Participatory Budgeting in Seoul, South Korea

First Submitted By marshomme

Most Recent Changes By Scott Fletcher

General Issues
Specific Topics
Budget - Local
Participatory Budgeting
Formal/Structured Participation
South Korea
Scope of Influence
Start Date
Time Limited or Repeated?
Repeated over time
Make, influence, or challenge decisions of government and public bodies
Spectrum of Public Participation
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Limited to Only Some Groups or Individuals
Recruitment Method for Limited Subset of Population
Facilitator Training
Professional Facilitators
Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
Types of Interaction Among Participants
Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
Negotiation & Bargaining
Express Opinions/Preferences Only
Information & Learning Resources
Written Briefing Materials
Video Presentations
Decision Methods
Communication of Insights & Outcomes
New Media
Traditional Media
Public Report
Type of Organizer/Manager
Local Government
Seoul City Council
Type of Funder
Local Government
Evidence of Impact
Implementers of Change
Elected Public Officials
Appointed Public Servants
Lay Public
Formal Evaluation
Evaluation Report Documents

Begun in 2012, Seoul's system of Participatory Budgeting places emphasis on open proposals and deliberation. Although resource intensive, Seoul's PB is the first to be enacted in a city of over 10 million people and has a total budget of 50 billion Won (40 million USD).

Problems and Purposes

Seoul City Council introduced participatory budgeting in repsonse to public demand, vocal distrust and questioning of government spending, an innefficient public sector, and deficient or non-existent systems of fiscal transparency.

Participatory budgeting promotes the direct participation of citizens in the process of budget allocation and oversight. The system in Seoul was intended to have a preventive function to reduce populist policies and bureaucratic processes by heads and assemblymen of local governments leading to the waste or inefficient use of public resources. It also was seen as a good way to complement local assemblymen’s lack of professional knowledge that has been pointed out as a prevalent problem in the city's local assemblies.

Background History and Funding

The first participatory budgeting system in the world started in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil in 1989, and it has spread to all over the world. Citizens’ participation in the budget decision process improved direct democracy, and increased financial efficiency and transparency. The success of Porto Alegre made the UN and the World Bank to praise the system as one of the most innovative ways to get transparency in administrative works.

In South Korea, the movement to enact local ordinance for participatory budget was triggered by a proposal made by a minor progressive political party in 2002. In 2004, Bukgu District Office in Gwangu, one of the big cities located in southern part of South Korea, enacted its local ordinance for participatory budget first, and the ordinance spread to the other cities such as Ulsan and Dajeon. However, the speed was not fast enough. In the meantime, the Roh Muhyun government, also known as the “Participatory government” in South Korea, recommended local governments to introduce the system. In August 2005, the Korean government revised Local Finance Act to let heads of local governments allow citizens to participate in decision making process of their budget. The Act prescribed concrete ways for the system such as budget size, processes to get citizens’ opinions, and how to implement the system in local governments. However, local governments, at first, hesitated to introduce the system because they felt it was an additional administrative burden, and some local governments operated the system just in name only.

Participatory budgeting system in South Korea met a dramatic change in the local election in 2010. Then, the ruling Democratic Party set forth “participatory budgeting system” as one of its election pledges. Many candidates of the Democratic Party were elected as heads of Districts and the City Council in Seoul. Naturally, this result increased the public’s interest in the participatory budgeting system.

The participatory budgeting system in Seoul started with discussions between its executives and its municipal assemblymen in 2010. Civil society organizations, experts, and the budget department in Seoul City government started to discuss it on January 2012. Many workshops and meetings for the system were held.

As a result of a five month-long discussion among city officials, municipal assemblymen, and relevant civil society organizations, in May 2012, Seoul City Council enacted the ordinance of participatory budgeting system. After Wonsoon Bak, who had wide experience in civil society movement, became the mayor of Seoul in 2014, the participatory budget system has been pushing ahead more intensely. Seoul became the first city in the world that introduced the participatory budgeting system out of the cities whose population is over 10 million with more than twenty administrative districts. The participatory budgeting system of Seoul City has been evaluated by academics as one of the best examples that reflected values and principles of the participatory budgeting system.[1,2]

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

Seoul City Council passed an ordinance ordering the establishment of a system of participatory budgeting in May 2012. The decision was the outcome of a five-month multi-stakeholder deliberation between city council executives, municipal assemblymen, civil society organizations, experts, and the budget department in Seoul City government. Wonsoon Bak became mayor in 2014 and has dedicated his term to the promotion and development of participatory budgeting.

Seoul City Council determined the size of the participatory budgeting to be 50 billion won (approximately 43 million US dollars) - 2.2% of the total city budget of 23,000 billion Won (equivalent to 19.7 billion US dollars).

Participant Recruitment and Selection

The number of members for the General Committee that decides the final participatory budget in Seoul was decided at 250 in order to involve as many citizens as possible. At least three fifth of the members must be selected by public invitation which is extended to any ordinary citizens. If citizen applicants are above the number allotted, an open casting lots is drawn to determine who is going to be in the committee.

What is peculiar is that there are things to be considered, such as gender and age. It should also guarantee participation of social minorities such as the physically-challenged, single parents, senior citizens and multi-cultural families (one spouse is a foreigner). Seoul city tried to reflect minority issue to the Committee as much as possible.

Specifically, Seoul City Government and Seoul City Council could recommend 25 individuals as members respectively and 25 District Offices can recommend one as a member each which in total accounts for 30% of the 250 committee members. Another 150 members of the committee, 6 individuals from each 25 districts are selected by applicants. If the number of applicants is over 150, the committee members are selected by an open casting lots. The remaining 25 seats are filled by individuals from 25 civil society organizations that are selected by another lottery drawn among candidate civil organizations'

Methods and Tools Used

Participatory budgeting system is an innovative and democratic mechanism that enables ordinary citizens to get involved in the decision-making process of allocating public budget. In the process, citizens can provide inputs regarding their priorities and, often even change the direction of policies. World Bank states that participatory budgeting system provides citizens more access to budget information, and increases transparency and reduces corruption in public sector, eventually enhancing the government's trustworthiness and gaining the citizens' trust. Furthermore, citizens’ direct participation in providing opinions, making decisions, and solving problems for the community where they live is desirable for making society more democratic and sustainable. In particular, citizens’ participation in budget and allocation decisions is significant in that it can have an effective influence exerted directly by the public because each item on the list of plans in the government, both central and local, is based on budget schedule.

Seoul has a relatively short history of four years of participatory budgeting system. However, for a city with a population of over 10 million in 25 Districts, the accomplishment it has achieved is remarkable given the short period of time. It is mainly because all the stakeholders including civil society organizations, experts, and city officials have intensely and ceaselessly discussed how to implement and develop the system from the very beginning. 

Seoul City Council has also implemented a Participatory Budgeting School which holds open meetings to introduce residents to the system in an attempt to encourage and prepare as many people as possible for participation. 

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

The main functions of the participatory budgeting system in Seoul are: 1) gathering opinions for mid and long term budget plan, and big investment businesses; 2) deliberating the opinions and plans; 3) submitting the results for overall budget plan to the City Council; and 4) evaluating the businesses plans of participatory budget.

In the ordinance of the participatory budgeting system in Seoul, the committee can provide its inputs in every budget set up by the Seoul City Government. In 2012, a conference for the participatory budgeting system was held. The conference had the time to coordinate its opinions through briefing sessions and discussions, and submitted the result to Seoul City Council. In the Council, the size of the participatory budgeting was determined at 50 billion won (approximately 43 million US dollars). The total budget of Seoul City was about 23,000 billion Won (equivalent to 19.7 billion US dollars), which means the participatory budget of Seoul is only 2.2% of its total budget. However, considering time constraint and lack of professional knowledge, the committee could not review every budget of Seoul, and submit its opinions to the City Council in time.

Public Opinions Gathering Phase

The participatory Budget Committee could request Seoul City Government and twenty-five District Offices to conduct an administrative review on the opinions that it gathered through local committees and citizens’ propositions. Each Local Participatory Budget Committee in each Districts could request a budget for its business plan within the budget of three billion won (three million US dollars), and any ordinary citizens who want to participate in the budget decision process could suggest their ideas or plans through the Internet, mail, and direct visit to the Committee.

Deliberation and Reflecting Phase

For the purpose of effectiveness and efficiency, each Local Committee in twenty-five Districts review the business plans that were proposed in their Districts. After that, every subcommittee under the General Committee reviews the business plans in its field. Subcommittees are divided into eight sections such as, construction, economy and industry, park, traffic and housing, culture and physical training, health and welfare, women and childcare, and environment. With regard to the business plans introduced to the General Committee, all 250 members of the Committee decide final business plans of the participatory budget by majority vote. Seoul City Government finally submits the budget plan including the participatory budget to the City Council.

In 2013, the Act was revised that the ratio of men and women in the number of chairmen of the subcommittees should be the same. In 2015, projects of Seoul City and Districts were separated in the participatory budget to give more clarity and fairness in decision making, and electronics ballot system was introduced to increase efficiency and transparency of the decision process for final budget in the General Committee.

Influence, Outcome, and Effects

The system, when managed well, helps establish financial democracy, supplement representative democracy, strengthen citizens’ role of control and bring about a collaborative governance. So far, we cannot say with confidence that they are all achieved. Even though the portion of the participatory budget is only 2.2% of the whole budget, Seoul citizens started to think of their roles in the decision-making process and the workability of the system. Seoul citizens changed their roles from object to subject of responsibilities and rights.

Seoul City is the last local government in South Korea that introduced participatory budgeting system. The budget covers people commuting to Seoul from other areas as well as Seoul citizens. It is the first case in the world for a big city like Seoul to introduce the participatory system. Even though its history is just 4 years old, in the meantime, Seoul citizens learned that balanced composition of the Committee, fairness and transparency of decision making process, and citizen’s voluntary participation are very important for the success of the system. Indeed, participatory budgeting is not just a tool to get the required budget - the most crucial aspect of the process is to provide citizens with a venue to understand and discuss issues in the community where they live and come up with solutions to the issues for the benefit of the community.

Experience in participatory budgeting is an intangible civic asset. If it is managed well, it can raise citizenship like trust among citizens in governments, confidence in commonly shared vision, and cooperative networks between a government and the public. Development of participatory budget system requires basically strong political wills of heads of local government, cooperation of public officials, and support of local councils. However, the most substantial elements are properly played roles of civil society, and continuous interests and participations of the public in general.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Too many business cases have to be reviewed

In 2014, out of 1,533 propositions, 560 projects were introduced to the General Committee. Finally, 352 projects were decided as the participatory projects of 2015. This means that 250 members of the Committee should review all 560 projects over a short period of time. Some of the members have complained the time for review given was too short, and other members have even confessed to their lack of professional knowledge.

Intervention of District offices and fierce competition among Districts

In 2014, public officials in Seoul City and Districts were banned from participating in the Committee. Since then, city officials’ direct interventions were not visibly detected, but some citizen members of the Committee said in a survey that they felt the process was not carried out in a fair manner due to District Offices’ interventions.

In 2014, budget gap between the most received District and the least received District was 4.5 billion won (4.5 million US dollars). Considering the total budget of 50 billion won, the difference was considerably huge. One of the main reasons is competition among Districts. It is getting intensifying more and more. Competition often delivers good results, but if the competition is too fierce, it could cause unexpected side effects. Officials in some Districts complained that the system was misused by Districts to get additional budgets, and others thought the process itself, even though the size of the budget was not big, was an extra burden added to already mounting administrative works.

Excessive burden to Districts

Officials in District Offices said what was included in the citizen’s propositions for the participatory budget was nothing but titles and brief explanations. All the rest work related to the propositions went directly to officials in District Offices. They have to come up with detailed business plans and estimate the budget for the plans in detail. Officials appealed that they were overburdened, and they had trouble managing all the additional tasks.

See Also

Participatory Budgeting 

Deliberative Poll on Korean Reunification  


[1] Im, Tobin, Hyunkuk Lee, Wonhyuk Cho, and Jesse W. Campbell. "Citizen preference and resource allocation: The case for participatory budgeting in Seoul." Local Government Studies 40, no. 1 (2014): 102-120.

[2] Choi, Intae. "What explains the success of participatory budgeting? Evidence from Seoul autonomous districts." Journal of Public Deliberation 10, no. 2 (2014): 9. 

Gwon, S. (2014, April 8). Participatory Budget System in Korea. The Weekely Kyunghyang. Retrieved from 71& code=113. [BROKEN LINK]

Han, Y. (2014). Outcome of the Participatory Budgeting System in Seoul (Rep.). Seoul: Seoul City.

Lim, S. (2014). Participatory Budgeting System in Seoul (Rep.). Seoul: Seoul City.

Seoul PB Committee. (2015). Retrospect of the Participatory Budgeting System in Seoul. Seoul: Seoul City.

Song, C. (2014). Making a community with participatory budget (Rep.). Seoul: The Hope institute. 

External Links

Official PB Website [KOREAN] 

Official PB Website [ENGLISH] 


Lead image: Seoul Metropolitan Government Citizen Participatory Budget

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