Recife Participatory Budgeting

Recife Participatory Budgeting

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Note: a German translation of this case is available at


Problems and Purpose

Brazilian budget laws require the executive branch to present the budget proposal to the legislative for approval each year, but how the executive chooses to develop the budget is open. This is the starting point for Participatory Budget (PB) initiatives as a whole, with the executive sharing the discussion of priorities with the population. Since 2001 Recife, located in the state of Pernambuco, has used a participatory budgeting scheme with three components that interweave throughout the budget cycle: the Regional PB, the Thematic PB and the Child PB. The process allows citizens to determine how their city develops and forums on specific themes allow residents to set priorities in 15 different policy making areas such as culture, education, and senior and youth services. Every other year, moreover, school students join in to make suggestions for improving their educational experience and to help turn their ideas into reality.


The first two components began with the new government in 2001, followed by the third in 2002. As its name suggests, the Regional PB has a specifically territorial focus and is concerned with allocating public resources for infrastructure and public works projects in the areas of road paving, sewage, housing, etc. The Thematic PB takes a citywide approach to discussing public policy initiatives related to key issue areas and sectors. The first of these were social services, culture, urban development, economic development, education, women and health, but they later went on to include more sensitive questions in the areas of equality and human rights. In some cases, such as Brazil’s universal health-care system, these are also connected to other participatory management structures. In the Child PB, the city’s schoolchildren discuss the needs of their schools as well as those of their city and communities. (Following the electoral model, participation in the Regional and Thematic PBs is open to all residents over 16 years of age).

Experiences with public consultation are not new to Recife (the Portuguese word for ―reef) and often referred to as the “Venice of Brazil” for its cutting waterways. As long ago as 1940, citizens’ committees were set up at the neighborhood level to discuss public policies. In the period preceding the military coup of 1964, Recife was also a hotspot for social action and discussion. As the transition to civil rule and democracy got underway (1978–82), the then-appointed mayor introduced a series of community-based service centers with links to community associations.

In the events preceding the 1988 constitution, expectations and demands for practical change were high. In many parts of the country, progressive governments were elected at the municipal level but found themselves without the financial resources needed to meet these demands. Faithful to election platforms of openness, the incoming administrations decided to discuss priorities directly with local residents and initiated the process currently known as participatory budgeting (PB).

In Recife, a first attempt at participation was made in 1993 under the title of City Hall in the Neighborhood. The focus was on priorities in planning, but little progress was made, and the initiative lost steam in the following mandate. Among the reasons for this were conflicts between the legislative and the executive over the loss of legislative power, problems of institutionalization and the fact that no serious attempts were made to monitor the practical and financial aspects of planned actions. In the run-up to the 2000 elections, there was much debate about the importance of effective participation. The winning candidate proposed a new participatory budget as a central aspect of a new democratic management approach. He and his team saw the PB as going beyond a choice of investments, and they wanted to encourage much broader local civic participation involving codetermination and the effective social control over investments and the public budget.

Originating Entities and Funding

The PB program costs the municipality roughly €385,000 ($543,000) a year, much of which is spent on communication, electronic voting systems and support for meetings. Although the budget team in the mayor’s office is small, it is supported by a number of street-level public-service workers in different policy areas. In 2010, some 70 additional staff members were involved, and there were also 80 volunteers to assist in the backstage organization of forums, plenary sessions and other meetings (e.g., helping with registration and voting, checking identities and organizing documents and refreshments, when necessary).

In 2011, Recife PB received the first ever €150,000 ($211590) Reinhard Mohn prize for participatory budgeting, awarded through Bertelsmann Stiftung. [1] 11,600 members of the German public, selected to reflect the makeup of the general population, were asked to vote online for one of seven finalists, who had been selected from an initial list of 123 programs and project. [2]

Participant Recruitment and Selection

 Throughout the year, city employees and volunteers in each of the city's neighborhoods encourage people to get involved. Recife's residents elect delegates, for example, who monitor participatory processes from start to finish and who even help determine the city's budget. Following the electoral model, participation in the Regional and Thematic PBs is open to all residents over 16 years of age. Out of a population of 1.6 million people, more than 100,000 adults and young people join local forums or make themselves heard via Internet each year to determine policy making goals, suggest new programs and monitor implementation of municipal activities. Since the city's participatory budgeting system was established in 2001, more than 3,000 projects have been selected and implemented by ordinary citizens, with a majority of the committed funds going to poorer neighborhoods. According to statements made by Recife's residents, the situation has improved markedly thanks to the participatory measures, particularly for disadvantaged groups.

Methods and Tools Used

This initiative is an example of participatory budgeting, a method of democratic innovation broadly described as "a decision-making process through which citizens deliberate and negotiate over the distribution of public resources." There are many benefits associated with participatory budgeting including increased civic and democratic education; increased government transparency; and an increased opportunity for participation by historically marginalized populations.[1

Recife’s PB has three components that interweave throughout the budget cycle: the Regional PB, the Thematic PB and the Child PB. The first two components began with the new government in 2001, followed by the third in 2002. As its name suggests, the Regional PB has a specifically territorial focus and is concerned with allocating public resources for infrastructure and public works projects in the areas of road paving, sewage, housing, etc. The Thematic PB takes a citywide approach to discussing public policy initiatives related to key issue areas and sectors. The first of these were social services, culture, urban development, economic development, education, women and health, but they later went on to include more sensitive questions in the areas of equality and human rights. In some cases, such as Brazil’s universal health-care system, these are also connected to other participatory management structures. In the Child PB, the city’s schoolchildren discuss the needs of their schools as well as those of their city and communities. 

According to the Observatory of Public Sector Innovations, Recife's PB uses four engagement tools:

  1. "Generating proposals for the most important projects or service changes to consider for the next year.
  2. Getting citizens to vote on these, so that the priorities can be established
  3. Refining these priority projects/service changes, so that they are more practical and cost-effective.
  4. Monitoring the implementation of the agreed (and refined) priority projects."[3]

Deliberation, Decisions and Public Interaction

Eight-Step Process

1) Informational Meetings

These are held each year between January and March to explain how the PB works and encourage participation. Meetings take place in communities after being either directly requested by residents or called by public-sector employees working at the street level in these communities. The PB coordinators may be invited to take part in these meetings to explain how the PB works. Meetings vary in size from 20 to 200 people. The 2010 cycle mobilized approximately 8,000 people.

2) Registering Demands for the Regional PB Process

The second phase, which usually takes place between April and May, sees groups of a minimum of 10 citizens submit demands. Each group can only submit up to two territory-based demands that need to be in different areas of public concern (e.g., education and paving, housing and sewage, economic development and health, etc.). These are then examined and approved by PB coordinators for financial, technical and institutional feasibility. In 2010, approximately 600 demands were registered, most of which were validated and then put up for voting.

3) Plenary Session

a. Regional Plenary Sessions 

The first cycle of regional plenary sessions is held in June and July. These take place at the microregional level and may vary in number depending on the size, organization and geographical extension of each microregion. The Regional PB is the forum for deciding on all infrastructure investments, which currently account for roughly 10 percent of total municipal expenditures. The Regional PB places emphasis on local residents and neighborhood relationships, The City of Recife has been divided into six political administrative regions (PARs), each of which has three 'micro-regions' (18 in total). Residents can only register and vote (using their national identification numbers) in one microregion; although this is usually their own, it is still open. Each of the 18 microregions will vote for what residents consider the 10 most important projects or actions in a process that results in 180 total demands. Once the top 10 demands for each microregion are known, the electronic ballot voting begins. Two electronic voting booths are provided to each micro-region, and residents who were not able to participate in the first round of voting are invited to vote for one of the 10 priorities from their microregion, thereby establishing a hierarchy of urgency and importance. Electronic booth voting began three years ago and is part of the evolution and extension of the traditional PB program toward the Internet.

b. Thematic Plenary Sessions

The Thematic PB plenary sessions take place halfway through the cycle, toward the end of July. First, the previous year’s delegates meet to draw up the six most important priority issues for each thematic area, which are then presented for discussion and voting at the plenary sessions.  Following this are 15 plenary sessions covering culture, education, social assistance, male afro-descendants, women afro-descendants, human rights, women, economic development, tourism, environment, youth, elderly persons, disabled persons, LGBT3 and health. Three priorities are chosen, and new delegates are elected (again, one delegate for every 10 participants) to carry the work through into the next year. The Thematic PB relates to the city as a whole, and meetings are held in places with easy general access. Their role is to discuss and develop policy initiatives on a citywide basis. The discussions and decisions of the Thematic PB affect the overall budget in several ways. Firstly, in terms of direct investment: Of the overall annual investment budget of some €170 ($240) million, at least €13.7 million is allocated directly through the Thematic PB. Secondly, the Thematic PB plays a crucial role in mainstreaming key social concerns and in giving legitimacy and visibility to minority groups. Thirdly, in addition to the municipality’s own direct investments, there are also other sources of funding from state and federal governments, which totaled €100 ($141) million in the 2010 budget plan. An increasingly significant proportion of these funds are provided for priority program areas that also address thematic concerns.

4) The Delegate Forums

In August, once the voting is over, the Thematic and Regional PB forums are initiated. These forums are made up of all elected delegates and will meet once a month. The regional forums will elect two representatives per microregion to serve as ―forum coordinator and two others to serve as overall ―PB councilors. The forum coordinators of all the microregions are joined by a member of the municipal administration who will be responsible for serving as a intermediary for and in discussions with the executive, which includes inviting secretariat and departmental heads to forum meetings, when necessary. The forums monitor and follow up on the investments and deliberations undertaken in the PB program, not only for the cycle in which the delegates are elected, but also for decisions voted on in previous cycles. They also provide an important and decisive channel between the population and the local government, going beyond PB monitoring to raise demands regarding matters such as public service delivery and maintenance of public spaces. In a similar way, the Thematic PB forums also have their own forum coordinators and PB councilors.

5) The City Participatory Budgeting Council

This council is the keystone of the whole PB structure. It is composed of two representatives from each microregional and thematic PB forum as well as one representative from each of the advisory municipal co-management councils for public policy issues mandated by the constitution. The council is responsible for discussing and developing the budget matrix proposal that will incorporate the different priorities presented throughout the PB process. The delegates are provided with training in

6) Voting the Budget Matrix Proposal

The fifth phase, which takes place in August and September, sees the budget matrix proposal gradually take shape in the different meetings and plenary sessions. It is also worked on by the PB Council, which is responsible for this task, though it maintains constant contact with the regions and thematic assembles through the delegates as well as with the various municipal secretariats, especially the Finance Secretariat. Once ready, the budget matrix proposal is voted on by the PB Council.

7) Convincing the Municipal Legislative Representative

Phase six generally takes place each year during October and November. Between five and seven PB councilors are selected to present the proposal to the municipal legislative council and to convince the legislators that the proposal represents the will of the people. Although this is the formal moment in the cycle when the legislative ―receives‖ the budget, it is not the first time that they will have seen its content. Rather, many councilors take an active role in the budget cycle process, discussing key issues of either territorial or thematic concern. The legislative council has yet to reject or adjust any PB proposals, including ones that were large or extensive in scope.

8) Deliberation on the Investment Plan

The seventh and final phase of the PB cycle takes place in December. Once the general budget matrix has been approved and the 10 demands have been ranked in each microregion, the regional forums begin discussing the details of the specific projects as well as reallocation issues. Each infrastructure development priority to be voted on will have its own project. When the project is presented to the community, local residents are allowed to participate in an open discussion of the project and to suggest what they consider to be necessary changes. During this meeting, a monitoring commission is elected to follow-up on the implementation of each project or activity.

Child Participatory Budgeting

The Child PB follows a similar logic but with a two-year cycle linked to the school calendar. In 2010, the Child PB entered its fifth cycle. All 223 municipal elementary and primary schools—educating some 89,000 children from five to 15 years of age—are involved.

At the beginning of each cycle, school directors are informed about how the Child PB will take place, and a coordinator (a teacher or specialist advisor) is elected in each school to supervise the PB process. In the second phase, school directors discuss with their teaching staff how to implement the Child PB as well as any necessary adaptations for their school. The students join the process in the third phase. Two delegates are elected from a list of current class representatives to represent the school in outside meetings. Through a pedagogical classroom approach, students use drawings and/or text to identify the needs and wishes for both the school and the city. These wishes and demands are compiled and discussed within the school, and then concrete proposals are developed. It is only after this phase that students can vote for their favorite projects.

Students vote on three priorities for the school and three for the city. The school coordinators will deliver the priorities they have voted on to the city hall, where municipal authorities then group them together and feed them fed back to the student delegates at special regional plenary sessions. In turn, the student delegates discuss the priorities of their schools and present them to the mayor as well as electing the members of the student PB council. These councilors will visit all PB project sites and meet with delegates from the regular PB processes and the city legislature. After checking the technical, financial and institutional feasibility of the Child PB proposals, the proposals made for the city that had not already been picked up in the adult PB process are added to the list. Proposals for the individual schools are implemented as soon as funding is available.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Between 2001 (when the PB began) and 2010, some €220 ($310) million was spent on projects and improvements decided upon directly through the PB process. This does not include either the federal- and state-level cooperation agreements or international donor funds used to implement projects or campaigns that had been previously voted on. Since projects and public works have different implementation cycles, values will overlap from one year to the next. For example, in the middle of 2010, some 3,000 different public works and some 77 programs and projects were being implemented at a total budget cost of €110 ($155) million. Public acceptance of the PB process can be seen not only by its growth, but also by the facts that the mayor was re-elected to a second term (2005–2008) and that his successor in office (2009–2012) was the former secretary in charge of the PB program and had made continuity and the deepening of the PB program a key part of his electoral platform.

Many PB cycles in Brazil and elsewhere start with municipal authorities setting the amount available for the budget cycle (which is often only part of the investment budget). Likewise, municipal authorities are often more concerned with voting on general issues before specific projects (e.g., whether education should be given higher priority than health or housing). When the two come together—whether intentionally or not—the effect is one of setting limits on participation. However, in Recife, the opposite approach has been taken and, in doing so, the city has gone on to create a very practical and highly effective process that is both community-based and bottom-up.

As citizens have become more aware of the participatory process and assumed more ownership of it, their rates of participation in both the regional and thematic plenary sessions have grown. This can be seen, for example, by the larger number of attendees and the increase in the number of elected delegates. In addition, through the Child PB, schoolchildren are also being given a voice and an opportunity to express the needs of their own schools in addition to those of their city and communities. This program fosters the development of responsive, critical, engaged and participative young citizens.

In most cases, the types of urban infrastructure projects undertaken are ones that outside observers would also categorize as addressing key needs. The amounts invested in projects closely mirror the preferences of voters, whether they involve local or major drainage activities, paving or improving roads, housing, making hillsides secure against slippage, sewage and basic sanitation, health, education, sports, economic development or social services. This relationship shows that the PB program has become a significant feature of democratic life in Recife. What’s more, the open budget process and widespread civic engagement have also led to a better distribution of public funds. Indeed, there has been a significantly greater number of public works projects completed in the lower HDI areas than in the higher ones (there is almost a straight-line correlation in terms of funds deployed), and the investment budget as a whole is contributing to reversing past trends of unequal territorial degradation and unequal opportunities for improvement.

Generating effective impacts on quality of life is a long process and involves not just the investment budget, but many other budget-based activities as well. Here, too, the fact that the budget process not only deals with investment projects, but also discusses thematic issues and brings these into the general process of building the budget is helping link previously unconnected actions and generate greater impacts. Drainage, paving and the elimination of hillside slippage helps with sanitation, which reduces health risks while simultaneously improving the flow of people and services. This, in turn, makes it easier for social services and family health programs to move around the community and visit the people they serve on a regular basis. Undoing the complexity of social exclusion involves realizing that exclusion is both a social and a material process. The PB program has changed the way in which municipal employees—and especially those in street-level jobs—relate to the population, and it provides a natural introduction for discussing what is taking place and following up on local campaigns. It is not surprising that social workers and other local development workers can be found supporting all sorts of PB activities on top of performing their everyday tasks.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

One concern related to the complexity of the budget process in Brazil, where the budget laws authorize but do not determine expenditures. Citizens are deciding on projects, action and priorities, which are brought together in the budget matrix. The municipal authorities are committed to implementing the projects and actions but, as has been mentioned, some of these may require additional funds or be linked to inter-governmental transfers, while others may need to wait for their moment in the processing and purchasing queue for public works. The result is that citizens may experience severe delays in seeing their top priority implemented. This situation has improved, and the implementation period is now down from six years to three, but there is still a need to improve communication about the purchasing status of each project. Once the project implementation begins, the local follow-up and monitoring commissions guarantee the flow of information; but, until then, keeping people informed about what is happening with the project or campaign they are most concerned with is a challenge that still needs to be met. This can be seen by the fact that many projects are voted on as top priorities year after year.

Second, the role of the NGOs has changed considerably for the PB processes before and after 2001. Before 2001, they played a key role in ensuring that certain local issues were addressed, and they served as a bridge between municipal authorities and communities. Since 2001, they have pursued a more direct democracy approach and reduced their direct involvement. Although not as facilitators, they continue to be active in the Thematic PB forums as representatives, and they continue to play a key role in ensuring government transparency and accountability. Recife needs to work to adequately access and integrate NGOs in way which maintains the integrity of local based citizen preferences through the PB process.


Secondary Sources




External Links

This article draws in part on the program description prepared for Recife's nomination to receive the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize from the Bertelsmann Foundation. See [BROKEN LINK]
UPDATE: similar content is available here: "Finalists for the Reinhard Mohn Prize 2011: Recife Participatory Budgeting" "Recife Participatory Budgeting" -- case study in Governance International, July 2012


Another version of this case study can be found below as a file attachment with the prefix "VD". This alternate version was originally submitted to Vitalizing Democracy as a contestant for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize.

Case Data


General Issue(s): 


Recife , PE
8° 3' 15.4008" S, 34° 52' 52.5216" W
Pernambuco BR


Start Date: 
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End Date: 
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Number of Meeting Days: 
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Targeted Participants (Demographics): 
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If yes, were they ...: 
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Facetoface, Online or Both: 
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Who paid for the project or initiative?: 
City of Recife
Who was primarily responsible for organizing the initiative?: 
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Who else supported the initiative? : 
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Total Budget: 
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Average Annual Budget: 
US$543 000.00
Number of Full-Time Staff: 
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Staff Type: 
Paid and Volunteer
Number of Volunteers: 
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