While voter turnout in this primary season in the United States remains paltry (25% in Idaho’s recent primary), two Boise State researchers have found that participation — in the form of popular, participatory budgeting programs practiced for just over two decades in Brazil — does matter. Brian Wampler and Mike Touchton, both political scientists, built a database of Brazilian municipalities with two decades of budget information and other infrastructure, health and education indicators and found that cities that engaged citizens in participatory budgeting had better overall outcomes that those that did not, particularly for the poor:

At the broadest level, we argue the adoption of new subnational democratic institutions, which are explicitly designed to overcome the middle- and upper-class bias of representative democracy, help to increase human capabilities, and mitigate representative democracy’s pro-wealthy bias. By enhancing human capabilities, there is the potential to generate a virtuous cycle that allows citizens to pressure public officials to use public resources more efficiently and justly. (Wampler & Touchton in Comparative Political Studies)

Participatory budgeting empowers average citizens to make local spending decisions, using portions of public money — 5 to 15 percent of total municipal budgets, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases. Wampler and Touchton published  four key findings: Another look at PB outcomes from Sónia Gonçalves.

  • When municipal governments adopt participatory budgeting, there is an associated increase in spending by the municipal government on health care and sanitation.
  • Adopting participatory budgeting is associated with an increase in the number of civil society organizations.
  • Cities that adopt participatory budgeting saw a reduction in infant mortality.
  • Participatory budgeting by itself generates improvements over those municipalities without it. However, having a mayor from the political party most closely associated with PB and PB generates even stronger outcomes, and the longer PB is in effect, the stronger the outcomes.

Wampler and Touchton wrote up their study for the Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post in January and spoke to TBR about the study for the video below, shot by TBR Videographer Kim Oswalt.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.