Martina Trettel, Eurac Research
Relevance of the Practice
Participatory Budgeting (PB) is currently one of the most used instruments of what has been described as ‘participatory democracy’. In the last ten years a massive employment of PB has been witnessed globally, especially at the local level. PB started in the City of Porto Alegre (Brazil) in 1989 and can be briefly described as a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget through consensual and deliberative approaches towards decision-making.
As in many other parts of the world, also in many local entities in Italy, PB has been practiced. Even if the Italian local practices of PB show similarities and commonalities in the way in which they are conceived and designed for allowing the participation of non-elected citizens in the allocation of public finances, each experience is unique since they take place in very specific (cultural, social, economic, political, geographical, etc.) environments with different preexisting conditions.
In South Tyrol, the experience of the municipality of Mals/Malles is particularly interesting in many respects. Mals has to face issues related to the urban-rural divide given that it is located in a remote mountainous area. The municipality only has ca. 5,000 inhabitants but it spreads over a huge territory of 250 km². This gives rise to big issues when it comes to involving citizens with instruments of participatory democracy. Furthermore, the current local administration has payed particular attention to the involvement of citizens through democratic innovations in the last years, that is also demonstrated by the fact that the regulation of the municipality includes an entire section on citizens participation.
Description of the Practice
The process of PB in Mals foresees that each citizen has the chance to submit proposals (maximum three) on how to allocate a specific portion of the budget (decided by the municipality on a yearly basis). The process has a yearly cycle that starts in September of each year. In the first phases, citizens advance proposals of projects to be implemented with the reserved resources. These proposals are then presented to fellow residents in dedicated assemblies organized by the municipality. Once the proposals are submitted and presented, the municipality checks the project’s legal, technical and financial feasibility in collaboration with a council of 15 randomly selected citizens. If a project or proposal is not feasible for one of these reasons, this must be indicated and justified. The projects that are admissible are published and put to an online vote. The projects are ranked and those getting the most votes are then implemented, until reaching the limit of the available resources.
As an example, under the 2016 PB (for 2017) citizens submitted 33 projects, out of which 10 were voted as ‘the best projects’. The 200,000 euros available that year allowed to finance all of them: nine projects have been implemented in 2017 and one in 2018.
As regulated by the municipality, further specific rules of PB in Mals are the following:
- any number of citizens can support a proposal. Members of the city council and the city committee are not allowed to submit proposals;
- proposals may concern investments in the municipality and savings in the municipal budget;
- if two or more proposals have the same purpose, they will be brought together after consultation with the participants;
- a proposal can only be submitted by one individual, but can be supported by other people with signatures;
- proposals from associations and interest groups are not allowed;
- anonymous suggestions and ideas will not be accepted;
- the submission of project proposals does not entail any legal obligation for the municipality of Mals;
- legal feasibility: The municipality of Mals must be responsible for this type of investment or activity; Financial feasibility: It must be possible to finance the proposal within the limits of the funds available but not yet committed for each year; Technical feasibility: The proposal must be technically feasible with a reasonable effort.
Assessment of the Practice
Generally speaking, participatory budgeting has filled a vacuum in an era when intermediate bodies such as churches, trade unions and parties have decreasing significance, which results in polarization between the municipality as political institution, on the one hand, and the individual, on the other. Participatory budgeting is a mechanism to link the two by involving people in local decision-making and in this respect the process is actually at least as important as the result. In the case of the PB in Mals this main objective of involving citizens in the formation of the budget has clearly been achieved. As in any other (face-to-face) practice of the so-called participatory democracy, the direct involvement concerns (especially in the first years) a small percentage of the entire population; however, in a small (and rural) municipality such as Mals, it is easier to involve a larger percentage of citizens given the limited number of inhabitants that facilitates the spread and exchange of information. As the PB process relied on self-selected participation, which is more prone to an imbalanced representation of opinions, it would be interesting how this issue was dealt with. After all, inclusiveness, i.e. the capacity of a participatory process to give voice to a plurality of opinions in order to enhance a decision’s legitimacy (also in the eyes of those not involved) is a key indicator for the assessment of any attempt to involve the local population in policy-making. As some observers pointed out, the practice has achieved in addition to participation also the aim of evaluating local policy-making in general and thus to reinforce the legitimacy of the local administration as the core of representative democracy.
Despite this specific aspect, there is evidence that the most voted ideas proposed by the citizens in the context of PB have been then translated into concrete actions by the local administration. Therefore, it is possible to affirm that the practice has been successful. Next to issues of implementation, it is a general limitation of participatory budgeting in many cases that it is more suited for immediate decisions than medium- or long-term choices and that these decisions often are not integrated into broader visions for the territory, thus entailing a certain risk of fragmentation and incoherence.
In general, we must be aware of the fact that PB processes often strongly depend on the political will of the municipality (especially its mayor). Hence, a change of the dominant political force can lead to the interruption of a practice of participatory democracy, such as the PB. This is an inherent limit of democratic innovations. Mals, however, went a step further by introducing in the regulation of the municipality (Statuto comunale) an explicit reference to the PB. This gives to this instrument a legal guarantee that the future local administration will not be able to simply ignore this instrument, even if there is no direct sanction for not using this new policymaking tool.
References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications
Alber E and Trettel M (eds), Partizipation und partizipative Demokratie in der Europaregion Tirol-Südtirol-Trentino. Denkanstöße und Beispiele (EURAC Research 2015)
Bassoli M, ‘Participatory Budgeting in Italy. An Analysis of (Almost Democratic) Participatory Governance Arrangements’ (2012) 36 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 1183
Benedikter T, ‘Bürgerhaushalt 2017 in Mals erfolgreich abgeschlossen‘ (Politis) <http://www.politis.it/161d509.html#.Xnxhh3J7k2x>
Boaventura de Sousa S, ‘Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre. Toward a Redistributive Democracy’ (1998) 26 Politics society 461
Elstub S, ‘Deliberative and Participatory Democracy’ in André Bächtiger, John S Dryzek, Jane J Mansbridge and Mark Warren (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (Oxford University Press 2018)
Ganuza E and Francés F, ‘The Deliberative Turn in Participation. The Problem of Inclusion and Deliberative Opportunities in Participatory Budgeting’ (2012) 4 European Political Science Review 283
Krenjova J and Raudla R, ‘Participatory Budgeting at the Local Level: Challenges and Opportunities for New Democracies’ (2013) 14 Halduskultuur – Administrative Culture 18
Public Policy Institute for Wales, ‘Participatory Budgeting: An Evidence Review’ (2017)
Röcke A, Framing Citizen Participation. Participatory Budgeting in France, Germany and the United Kingdom (Palgrave Macmillan 2014)
Sintomer Y, Herzberg C, Röcke A and Allegretti G, ‘Transnational Models of Citizen Participation. The Case of Participatory Budgeting’ (2012) 8 Journal of Public Deliberation
Wampler B, ‘A Guide to Participatory Budgeting’ (2000) <http://www.partizipation.at/fileadmin/media_data/Downloads/themen/A_guide_to_PB.pdf>
—— ‘Participatory Budgeting. Core Principles and Key Impacts’ (2012) 8 Journal of Public Deliberation —— and Hartz-Karp J, ‘Participatory Budgeting. Diffusion and Outcomes Across the World’ (2012) 8 Journal of Public Deliberation 8
 Stephen Elstub, ‘Deliberative and Participatory Democracy’ in André Bächtiger, John S Dryzek, Jane J Mansbridge and Mark Warren (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (Oxford University Press 2018).
 Yves Sintomer, Carstberg Herzberg, Anja Röcke and Giovanni Allegretti, ‘Transnational Models of Citizen Participation. The Case of Participatory Budgeting’ (2012) 8 Journal of Public Deliberation; Brian Wampler, ‘Participatory Budgeting. Core Principles and Key Impacts’ (2012) 8 Journal of Public Deliberation; Brian Wampler and Janette Hartz-Karp, ‘Participatory Budgeting. Diffusion and Outcomes Across the World’ (2012) 8 Journal of Public Deliberation; Public Policy Institute for Wales, ‘Participatory Budgeting: An Evidence Review’ (2017).
 Santos Boaventura de Sousa, ‘Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre. Toward a Redistributive Democracy’ (1998) 26 Politics society 461.
 Brian Wampler, ‘A Guide to Participatory Budgeting’ (2000) <http://www.partizipation.at/fileadmin/media_data/Downloads/themen/A_guide_to_PB.pdf>; Ernesto Ganuza and Francisco Francés, ‘The Deliberative Turn in Participation. The Problem of Inclusion and Deliberative Opportunities in Participatory Budgeting’ (2012) 4 European Political Science Review 283; Anja Röcke, Framing Citizen Participation. Participatory Budgeting in France, Germany and the United Kingdom (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).
 Matteo Bassoli, ‘Participatory Budgeting in Italy. An Analysis of (Almost Democratic) Participatory Governance Arrangements’ (2012) 36 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 1183.
 Valter Canafoglia, ‘Cicli procedurali dei Bilanci Partecipativi: alcuni esempi italiani’ in Umberto Allegretti (ed), Esperienze e prospettive in Italia e in Europa (Firenze University Press 2010).
 Jelizaveta Krenjova and Ringa Raudla, ‘Participatory Budgeting at the Local Level: Challenges and Opportunities for New Democracies’ (2013) 14 Halduskultuur – Administrative Culture 18.
 Elisabeth Alber and Martina Trettel, Partizipation und partizipative Demokratie in der Europaregion Tirol-Südtirol-Trentino. Denkanstöße und Beispiele (EURAC Research 2015); Elisabeth Alber, Alice Engl and Günther Pallaver (eds), Politika 2018. Südtiroler Jahrbuch für Politik (Raetia 2018).
 Interview with Gianfranco Pomatto, Researcher, IRES Piedmont (15 June 2021).
 Statement by Gianfranco Pomatto, Researcher, IRES Piedmont (LoGov Country Workshop, Public Participation in Local Decision-Making, 19 March 2021).
 Interview with Fulvio Cortese, Director, Faculty of Law, University of Trento (23 June 2021).
 Interview with Giovanni Allegretti, Senior Researcher, Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra (23 June 2021).