) are open to everyone. For higher levels (region and city levels) PB meetings are made up of delegates elected by lower level assemblies.

Often there are also thematic assemblies for issues like education, public transportation etc.). Many cities have a municipal commission for highest level decision and for monitoring PB development projects’ implementation. This commission is in charge of approving the final list of development projects, monitoring the projects and dialogging with government about the design of PB activities.

PB focuses largely on infra-structure development projects that impact the needs of the low income population, such as road paving, new schools, new public hospitals or health 8facilities, anti-flood constructions and public leisure spaces. OLIVEIRA et alli (2003) pointed out some results of the participatory budgeting process: “the improvement of living conditions in the community that benefits from the investments, thanks to the adaptation of actions according to the demands observed by the population, more commitment by governments to the chosen projects, the social control exerted by representatives of the population, the creation of participatory channels with actual decision making powers and the empowerment of popular leaderships.”

According to the same authors, “the principles this system stems from are the two classic reasons for citizen participation in decisions on public policy: that the citizen has the right to decide on how public spending should happen locally and that this participation improves resource allocation”.

The relative spread of PB in the late 1990’s and the 2000’s allows for the emergence of new approaches and methods, including some few PB experiences through the Internet.

There are five levels of Internet adoption for PB:

1. Internet as a tool to provide information about the face-to-face PB: governments use the Internet to explain how PB works, give information about PB meetings etc.

2. Providing basic information about PB deliberations implementation: information for basic PB developments and monitoring to help people follow the schedules. Often providing information of the status of the development project, if it is “concluded” or “underway”.

3. Providing detailed and/or personalized information about PB deliberations implementation: allowing people to control the implementation in terms of schedule and resource allocation and also monitoring developments related to specific regions or issues of interest.

4. Deliberation partially supported by the use of the Internet: PB website is used as a tool for citizens to present priorities and proposals for deliberation at the face-to-face PB assemblies.

5. Full Internet supported deliberation: citizens are able to vote for their priorities online. Most Brazilian PB municipalities are positioned at level 1 or 2. They only use the Internet for basic provision of information, often failing to even present any information on the status of execution of the PB development projects. This means that PB websites are made to be “electronic PB flyers”.

Only a few cities provide detailed and/or personalized information about PB implementation with various levels of detail (Level 3). Levels 4 and 5 are quite recent. Only the city of Ipatinga experienced level 4, creating space for citizens to present their proposals for PB through the Internet. The city of Belo Horizonte, another good example, adopted full Internet supported deliberation, alongside regular face-to-face PB assemblies.

For the purpose of this article, three cases were briefly analyzed: the municipalities of Ipatinga and Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais (southeast of Brazil) and Porto Alegre, in the state o Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s most southern state. Ipatinga (Level 4) was the first one to use the Internet in some degree for budgeting deliberation; Belo Horizonte (Level 5) was the first Brazilian municipality to adopt full Internet-supported deliberation; and Porto Alegre (Level 3) is the best known Brazilian PB experience, running uninterruptedly since 1989.

a) Porto Alegre

Porto Alegre is the capital city of the most southern Brazilian state, Rio Grande do Sul, which holds the fourth place in the national economy and is the fifth largest in population among Brazilian states. The Porto Alegre municipality population is around 1,4 million inhabitants, inside a 31 municipalities metropolitan area that reaches around five million inhabitants.

The PB started in 1989 in Porto Alegre. AVRITZER (2006) argues that the participatory budgeting emerged in Porto Alegre due to the unique conditions of city’s social and political characteristics. After the Porto Alegre experience Participatory Budget spread around the country, especially among municipalities governed by Workers Party (PT), and became an

internationally famous experience. Many scholars explored Porto Alegre Participatory Budget history, its development and political impacts.

Despite this relevance as best international reference in PB, Porto Alegre doesn’t use the Internet for supporting deliberation on budget. The face-to-face PB method, enhanced by almost two decades of practice, developed deep roots in civil society and was continued by the new government that followed PT in 2005, after sixteen years in power (four terms).

Besides disseminating information around PB, Porto Alegre’s PB uses the Internet as a tool that provides monitoring information about implementation.

General information about PB covers:

• Historical information about Porto Alegre’s PB;

• Detailed explanations on PB mechanisms and criteria for: resource allocation, delegate elections, decision-making procedures, and PB governance architecture, (PORTO ALEGRE, 2008);

• Subjects for PB meetings and resource allocation, both regions and their neighborhoods and thematic issues;

• PB meetings agenda;

• Last meeting pictures (and in many of these pictures of the Mayor speaking in the assemblies);

• Previous chosen priorities and selected development projects since 1990;

• A glossary of PB words and expressions.

Implementation monitoring information is provided using the PB database in a web environment. This allows users to make four different types of queries: by work ID number 11(there is no list of IDs: users must know it); by year and municipal agency in charge of the work; by region, municipal agency and year; by thematic issue and year. Queries cover the period between 1990 to present.

When making a query, users will receive a list of demands that fit the query criteria. The list presents development projects´ ID numbers and very brief description and status (just three possible outputs: concluded; underway; or other, for unusual situations). Clicking on a specific development project users receive more detailed information about status and next steps.

The Porto Alegre PB website cannot be considered without taking into consideration the mobilization of civil society around PB. Once there is a strong participatory tradition and leadership committed to PB results, popular monitoring is not only done through the Internet, but can be done without it by community leaders in their neighborhoods and also by very experienced PB delegates. Monitoring information on the website is an additional resource for following PB implementation and a surely relevant transparency resource.

b) Ipatinga

Ipatinga is a medium sized municipality in the state of Minas Gerais (in the southeast region of Brazil). The city has a population of 227 thousand inhabitants (IBGE, 2008), and was governed by the Workers Party (PT) from 1989 to 2004.

Participatory budgeting began in 1989 and has changed over the years, becoming an important space for public deliberation around municipal budget for infrastructure development project investments.

During PT governments, PB was used to decide over an expressive number of development projects. OLIVEIRA et alli (2003) presented some figures: In 2003, Ipatinga’s Participatory Budgeting allocated US$1.2 million to neighborhoods development projects and almost US$ 12 million to long-term development projects incorporated in the four-year investment plan. So, according to these authors, the total amount submitted to collective decisions was almost US$ 13 million, which means over 13.5% of the city’s total budget for the year 2004. There is no available data for following years.

Participatory budgeting was adopted by Ipatingas’s government in 1989 and followed regular standards. OLIVEIRA et alli (2003) presents the Ipatinga experience’s main characteristics:

Municipality neighborhoods, districts and rural communities are grouped in nineregional sectors. For each sector, the municipal government reserves differentiated amounts for their priorities. Resource figures are defined taking into account social, active citizenship and administrative criteria.

As other PB experiences, Ipatinga’s PB has a main board that includes municipal officials, representatives from civil society entities and regional delegates. This is theMunicipal Budget Council (MBC), whose meetings define proposals of priorities for the different regions.

Municipal Congress for Budgeting Priorities (COMPOR) is the final event which closes the yearly cycle of participatory budgeting, with the approval of budgets for the development projects chosen as the priorities.

The proposals approved by COMPOR are incorporated into the following year’s

budget law proposal to be sent to the City Council.

In 2004 the PT candidate lost the election to an opposition candidate. New government kept PB, although despite efforts, it lost visibility and importance among city government priorities. Ipatinga’s PB Internet version was also kept until 2007. From 2002 to 2004 it was called Interactive Participatory Budget (IPB). The new government renamed PB as OPA (Popular Enlarged Budget).

Although the government continues using a priorities suggestion tool, the current PB website (IPATINGA, 2008) retains little information and features from the former IPB website. The former website hosted Ipatinga’s participatory budgeting information to enhance participation and monitoring. This is an evidence of how PB lost importance in 13the new Ipatinga government.

Ipatinga’s Internet PB started in 2001, with the aim of extending the reach of PB to new social groups such as young people and the middle class. It was not meant to replace or compete with face-to-face PB meetings that the IPB provides. The Internet PB used to have two main features:

 Deliberation tool: a mechanism for online indication of priorities for PB proposals;

 Monitoring tool: interactive and personalized PB implementation monitoring.

The Internet use for PB deliberation in Ipatinga had only been indicative. Once proposals to be part of the municipal budget were defined at face-to-face meetings, either regional or municipal, citizens could only present priority proposals at later deliberation phases.

Every year, in the period preceding the regional assemblies, the IPB website was open to receive priority proposals from citizens. It was designed for easy use and avoids setting up bureaucratic barriers for participation, even though security aspects were taken into account.

A valid e-mail address was required for participation and gave the municipality a channel of communication with citizens, for sending information about PBs implementation priorities and inviting them to region assemblies (IPATI NGA, 2007).

For people with no Internet access, computers were made available in public locations around town and were supported by municipality staff helping people by explaining how to use the website to indicate their priorities for the participatory budgeting process.

Online proposals were put to vote together with the proposals presented in the face-to-face meetings that were submitted in the traditional form (taken in writing to the city hall). The whole set of proposals was a matter of discussion and deliberation in the regional assemblies once the government staff evaluated the proposals’ technical and financial viability. Citizens could check, during online priorities submission phase, all proposals submitted. According to OLIVEIRA et alli (2003), this feature made them able to strengthen common proposals and also to prepare themselves for a more qualified participation in the 14collective assemblies.

PB implementation monitoring is no longer available in OPA. This feature was based on a PB development projects database running on a web environment. Each approved priority development project was presented followed by its value, location, a photograph, position on the map and status.

IPB website visitors could retrieve monitoring information through personalized selections on the provided database, combining one or more categories by project name, neighborhood and region, type of project, status and year of approval.

The same information was sent periodically via e-mail to citizens who registered themselves as users on the IPB website, allowing them to receive information about their region’s PB development projects’ implementation.

c) Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte is the capital city of the state of Minas Gerais, one of three largest Brazilian states in both terms of population and GDP. Belo Horizonte is the fifth largest Brazilian municipality, with 2,4 million inhabitants. Its metropolitan area is the third biggest in Brazil, and reaches almost five million inhabitants (IBGE, 2006).

The Worker’s Party (PT) has been in power in the city since 1993 (five terms), either by itself or in alliance with other parties. PB started in 1993 and adopted most of the standard Brazilian PB processes described above.

In 2006, the Belo Horizonte Mayor, Fernando Pimentel, implemented the Digital Participatory Budgeting (DPB) with the aim of broadening the PB reach, especially within the city’s large medium class. DPB didn’t replaced face-to-face PB assemblies that continued using the same methods for local and region budget allocation.

DPB allows any citizen with a valid voting identification card registered in the municipality to vote on certain urban development projects selected by the City Hall. Citizens can vote 15through a website developed by the city-owned data processing company, Prodabel. The urban development projects with the greatest number of votes are included in the city budget for next year.

The already-existing city subdivision into 9 Administrative Regions was chosen for resource allocation purpose. Within these Administrative Regions, five infra-structure urban development projects are chosen by the city officials in charge of them. This list is ratified by the Commission of Monitoring and Inspection of the Participatory Budgeting (COMFORÇA). This is PB city-level commission, composed by delegates elected by region assemblies and government officials and acts as main governance group in the PB city.

The voting on the undertakings happened in assemblies that took place in each of the 9 Districts simultaneously. Initially, the 3 undertakings with the highest number of votes would be chosen for the DPB. Subsequently, the city government added the fourth most voted undertaking. This way, the 4 undertakings with the greatest number of votes in each District were the urban development projects chosen for voting in the DPB, totalizing 36 proposed rban development projects.

It was also determined that the voting would happen exclusively on the Internet and that the urban development projects with the highest number of votes in each District would be chosen for the next year city budget, totaling 9 urban development projects within the 36 proposed projects for the city, that is 4 per District. The maximum cost of each urban development project was around US$ 1,5 million.

An Internet website was developed for the Digital PB. First voting period was made available on the Digital PB website from November 1 st to December 12 th , 2006. All Belo Horizonte citizens with a voter identification card validated by May 3, 2006, the deadline to register as a voter for the year 2006, were eligible to vote. Using the individual number of the voter identification card was the preferred method “because it proved to be most secure means of guaranteeing a smooth process, impeding, for instance, more than one vote per proposal” (BELO HORIZONTE, 2007, p. 5). The Regional Electoral Tribunal of Minas Gerais (TRE-MG, the voting registration agency) database was used for this experience. Each citizen could vote on one urban development project per District, in other words, each 16citizen could vote on up to 9 projects.

The Digital PB website was launched prior to the voting period. The process was divided into two phases: the first was more focused on discussions and debates, and virtual group discussions and forums were created within the official website, while the second phase on the voting. In the first phase the website contained: more detailed information on the urban development projects available for voting, as well as a projection of the finalized urban development undertaking; videos and interviews of people talking about the Digital PB, defending the proposals they were supporting; news on the Digital PB; City Hall contact information; as well as forums and electronic bulletins to clarify and alert the general population to the relevance of these urban development projects.

In order to vote, citizens only have to enter the Belo Horizonte government website ( and click on the “Digital Participatory Budget” link. It is necessary to complete the fields with the name and number as they appear in the voting identification card, choose the District, the urban development project and click “vote.” Every voter could vote on one urban development project per District, but it is not compulsory to vote for a project in all 9 Districts. There is an on line monitoring of the voting process, sending the citizen who just finished voting a confirmation of his or her vote. It is important to highlight that the citizen is not obliged to vote on all urban development project proposals in one go.

The voter could return to the website as many times as necessary and vote on all the proposals he or she wanted in one go, or one at a time. The only restriction was that citizens could not vote on more than one urban development project per District (BELO HORIZONTE, 2008a).

Citizens can vote from any computer with Internet access. For voting, city government makes approximately 158 free Internet access points available for the PB voting. These access points, all paid for by the city, are based in strategic locations such as health centers, shopping centers, squares, Internet access public centers, popular shopping areas, schools, among others. During the voting period, monitoring agents are available to assist voters in case they needed help with the website and understanding how the voting process worked. Internet access points were also made available by the community, but 17there is no available data to determine the precise number of these.

A Digital PB launching media campaign was also promoted by the Belo Horizonte government in 2006. According to João Santiago, Manager of the Participatory Budgeting, participation increase was slow. With the launch of the media campaign, voting deadlines were extended. The Belo Horizonte City Hall also mobilized the communities, through the community leaders, such as the COMFORÇA.

In the period of support of the urban development project proposals and the voting for the Digital PB, many diverse examples of popular mobilization took place. These happened with the intent of gaining support from other citizens and as such amass votes for the proposals of their preference. An example of this mobilization is the victory of the Central Market salesmen in 2006. They installed computers in the Market and organized a campaign to attract voters. Two computers were installed beside the elevator and in less than 24 hours the urban development project for the Raul Soares Square, located outside the Market in the Central-South District, went from third to first place (BELO HORIZONTE, 2008b). According to Maria Inês de Souza, Manager of the PB Planning, the competition in this District was high, and this urban development project proposal always oscillated between first and second place.

The Digital PB first round exceeded City Hall expectations regarding the total number of participants: the number of voters was 172.938 totaling 503.266 votes. Although an average of 6 to 9 votes was expected per voter, the results produced an inferior average of 2,83 votes per voter that shows people were very concerned about their region’s deliberation and had less motivation to participate in other region’s deliberations.

3 – The Meanings and Impacts of Digital Participatory Budgeting

a) Can the Internet help expand Participatory Budgeting?

The Brazilian experience shows that the Internet can be a tool to expand the reach of PB beyond traditional neighborhood associations and urban social movements. But there are 18challenges to be faced and serious limitations to a significant enlargement process.

Ipatinga experienced new people taking part of PB process both presenting proposals as well as attending meetings. Middle class and young people adopted the Internet based PB and even mobilized to participate in face-to-face meetings and dispute resource allocation for their proposals. Unfortunately there is no evidence that the Internet based PB might create a large adhesion to PB among these new sectors. Participation was limited in deliberation meetings of their specific interest and there was no sustainable PB expansion supported by the use of the Internet. In some way, the participation of these sectors of society in PB continued largely through the virtual deliberation processes. One can argue that it’s not due to the Digital PB features’ limitations and that it must be linked to other reasons such as the weak culture of participation in public deliberation processes among these groups, or the lack of preparatory actions by government officials to effectively involve these people. Either way, it’s clear that an Internet tool itself isn’t able to enlarge participation in PB, or even engage new participants on the same level of commitment than traditional PB face-to-face methods.

The Belo Horizonte Digital PB was successful in involving more people in participatory deliberation on budgeting. According to city PB officials, while face-to-face meetings were attended by 34,463 people in the 2007/2008 round, the Digital PB Internet voting mobilized 172,938 people. The government original goal was 100,000 people. These figures are impressive considering Brazil’s access to digital technology.

Voters were allowed to vote for one infrastructure development project from each of the nine regions. So, the maximum number of votes could be nine times the number of voters.

However, the average number of votes per voter was 2,83 for the 2007/2008 round. This data shows that the citizens of Belo Horizonte are very focused on the direct needs of their areas. Belo Horizonte is a very large city so people don’t feel capable of take part in the decision making process of an area they rarely visit or have very little information about.

An opposing point of view states that people mobilize themselves to approve the infrastructure development projects they need, but aren’t committed to the full PB decision making process. Mobilization around specific proposals shows people really invested 19energy on getting support for regional development projects. As observed in the Ipatinga experience, the Internet PB did not offer any means for long-term organized engagement.

This was the main reason people with strong links to face-to-face PB faced strong resistance to the Digital PB. Many people expressed the fear that the DPB was going to replace the face-to-face PB.

In spite of this, Belo Horizonte’s experience showed that electronic voting can help civil society mobilization around participatory deliberation on public budgeting. Surely this is a distinct kind of mobilization, shot-term focused and with less links to other issues. This mobilization is not driven to strength civil society and grassroots movements’ organizations and takes less advantage of their background and experience.

b) Can the Internet help PB citizen monitoring?

Both the Ipatinga and Porto Alegre cases give a glimpse of what can be done to allow for PB citizen monitoring. Both show the way databases and query tools are needed. The Ipatinga former Internet PB monitoring (interrupted by the current government) used to allow for a customized navigation experience and also provided e-mail monitoring information. Current Internet technology’s resources are scarcely applied in these cases.

One could list many features that could be adopted in Internet PB. Surely governments choose not use these features just because of technical issues.

Developing applications and using them is feasible for all the three studied municipalities, even when taking into account the chronic lack of integrated information systems in Brazilian governments. openness. When governments make information available, civil society can use this information to track government activities and control the implementation of PB deliberations. These are potential results of openness. In order to apply these ideas to 20Internet-based PB monitoring one should look to the effectiveness of citizens’ control over government action.

Looking at this, there is no evidence of a strong Internet-based government social control by citizens. As traditional face-to-face meetings were kept, people can use previous follow-up government action practices. These seem to be enough to monitor the status of the approved PB development projects’ status. This is the first level control, focused on status checking. The second level, focuses on efficient expenditure and corruption, avoiding technical skills demands and receives less attention from PB enrolled civil society delegates and organizations.

But low level of Internet-based social control does not mean there is no value even on a small degree of government’s transparency attitudes: for social control purposes, having the information available is a previous condition. The potential of providing access to a citizenship right must be positively evaluated, once it can create space for future social control initiatives (VAZ, 2007).

c) Can the Internet Participatory Budgeting change power and government-civil society relationship?

It’s not easy to evaluate how much the Digital PB affects the power balance and relationship between government and civil society. Few experiences have been conducted so far and there isn’t sufficient information available. However, we can raise some questions.

Social sectors that see PB not only as a more democratic and/or effective way to deliberate on the allocation of public funds have a resistance towards the Internet PB, as seen in Belo Horizonte. For these sectors PB is supposed to create new permanent political relationships and increase power sharing to the advantage of marginalized social sectors.

In the selected cases, the Internet PB is not able to create new permanent ways of civil society organization in relation to existing power relationships. However, in the Belo 21Horizonte case, we could see that some initiatives managed to influence virtual deliberation results. These initiatives were mostly organized by sectors not traditionally involved in face-to-face PB. To some degree, these sectors changed the power balance to their favor at the expense of traditional PB participants, even if the traditional groups remain dominant in the face-to-face PB meetings.

If one puts city government in the equation it becomes more complex. Future developments in Digital PB could help to better understand PB and the role of government officials in Digital PB. Virtual deliberation allows technology to replace face-to-face meetings which means an intermediation that doesn’t require direct contact. Could it reinforce government officials’ power in PB deliberative process? In the Belo Horizonte case Administrative Regional appointed officials had an important role proposing the infrastructure development project proposals that would be submitted to Internet deliberation. Are they going to keep this power in the next round or will civil society delegates claim it?

4 – Looking for a conclusion: are there pros and cons for the use of the Internet for Participatory Budgeting (and other unanswered questions)?

Looking at the lessons learned from this cases, one can try to identify some issues on the future of PB, and while making predictions of the future of PB is not the purpose of this paper, it raises questions for future research initiatives on the topic.

This research explored a number of innovative experiments on the use of the Internet for PB. It’s not easy reach final conclusions about them because they are so few and very innovative, not to mention because they are recent developments of already consolidated PB cases and more time is needed to observe their progression. Perhaps only with the spread of these practices to other municipalities, will researchers have a wider set of experiences to study and thus be able to better evaluate the impacts of Digital PB in enhancing citizen rights.

Furthermore, the only means to establishing the pros and cons of the Internet PB depends on the point of view one adopts. There are many stakeholders affected by this innovation: government appointed officials (both PB officials and others), bureaucrats, mayors and city councilors, local civil society leaders, PB municipal level civil society leaders and others.

Surely more research is needed to find all the implications over these sectors. Nevertheless, even avoiding a pros and cons analysis we can summarize some conclusions from the case studies. In doing this we have adopted a point of view for this study, arguing that the spread of the Internet PB could foster and enhance selected citizens’ rights: to be heard by government; to social control over government; and to political participation.

The Brazilian cases provided some evidence about how the Internet PB can enhance citizens’ access to these rights. They explored two main ways through which the Internet supports PB to reach broader audiences: consultation and full deliberation. Both are shown as feasible even in big cities and attract more people and new social sectors to PB.

Monitoring the PB decision implementations had little development but the cases showed there are, at least, real possibilities to make information available for monitoring.

The Internet PB can facilitate interaction between government and citizens. It provides an easy way for citizens either take part of deliberations or present proposals. Technology opens a new space for regular people not involved in civil society organizations and social movements. So, the Digital PB can reach broader audiences, including those who do not participate in face-to-face meetings and who have a high transaction costs like the middle class, or who have cultural, social or political barriers to take part of the standard PB assemblies, such as the young people.

From the government point of view, the use of the Internet for PB is clearly more efficient: government can use an affordable tool to interact with a wider range of citizens than face-to-face meetings do. It is also a safe method, and at least in the three experiences showcased in this paper, expanding participation was done without allowing government to loose control, avoiding the stress produced when receiving strong criticism in the regular PB face-to-face meetings. In some sense, government can use the Internet PB to hear 23from people just what they want to hear, without the headaches of having to directly interact with the population. This reinforces DINIZ’s pioneer (1997) advice about the risk of the Internet becoming a tool for legitimizing some of the prevailing power structures.

Although this limitation could point to some degree of power imbalance, it’s clear that the Internet PB really can expand the access to participation on budget allocation. It is perceived that the depth of participation produced by the Internet tools is a trade-off between face-to-face and virtual deliberation. Considering the Internet PB was unable to provide a long term organized engagement it can be used for improving individual participation on deliberation. The Internet PB should not replace the space for alliances, negotiation and discussion that the face-to-face PB process provides.

The studied Internet PB applications were features added to face-to-face PB and weren’t designed to replace the face-to-face assemblies. Benefiting from previous experiences and political and institutional infrastructure, there is no evidence that having Internet facilities alone is enough to make PB a more effective participatory tool that is able to broaden the quantitative reach of citizens. It supports many authors’ conclusions about virtual participatory spaces that state virtual space, therefore, does not substitute other spaces for political relations (TSAGAROUSIANOU, 1998).

The Internet PB raised some fears among civil society leaders around the possibility it could replace the ordinary PB meetings. This fear reveals a risk for the development of the use of the Internet PB: if the Internet PB were to be more widely and deeply adopted by municipalities, sectors that usually have a significant role in ordinary PB assemblies could react against the innovation trying to keep their dominance. When interviewed, Belo Horizonte civil society leaders pointed out many criticisms to the Internet PB that amount to strong evidence of the resistance from this sector. Enhancing the Internet component in the well-established Participatory Budgeting cases tends to promote a number of negative reactions from civil society leaders that have some degree of power and political relevance in their field based on their PB delegate positions. Stakeholders like PB government officials or civil society groups would use their visibility bring to PB by Internet deliberation tools as an argument to help to strengthen PB role in public decisions.

Future developments will check the real dimension of this risk. Currently, as governments have not replaced traditional PB with the Internet PB, political spaces people usually occupied remained as strong as before. In Ipatinga this happened because the Internet PB was limited to a proposal phase. Face-to-face decision phases were kept as the single decision making spaces. In Belo Horizonte, the Internet PB provided brought added resources, issues and methods for deliberation but also respected the previous spaces and deliberation steps, so people could attend face-to-face PB meetings as before.

It’s not clear to what extent the Internet PB can contribute to enhancing social control over government. There are two main questions here: the quality of the information provided and the ways civil society would use them. LAPORTE et alli (2002) say the Internet can help raise governance to new standards, incrementing relations between citizens and governments and citizen participation.

According to the authors, the use of the Internet by governments, if directed towards supplying information, allows for greater interaction and a means to perform a significant role in the relations between citizens, civil society organizations and government. The Brazilian Internet PB monitoring cases are unable to give sufficient examples of this. Most cities don’t provide a minimum of detailed and/or personalized information about PB implementation. Besides little commitment to allow social control over them, governments can probably present other reasonable motives for the poor amount of monitoring information available on the Internet PB, as well as the lack of information systems for monitoring planning. We can also question if face-to-face meetings are enough for civil society leaders’ purposes, that are often restricted to the delivery of PB public infrastructure development projects.

The development and dissemination of technology will probably push the spread and deepening of the Internet PB. AVRITZER (2006) links previous conditions to the existence of civic associations to the deliberative and distributive results of main experiments of participatory budgeting. According him, considering these conditions may not be present in other cases one cannot assure homogeneous results for distinct municipalities. The same occurs to the Internet PB: there are no Brazilian experiences where the Internet PB was 25the first way PB was done. All the cases had a strong tradition in ordinary PB before they started to use the Internet. This means that governments are used to managing PB processes, to negotiating with civil society organizations and social movements and are also used to dealing with conflicts surrounding participatory budget allocation. On the other hand, civil society organizations and social movements are also used to participating in PB and are keen on maintaining their spaces in traditional PB processes. Previous experiences gave legitimacy to PB that helped government involve people in the new digital approach.

The increasing pace of Internet usage in Brazil is a driving force for local governments to adopt the Internet PB. There is an increasing access to the Internet and local governments that adopt PB are able to run digital inclusion initiatives linked to PB, not to mention that the Internet PB is affordable for most medium and big cities that adopt PB.

As more citizens can access the Internet, governments are expected to see the Internet PB as a tool able to provide a valuable participatory deliberation mechanism that reinforces their position as democratic governments, even though the existing cases show that this trend will take some time to become a more popular and greater feature of PB. The strongest constraint is not the digital divide or economic restrictions, seeing as for both civil society leaders and PB government officials the virtual space doesn’t have the same relevance as face-to-face PB.

This last point brings us to a new set of questions around the meaning of the Internet PB in the next years, raising questions that are less related to feasibility or technological issues.

The future of the Internet PB will be driven by the way the key stakeholders will face this technological advance and how they will incorporate it in their political strategies around public resource allocation and power distribution. Surely, the Internet PB won’t be able to camouflage conflicts within Brazilian society.


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(1) Presented at the Minnowbrook III Conference: The Future of Public Administration, Public Management and Public Service around the World, The Siracuse University, Lake Placid, NY, 2008.

(2) José Carlos Vaz, Ph.D., teaches Public Administration at the University of Sao Paulo – Brazil (School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities) and heads the LogoLink Network International Executive Committee. E-mail: The author thanks Nina Best and Manuella Ribeiro.