The government of Peñalolén, a municipality in the Santiago province of Chile, developed an online-only Participatory Budgeting scheme to better engage the citizens with government decisions and to understand their opinions/preferences on budget choices. 24450 citizens took part.
Problems and Purpose
The government of Peñalolén had used participatory budgeting for many years prior to this innovation as a tool to identify target areas in the poorest sections of the municipality, but was hoping to improve/adapt its use, akin to more modernised approaches to participatory budgeting. The government tasked citizens with identifying public spaces and infrastructure that fit into one of 4 categories for improvement, believing they would be better able to identify target areas:
- Improvement of construction
- Change/installation of urban furniture
- Installation of safety measures/facilities
This scheme was one of the ways the government of Peñalolén attempted to reach a self-set goal: to become a reference point in Chile for innovation, effective management, and sustainable, clean and safe neighbourhoods.
Background History and Context
Peñalolén, first established as a municipality in Chile in 1984, was regarded as one of the poorest municipalities in the country. An influx of citizens in the decades preceding the government's establishment combined with the country as a whole experiencing a drop in GDP growth of nearly 14% a few years before (The Monetary Fund, 2021) had rendered the Municipality in dire need of improvement. Due to this, the local government became more open to involving citizens in policy decisions, hoping they would know which areas needed improvement the most. The government began using participatory budgeting schemes in 2008, under the belief that the citizens could target key areas to raise the standard of living. This scheme was a success, improving quality of life in the city considerably and being repeated in 2012 and 2015 (Citizenlab, 2020). Due to this, the city experimented with an online version of the scheme in 2019, hoping to reach and engage even more people in the process. The adoption of an Online version of Participatory Budgeting was in hopes of improving the already existing citizen engagement initiatives, as using a digital channel for an innovation can be argued to reduce costs, improve engagement, and potentially reach a wider audience than possible via offline methods (Spada and Allegretti, 2016).
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Two notable entities were involved in the development/arrangement of this scheme. Firstly, the local government of Peñalolén solely arranged most of this initiative, setting up the main website and providing training workshops for citizens. They provided a total budget of 500,000,000 Chilean pesos (roughly €545,000) to be equally distributed among the winning ideas from each Macro-sector. Additionally, local community centres and neighbourhood council buildings set up workshops to inform citizens of each respective Macro-sector on how the process would work and how to get involved (for example, the San Luis Civic and Cultural Center and the Nueva Palena Neighborhood Council Headquarters hosted workshops to promote the government initiative).
Although not directly involved in organising or funding the initiative, the World Health Organisation set up a project titled ‘The Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities’, which Peñalolén adopted to guide inclusion of elderly people in its processes. This indirectly guided the scheme to adopt methods of engaging older people through setting up easier to access workshops and assemblies that targeted this demographic.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
As this initiative intended to reach as many people in Peñalolén as possible, it was open to all citizens — they simply had to register an account or link their Google/Facebook account to take part. This approach to recruitment, alongside needing access to the internet, may have caused a lack of engagement from less technologically savvy/motivated members of the community, who may struggle to access such resources (Magelby, 1984). Considering this, Peñalolén adopted 3 processes around the start of the initiative to try to engage individuals that may have been missed:
As described above, the Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities asked cities to consider ways they can facilitate healthy/comfortable ageing to incentivise the older generations to get involved in participatory opportunities. The government took efforts to promote participation from the elderly members of the community, alongside providing workshops in the months before the initiative went live which aimed to inform/train them on how to engage in future opportunities such as the upcoming Participatory Budgeting scheme.
Around half a year before the opening of the initiative, the Municipality set up a project titled ‘Building Active Citizenship’. Aimed at younger citizens, participants were asked to come up with proposals to the government on environmental matters. This closely mirrored the process of the Participatory Budget scheme, helping to inform younger individuals on how processes such as this work and encouraging them to get involved.
As previously mentioned, informational/training workshops also took place in the weeks immediately after the initiative opened that were open to all, involving representatives from the local government and members of their technical team to inform the public on the steps of the initiative.
The government communicated the opportunity to potential participants through the previous processes, as well as online, offline, and televised advertisements. This process also included non-citizen participants — notably a technical team comprised of experts. This team was recruited based off their technical expertise in the monetary/local governance field and had a vital role in the decision-making process (see Methods and Tools Used). There were no formal incentives to participate, however citizens may have chosen to participate based off a desire to improve their local community and/or having faith in the process due to Participatory Budgeting’s successful history in Peñalolén. In total, 24,450 citizens registered on the initiative's platform, equalling around 10.1% of the population of Peñalolén (Citizenlab, 2020).
Methods and Tools Used
The overarching method used was Participatory Budgeting, where citizens are tasked with deciding on how a portion of the government's budget should be distributed. See: https://participedia.net/method/146
In terms of case-specific methods, immediately after opening the initiative, the government provided workshops to train and educate the citizens as previously mentioned. These took place over two weeks across the different Macro-Sectors, aiming to inform those that weren’t already aware of Participatory Budgeting on how the process would work, what to expect, and how to get involved. As the municipality has a history of offline participatory budgeting, the government also hoped to inform individuals on how the move to an online system would function and how to get involved through the official website. A potential problem here was the lack of deliberation/debate, as these mostly acted as informative sessions. Additionally, it’s been argued that open-to-all style workshops may discourage those from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds as they may believe their voices/concerns would be drowned out (Magelby, 1984). To address this, specific workshops were also created to address younger/older people, that may have been left out by the process.
Due to the open-to-all nature of this initiative, many of the proposals may have been unachievable, unrealistic, or undesirable. Therefore, the government employed a technical team to discern which of the proposals were feasible for the government to achieve and to filter out those that wouldn’t work. A potential issue with this could be that the use of two filtration phases may have allowed the government to cherry-pick initiatives that it prefers, potentially decreasing the extent to which this was a citizen-led initiative. The government only addressed this through promising not to, but no formal avenue for citizens to ratify this claim was provided. See: https://participedia.net/method/5311
Although no section of the website was dedicated to deliberation, each proposal had a comment section in which people could ask questions, debate, and engage with the original poster. This was to encourage the participants to justify their proposal and guarantee a level of quality. The government did encourage discussion among its participants; however, it didn’t want to make that the focus of the initiative. The belief was that through the voting process, people would decide on the best outcomes, and thus deliberation was an unnecessary but welcome side-effect. Therefore, they provided a comment section to allow discussion to take some form, even though it wasn’t a focus. An issue that could have occurred is the potential for harassment or arguments between participants that disagree with the proposals. To address this, a terms of service agreement was put forward with a pledge to not engage in such behaviour, with a moderation team addressing any reports or complaints that were raised about certain users.
Online Voting was used as the deciding mechanism for which initiatives would receive funding. Participants voted for which initiative they believed deserved funding the most in their respective Macro-Sector, with the initiatives receiving the most votes being the winners. Two winners were selected for each Macro-sector, causing 10 overall proposals to be funded. As this Participatory Budgeting scheme aimed to test whether voting online could be used to reach a wider number of people than possible offline, all the voting took place via the online platform, with users needing to create an account beforehand to gain access to the voting phase. A potential issue here was that citizens had no method to formally debate before voting. This was slightly addressed by the previous tool, but the short window between the final cases being selected and voting opening meant this issue may not have been fully addressed.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Before the main phases, there were two notable preliminary workshops/events aimed at involving both older and younger participants, previously outlined in Participant Recruitment and Selection.
The main initiative took place over eight phases, with the first phase being an engagement campaign involving two weeks of informative workshops to provide in-depth information and training to the participants. These included facilitators to answer any questions, alongside online resources accessible after the sessions. Within these sessions, participants were informed of every step of the process, how to get involved, the requirements asked of the proposals, and the general aim of the process. The municipality delivered four key aims for the initiative:
- Promote the democratization of the decision-making process in relation to budgeting in the territories, thus promoting the active participation of the citizens.
- Identify through cooperation, a plan of budget proposals based on the findings that the community experiences in its daily life.
- Encourage active, empathetic, and supportive reflection, given that residents know the reality of their neighbourhoods and, at the same time, propose integrative solutions, generating links that strengthen the government and social capital in Peñalolén.
- The co-design of a project whose fundamental principles are participation, collaboration, and transparency to ensure that it responds to the needs/dreams of its beneficiaries.
The participants were also informed of the overall budget of 500,000,000 Chilean Pesos, and that each of the five Macro-Sectors would receive two winning proposals that had an equal share of the budget. After the workshops, a phase of ideation began where individuals were free to design proposals and upload them to the website for one month. The goal was to submit a detailed analysis of an issue within the participants’ neighbourhood with a descriptive solution to said problem. The requirements for a successful submission were:
- The issue fits into one of the four 'areas for improvement' as outlined in the website and workshop, as discussed in Problems and Purpose
- A list of neighbouring firms/businesses/citizens that may be affected by the proposal
- A drawing where the proposal, its location, and its implementation are described.
- A picture of the place where the proposal will be implemented
In total, the participants came up with 169 proposals, which were then subject to an initial review phase conducted by the government’s technical team. This was the first of two evaluation phases the team was a part of, where they filtered out inappropriate submissions. These included proposals that failed to follow the instructions/missed vital information, or weren’t possible to achieve due to legal, physical, or social barriers.
The conclusion of this filtration phase brought a phase of delivering the decisions/assessments to the citizens. The appropriate ideas were reported first to the government, who then released documentation outlining which ideas passed. They included a list of each rejected proposal and the reasoning behind it, alongside a signed paper noting that the government agreed with the decisions of the technical team. The participants that passed the filtration process then engaged in a phase of improving and polishing their proposals. They were asked to 'turn their idea into a project’ and were required to complete a 'blueprint' of sorts, which entailed contacting a government facilitator who would provide technical assistance and put forward potential improvements for the proposal. Additionally, each proposal now had to include an estimate of the budget of the project, which the facilitator would provide formal analysis for, as well as 100 signatures supporting the idea. This list of 100 signatures had to be from residents of the Macro-Sector, being available to download from the website. This required participants to advertise their ideas to the local community, with the goal of including the voices of those that didn’t participate online, before delivering it to the local office of the participant's Macro-Sector.
After the deadline for resubmission had passed, each project was subject to another round of revision. This time, the team evaluated each project under the criteria of fulfilling the outlined requirements, not being too intensive for the government to carry out, being within the budget for each Macro-Sector (Maximum 50,000,000 Pesos), and being possible to achieve given the technical/structural limitations of each neighbourhood. In total, 49 projects passed this second filtration phase, which were released on the website, with voting opening on November 12 and running for 6 days. During this phase, participants could vote for any proposal they wished, with each of the five Macro-Sectors receiving two winning projects. A plurality voting system was used, with the two most voted proposals in each sector winning regardless of the number of votes they received. During this phase, the number of registered participants on the website increased six-fold, with 15,000 total votes recorded. Finally, the government released a list of the ten projects that won and would receive the funding via the official website. They mostly included improvements to safety or aesthetics of public areas (e.g. better lighting for sports courts in Lo Hermida).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Due to the lack of formal review methods, viewing the outcomes of this process was only possible through the government’s website posts. As they had full control over the initiative, it’s hard to determine the scope of its success — although as of October 2020, all of the proposals have received funding, the government has not relayed which, if any, of the proposed projects have been successfully built. However, as the budget has been allocated, it can be argued that the project was a success in causing policy reforms on budgeting even if the outcomes have yet to be realised.
Due to this lack of information, one can instead focus on how the process achieved its outlined goals for participants. Firstly, the process arguably did promote a more democratised version of the government's decision-making process by allowing the public greater control over the budget through a voting system. The type of voting system — a Plurality system — may have been a drawback for this goal however: due to the two-project limit for each municipality, many projects got more votes, but didn’t get selected. While this project was successful in its goals of implementing a solution based on the experiences of the people involved in the project, certain groups may have had a harder time getting involved in the first place (See Analysis and Lessons Learned). Finally, the project was successful in promoting deliberation and collaboration among the community. Although Peñalolén has a history of deliberative processes, this project did reach more people than ever recorded. Additionally, this launched the municipality into more modernised, online approaches, increasing possible collaboration opportunities in the future. Engaging with experts later in the process also helped develop the civic capacities of the citizens and facilitated the development of government interaction with its citizens.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The following reflections are drawn from the Essay written by George Vary in the undergraduate class: Reinventing Democracy at the University of Southampton (2021):
Although this initiative arguably reached its self-outlined goals, it had a few areas for improvement in terms of being a democratic innovation. Analysing the different phases in this process in comparison to various 'democratic goods', one may understand how successful this was as an innovation for democracies (Smith, 2009), as well as comparing it to previous cases of participatory budgeting to see if it has accurately reflected the core features of a good participatory budgeting scheme.
The initial phase of the innovation made considerable efforts to include groups that may have been excluded—the use of various workshops in all areas of the municipality helped to inform the public, elevating transparency on the project, while the targeted information sessions helped to include individuals that may have been excluded such as the elderly. This group was specifically crucial to target for an online-only project, as they may lack the experience or specialist knowledge required to engage with processes on the internet (Norris, 2001). That being said, the project could’ve done more to promote inclusion of the poorest members of society. This is particularly concerning as, not only is the original purpose of Participatory Budgeting schemes to help give more power over budgeting to the poorest members of society to try to alleviate the core issues preventing them from escaping poverty (Wampler, 2012), but it’s also noted that a lot of the municipality lacks resources to access the internet (Citizenlab, 2020). Despite this, considered judgement was promoted in these sessions through a sense of 'sportsmanlike competitiveness' being established, with a focus on respecting each other’s ideas/proposals. Another area for improvement with this phase was the open-to-all style of the initiative. As anyone was available to go, with no quota for participants from minority groups, it’s likely that only those that were able to access the political institutions or were motivated to do so were present—meaning that minority or disenfranchised groups may have been demotivated from going to the sessions under the impression that their voices may been drowned out in favour of the issues that these majority groups considered important (Magelby 1984).
Beyond the informative phases, both ideation phases were successful in increasing popular control as most of the initial design choices were purely in the hands of the participants. This was especially reflected in the second ideation phase, with the use of facilitators helping to guide individuals to create stronger cases. Additionally, this increased transparency and efficiency through speeding up the process and revealing the inner decision-making plans of the government to participants. However, the ratification stages involving the 'specialist technical team' may have decreased popular control as these teams were entirely comprised of government-appointed agents and essentially worked in their interest, with no input from participants. This essentially gave the government full control over which projects made it to the final voting stage. This is concerning as it’s been argued that politicians may adopt innovations such as this to signal that they are open to deliberative processes, while not legitimately engaging in the purpose for their use. Essentially, the government may be using this participatory budgeting scheme as a way to signal itself as a 'good government' to its citizens, while in reality delineating little power to the people (Wampler, 2012). This did however raise the efficiency of the process by ensuring only achievable projects would be passed, at the cost of potentially lowering popular control. Transparency was also slightly raised in this step through the government releasing the thought process of the team to the public via documentation.
The voting stage also had areas for improvement in promoting the democratic goods. Particularly, the use of a plurality system was strange considering the limit of two projects per area, which led to many projects being picked that had considerably less votes. This potentially decreased popular control as many votes didn’t count despite surmounting other project’s vote numbers. The voting stage also could’ve done more for promoting deliberation—by only allowing a comment box for deliberation, people were unable to realistically argue in favour of their own or other initiatives, nor understand each other's reasoning, lowering considered judgement. This specific method of debate was facilitated rather well compared to others of the same type, however. The use of a moderation team was vital as it has been noted that online forums may bring rise to excessive 'flaming' or insults from users (Smith, 2009), with moderation being a key solution to this issue (Wright and Street, 2007). This therefore raised considered judgement compared to similar instances of this method, effectively addressing the concerns with online deliberation. However, this did lower efficiency for the government as they needed to provide the moderators.
Overall, this process would be highly transferable due to the online-nature and the methods of control present, such as moderation, review teams, and strict guidelines. This also helped to raise transparency through the teams engaging with and informing participants. However, this came at the cost of popular control and efficiency as most of the power was stripped away from the participants and all the cost was put onto the government itself. Efficiency for participants remained notably high however, as almost every step was completely online, allowing anyone to engage with the initiative from home. However, inclusion was a concern for this initiative - while considerable effort was made towards including less technically savvy groups, the lack of attention to the poorest members of society was an issue, especially considering that a notable number of citizens in the municipality lacked access to the internet. On the government end, efficiency was a mixed bag as well. Certain stages were highly efficient due to essentially being self-governed phases for the participants, while others may have been less efficient due to the government's strict ratification process. This can be excused in the interest of creating higher quality projects but should be noted as a potential area for improvement. Additionally, the lack of any formal feedback mechanism decreased transparency and popular control, as participants were unable to determine if their decisions caused any tangible impact.
The issue of inclusion in this initiative is particularly highlighted when one compare this case to the original purpose of participatory budgeting: as a means for social justice and reform (Smith, 2009). This model tended to follow a more modernised approach that focused less on helping the poorest areas of society and more on promoting social engagement and improvement of established institutions, in a value-neutral manner (Ganuza and Baiocchi, 2012), going against the original purpose of Participatory Budgeting. While this makes the process more transferable to modernised societies, it defeats its initial purpose, further reflected by how many of the outcomes (such as improvements to public parks) were non-essential or cosmetic in nature. This would mean the poorest members of the municipality, who were already rather excluded from the process due to the lack of engagement initiatives for their group, didn’t benefit much from this innovation. Therefore, it can be argued that while results may have been reached, the initiative needed to do more to promote itself as a successful participatory budgeting scheme in the original definition.
To improve this initiative, a key focus should be the inclusion of the poorest members of society. Although the government did require signatures from 100 offline citizens, there was no quota for who the signatures could come from, meaning it was potentially ineffective at catching citizens that had no internet access. This can instead be achieved through quota sampling; however, it would be better to simply entrench initiatives that target poorer members such as outreach campaigns. Additionally, limiting the government's ability to control the outcomes of the initiative would be key to achieving greater popular control. Finally, changing the priorities of the initiative to be around helping critically impoverished areas instead of already developed ones would also be key for improving this participatory budgeting scheme (Vary, 2021).
Deliberative innovations in the same Commune of Chile
Citizenlab (2020). 24,450 citizens take part in Peñalolén’s participatory budget Online blog available at: https://www.citizenlab.co/blog/civic-engagement/24450-citizens-take-part-in-penalolens-participatory-budget/ (Accessed: May, 2021)
Ganuza, E. and Baiocchi, G. (2012). The Power of Ambiguity: How Participatory Budgeting Travels the Globe.
Magleby, David B. (1984). Direct Legislation: Voting on Ballot Propositions in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
Norris, P. (2001). Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide. Cambridge University Press
Smith, G. (2009). Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Theories of Institutional Design). Pages: 8-71, 151
Spada, P. and Allegretti, G. (2016) Integrating Multiple Channels of Engagement in Democratic Innovations: Opportunities and Challenges
The Monetary Fund, (2021) Online resource for tracking economic activity of countries around the globe. Available at: https://www.imf.org/en/Countries/CHL (Accessed May, 2021)
Vary, G. (2021). "Impact evaluation of ¡En mi barrio, Yo decido! - Online Participatory Budgeting in Peñalolén", essay submitted as final assessment in the 2021 Reinventing Democracy Class at University of Southampton
Wampler, B. (2012). Participatory Budgeting: Core Principles and Key Impacts
Wright, S. and Street, J. (2007). ‘Democracy, Deliberation and Design: The Case of Online Discussion Forums’, New Media and Society
Main website for the initiative: https://penalolenmascerca.cl/es-CL/
Useful article with quantitative data on the initiative: https://www.citizenlab.co/blog/civic-engagement/24450-citizens-take-part-in-penalolens-participatory-budget/
The main image used for this case was taken from the municipality of Peñalolén's twitter account: https://twitter.com/penalolen/status/1161367931067994112?