Published: March 1, 2010 By

Members of a community in Brazil gather to vote as part of a participatory program. While these programs may improve empowerment and accountability, they might not provide the overwhelming gains in well-being that many organizations are promoting.

Participatory governance is the darling of policymakers and world-organizations seeking to improve the well-being of the impoverished. The claim is that by increasing the citizens’ direct involvement with the decision-making process, the quality of their lives will improve.

However, it may not bring about such dramatic changes and is no “magic bullet,” new research concludes.

Carew Boulding, assistant professor of political science at the University of ColoradoThe study by Carew Boulding, assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado, and Brian Wampler, associate professor of political science at Boise State University, argues that participatory governance, and, in particular, participatory budgeting, doesn’t significantly change overall well-being when compared to elite-oriented models of policymaking.

While most of the research on participatory governance has been anecdotal, Boulding and Wampler take an empirical look at the programs.

“The main point of the article is to point out the discrepancy between the actual data and the huge gains that are being assumed,” Boulding says.

To take a closer look at the actual numbers, Boulding and Wamper used an original database of all Brazilian municipalities with at least 100,000 residents. The analysis of the data weighed many factors, including whether a participatory program was adopted, the political tendencies of the city council, location, population, level of development, etc.

Finally the results were measured over time by using multiple indicators, which noted changes in income, education, longevity and inequality.

The result provided a strictly quantitative look at changes in these areas, and offered the opportunity to compare changes in well-being between municipalities that adopted participatory budgeting and those that did not.

The findings are pretty clear, Boulding notes. With the exception of a small decrease in poverty rates, there is no significant change associated with the implementation of a participatory budgeting program.

The data reveal an interesting conclusion.

“We wanted to be very careful when writing this not imply that participatory programs weren’t worthwhile,” Boulding emphasizes. “I think it’s about managing expectations. One of the problems of setting these programs up is that when it doesn’t live up to those expectation, it can be politically damaging.”

Instead of suggesting that participatory governance be dismissed, the authors warn that it shouldn’t be promoted as a “magic bullet.”

Boulding explains: “We really just wanted to focus on measurable outcomes. Participatory programs give citizens a lot more confidence in government, and belief that the government is more responsive to their needs. That’s a good thing.”

The article concludes with nuanced assessment of participatory budgeting:

“Since research shows that participatory budgeting programs are associated with enhancing empowerment and accountability, adopting these types of programs produces positive effects in a number of areas, but they are no worse than standard elite-oriented models of policy making when it comes to improvements in basic social well-being,” the authors write.

“There are, thus, few downsides to adopting programs like participatory budgeting, although it is vital to keep in mind that they may not produce dramatic short-term effects, especially without substantial financial resources to back them up.”