09 May 2024

Participatory democracy: case studies and best practices | EFIVOS Articles


Author: Sabina Spătariu

The meaning of participatory democracy can vary depending on the situation. Sometimes it can be simple things that you can think of, such as going to vote or sending a letter to your representative and in some cases, it may involve writing a project for your community.  
Participatory democracy has existed in some form or another since ancient civilizations. For example, in Athens during the 5th century, there was a special place where people could participate in public assemblies and discuss and decide upon important issues. The participatory democracy we have today was created based on that idea, despite it having been created in much smaller communities.

The definition of participatory democracy is not fixed, but several political scientists have conducted research on it over the years. One of them is Carole Pateman, a British political scientist who made significant contributions to political philosophy, feminist theory, and social theory. 

One of her books, Participation and Democratic Theory, was published in 1970 and outlines some key concepts such as citizens' involvement, democratic participation beyond voting, and challenges and critiques.

To put it simply, participatory democracy involves actively participating in your community and in the decision-making process. Not only through representatives, but also in a more direct way, citizens can shape policies, laws, and other aspects of governance. 

From Brazil to Spain, or India, participatory democracy takes different forms, but a common goal remains: citizens are always at the center of policy form.

Participatory Budgeting

The first city in the world to implement participatory budgeting was Porto Alegre, Brazil, which implemented it for the first time in 1989  The process of participatory budgeting allows citizens to choose how a specific amount of money from the municipal or local budget is allocated.  

Participatory budgeting is well defined and governed by three principles in Porto Alegre. The fundamental ideas are: 

  • (a) all citizens are entitled to participate, community organizations having no special status or prerogative in this regard;
  • (b) participation is governed by a combination of direct and representative democracy rules and takes place through regularly functioning institutions whose internal rules are decided upon by the participants; 
  • (c) investment resources are allocated according to an objective method based on a combination of “general criteria”—substantive criteria established by the participatory institutions to define priorities—and “technical criteria”—criteria of technical or economic viability as defined by the executive and federal, state, or city legal norms—that are up to the executive to implement.

There are also three kinds of institutional setups for participatory budgeting. 

The institutions that are responsible for overseeing the budgetary debate with the citizens, such as: Gabinete de Planejamento (Planning Office), Coordenação de Relações com as Comunidades (Coordination of Relations with the Communities), Fórum das Assessorias de Planejamento (Forum of Advisors for Planning) and Fórum das Assessorias Comunitárias (Forum of Community Advisors).

The second kind of institutions are community organizations, which have autonomy vis-à-vis the municipal government. The majority of them are centered around regional organizations that facilitate citizen participation and the selection of priorities for city regions.

The third type of institution is responsible for the interaction between the first two. For instance, Conselho do Plano do Governo e Orçamento (Council of the Government Plan and Budget), also known as Conselho do Orçamento Participativo (Participatory Budgeting Council, henceforth COP) and Assembleias Plenárias Regionais (Regional Plenary Assemblies).

According to the number, the peak was in 2002, when there were over 17,000 citizens involved in the process of participatory budgeting.  They decided how to allocate 160 million dollars of public money. 

Case Studies

Another example, but this time utilizing the digital advantages that can be found in Spain.
In 2016, Barcelona began implementing participatory democracy through digital tools. 

Decidim Barcelona, a digital platform, has been launched by the Barcelona City Council. The main purpose of the platform is to enhance citizen participation in municipal governance and decision-making processes.  

The platform allows citizens, community groups, and organizations to submit proposals, participate in discussions, and engage in decision-making processes. Furthermore, there are two additional instruments on the platform that residents of Barcelona can make use of. Citizens can use an interactive map on Decidim Barcelona to visualize proposals, projects, and initiatives throughout the city and an event calendar that helps them stay informed about opportunities for engagement and involvement.
The platform aims to maintain and promote transparency by allowing users to track the progress of a proposed project or initiative through its platform.

One of the cities that implemented participation tools later than the other cities is Resita. A city in Romania that has a population of around 60,000. The city implemented for the first time participatory budgeting in 2023, providing citizens with 1 million RON . Citizens were able to write and submit projects on urban mobility or public space planning. 

A Council of Participatory Budgeting has been established at the City Hall, which consists of both residents and organizations. They had the role of informing citizens and promoting their organization in initiative groups to come up with ideas. The first edition had 9 projects submitted by citizens. The citizens of the city will vote on the projects and the ones that win will be implemented this year.  

The implementation of participatory democracy instruments differs significantly around the world, and that's not necessarily a negative thing. We have been able to learn and take advantage of the new tools we have thanks to the internet.  

Participatory democracy is constantly evolving and striving to meet the needs of citizens worldwide. Participation in democratic life is our responsibility as citizens, using the tools we are fortunate to have.


This article is published under the framework of the EFIVOS project. EFIVOS is an initiative aimed at increasing knowledge and awareness of EU institutions, policies, and democratic procedures. This podcast has been funded through project 101081482 — EFIVOS in Europe — CERV-2022-CITIZENS-CIV.

​​The European Commission support for the production of this article does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflect the view only of the authors, and the Commission can not be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.