La Plata's participatory budget combined offline and online channels of participation to lower the time costs of exclusively face-to-face, deliberative events. The multi-channel approach has been successful in drawing a larger number of participants from diverse demographics.
Problems and Purpose
The goals of La Plata's Participatory Budget include those most commonly attributed to the method: increased transparency and better and innovative delivery of public services, while simultaneously promoting the participation of citizens in making public decisions.
Where 'traditional' PB initiatives have been criticized for their poor levels of attendance, La Plata sought to combine face-to-face and online modes of participation to lessen the the time costs of lengthy public assemblies and deliberations. Officials hoped that the use of both in-person and remote/online channels of communication would allow the city the dual benefits of deliberation and inclusive/diverse participation.
Background History and Context
In 2008, imported from Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting saw the light in the City of La Plata (province of Buenos Aires, Argentine Republic). Although there was a first cycle of participatory budgeting in La Plata during 1998 and 1999, the experience was not repeated in subsequent years. It was from 2008 that this project was resumed with much greater impulse and at the initiative of the new mayor of the city.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The municipality, through the Executive Directorate of the Participatory Budget of the Municipality of La Plata, coordinates, organizes, and executes the participatory budget.
To provide greater transparency, the mayor of La Plata decided to place the organization of the participatory budget in the hands of a party that is not part of the political force with which he came to power. In this way, it carries out a new experience in the world, as far as participatory budgets are concerned.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The participatory budgeting process is open to all and various outreach activities were used by organizers to engage with as many people as possible. Door to door campaigning in poor and remote areas and a series of plenary meetings were held (over 200 in 2010) across different areas of the city to draw participants. Total numbers recorded:
- 2008 (1): 17.686 unique participants (2.9% of the population)
- 2008 (2): 29.578 unique participants (4.9% of the population)
- 2009: 44.983 unique participants (7.5% of the population)
- 2010: 45,000 participants were recorded
Methods and Tools Used
Participatory Budgeting (PB) can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of budget allocation and in the monitoring of public spending. Internationally praised as a good governance policy, the implementation of PB has been associated with desirable outcomes such as reduction of tax delinquency, increased transparency and better and innovative delivery of public services. La Plata's Multi-Channel PB uses an innovative combination of offline and mobile channels to promote the engagement of citizens in the direct allocation of the investment budget of the city. The municipality’s unique participatory design, combining face-to-face deliberation with remote voting (e.g. mobile voting), has produced outstanding results, with over 45,000 participants in 2010.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
La Plata's process is composed of 3 phases:
- Face-to-face deliberative meetings
- City-wide voting
- Implementation of projects
First stage: Face-to-face deliberative meetings are held across the city. In each region, the participatory budgeting process is explained before the neighbors present their projects, either in writing or orally. Finally, the residents who participated in at least two of the popular assemblies, choose the projects that will be exhibited in the Popular Sample of the Participatory Budget (the minimum limit is 1 project and the maximum is 20).
Second stage: City-wide voting between the options selected during the previous phase. A secure system allows votes to be cast through paper ballots or text messages (SMS). To vote, one must be over 16 years of age.
Third stage: Projects selected by the citizens are funded and implemented by the city administration. Citizens are encouraged to monitor and support the implementation process.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Implementing Participatory Budgeting and using multiple channels of communication has greatly increased the incentive to participate in political decision-making among La Plata’s citizens.
Firstly, as with other Participatory Budgeting projects, giving citizens the opportunity to allocate up to Euro 7,6 million of the budget creates an incentive for residents to attend the first stage of deliberative, face-to-face meetings. Unlike the usual monthly Town Halls or Neighbourhood Meetings, Participatory Budgeting forums come with a real chance of pay off: officials have committed the money and have turned over the power to propose and vote on its allocation. As well, La Plata's use of localized meetings (held in over 200 geographic regions and communities in 2010) make the projects under discussion more relevant to residents. Discussing projects at the city-level often draws few participants because many of the projects do not immediately impact them or their neighbourhood.
Secondly, because the time costs associated with face-to-face, deliberative processes inevitably prevent a portion of the population from taking part, La Plata's inclusion of remote/online channels of communications allowed the incentives of participation associated with budget allocation to carry over to those unlikely, unable, or unwilling to attend in-person meetings. While exclusively face-to-face forms of Participatory Budgeting often never even warrent the consideration of those disinclined to political participation, mixed-method PB offering online or remote channels of communication can, at least, increase the potential for these individuals to consider taking part. Indeed, in La Plata, the number of participants in the remote voting process is on average 10 times higher than that of the face-to-face meetings. In short, La Plata's use of additional channels of participation effectivley lowered the time cost of other Participatory Budgeting initiatives.
Influence on Policy Decisions
Unlike most cases of democratic participation and some cases of Participatory Budgeting, La Plata's PB is not simply another exercise in government consultation. Rather, officials made it clear that citizens were being given complete control over the decision-making process. Before the beginning of the process, city administrators made clear that they would implement all projects proposed and voted on by citizens with the only restriction being the fixed budgetary allowance. That the officials followed through on this promise, quickly funding and implementing the chosen projects, was a great show of faith and almost certainly resulted in greater citizen trust. Such actions are crucial for the continued success of any participatory initiative: by following through on their promise, officials make it more likely that people will participate in future engagements.
There is also evidence that the initiative has acheived one of the main benefits of participatory budgeting processes: improving the lives of socially and economically marginalized sectors of the population. Since the start of the process, health care services have been prioritized by participants, leading to a 100% increase in health-related funding. The 1% reduction in the city's child mortality rate has been attributed to the improvements in health services.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The city's dedicated advertising campaign drew attention to the initiative, including, for example, statistics on participation and votes cast — tactics which tap into 'crowd psychology' which holds that the likelihood of an individual performing an action increases in direct proportion to the number of people having taken that action. Either not wanting to be 'left out' or wanting to be part of the 'in crowd', people will align their behaviour with their peers and those around them, in this case by attending a PB meeting or voting for a project. The city also used social (online) and traditional media channels to reach a broad demographic.
 Rob Henderson, "The Science Behind Why People Follow the Crowd," Psychology Today, May 24, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/after-service/201705/the-science-behind-why-people-follow-the-crowd
 Secretaria de Asuntos Municipales, "Presupuesto Participativo," Ministerio del Interior y Tranporte, https://www.mininterior.gov.ar/municipios/pdfs/SAM_04_presupuesto_participativo.pdf
 Tiago Peixoto, "Participatory Budgeting: Seven Defining Characteristics," DemocracySpot, September 12, 2012, https://democracyspot.net/2012/09/12/participatory-budgeting-seven-defining-characteristics/
Official Website: https://presupuestoparticipativo.laplata.gob.ar/#/
The original version of this case study first appeared on Vitalizing Democracy in 2010 and was a finalist for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize. It was originally submitted by Tiago Peixoto.