Models for Participatory Budgeting

Participatory Budgeting (PB) has become a schizophrenic term, used as easily by neoliberal technocrats as it has been used by leftists seeking redistribution of wealth. As such, examining the function of any PB scheme with a critical lens is essential to determine whether it is an attempt to redistribute resources and power, or a tool to manufacture consent for the status quo and undermine/co-opt forces of resistance. While the goal of this analysis is not to delve deeply into the technical minutiae around the different processes, there is one clarification which may be useful to make at the beginning of the section. Much of what is often called PB could also be considered “participatory urban planning.” The distinction is that while budgeting denotes an explicit focus on allocating a discrete set of funds, planning seeks to take a more comprehensive survey of people's feelings, needs and problems, and generates a list of interventions based upon that feedback. Many straddle the line and include elements of both. This section will focus on processes which allocate revenue directly, will help explain why some interventions (Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund) will receive more direct attention and others (New York Cities Participatory Planning sessions) might receive less.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) has become a schizophrenic term, used as easily by neoliberal technocrats as it has been used by leftists seeking redistribution of wealth. As such, examining the function of any PB scheme with a critical lens is essential to determine whether it is an attempt to redistribute resources and power, or a tool to manufacture consent for the status quo and undermine/co-opt forces of resistance.
While the goal of this analysis is not to delve deeply into the technical minutiae around the different processes, there is one clarification which may be useful to make at the beginning of the section. Much of what is often called PB could also be considered “participatory urban planning.” The distinction is that while budgeting denotes an explicit focus on allocating a discrete set of funds, planning seeks to take a more comprehensive survey of people's feelings, needs and problems, and generates a list of interventions based upon that feedback. Many straddle the line and include elements of both. This section will focus on processes which allocate revenue directly, will help explain why some interventions (Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund) will receive more direct attention and others (New York Cities Participatory Planning sessions) might receive less.

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Part III. Models for Participatory Budgeting

Prepared By: Lawrence Grandpre,

Director of Research, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle

When asking about Participatory Budgeting, it’s a bit like a Rorschach inkblot test. You’re

learning a lot about the person you’re talking to.

Brian Levy- World Bank

Participatory Budgeting (PB) has become a schizophrenic term, used as easily by neoliberal

technocrats as it has been used by leftists seeking redistribution of wealth. As such, examining the

function of any PB scheme with a critical lens is essential to determine whether it is an attempt to

redistribute resources and power, or a tool to manufacture consent for the status quo and

undermine/co-opt forces of resistance.

While the goal of this analysis is not to delve deeply into the technical minutiae around the

different processes, there is one clarification which may be useful to make at the beginning of the

section. Much of what is often called PB could also be considered “participatory urban planning.”

The distinction is that while budgeting denotes an explicit focus on allocating a discrete set of

funds, planning seeks to take a more comprehensive survey of people's feelings, needs and

problems, and generates a list of interventions based upon that feedback. Many straddle the line

and include elements of both. This section will focus on processes which allocate revenue directly,

will help explain why some interventions (Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund) will receive

more direct attention and others (New York Cities Participatory Planning sessions) might receive


An analysis of the most famous example of PB serves as a framework from which we can

begin to interpret the variability of PB models and isolate best practices. The most influential form

of PB was established in Porto Alegre, Brazil in the 1980s. After years of rule by a military

dictatorship, open elections lead to leftist governments taking power locally. They sought to

produce a new form of participatory governance which attempts to establish open, democratic

meetings which would help determine where civic resources are allocated. While the process has

evolved over the years, Boaventum de Sousa Santos gives a detailed overview of the functioning

of a PB council in Brazil which can serve as a starting point for understanding the model:

“...rodadas are open to the individual participation of any inhabitant of the city, as well as

to the delegates of civic organizations and associations, even though in the Regional

Assemblies only local residents are entitled to vote. They are coordinated by members of

the municipal government (CRC, CROP and GAPLAN) as well as by PB delegates and

councilors. Before the annual assemblies, there are preparatory meetings of the citizens

that ordinarily take place during the month of March, in total autonomy and without the

interference of the municipality. The aim of these preparatory meetings is to collect the

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demands and claims of individual citizens, grassroots movements, and community

institutions, concerning regional or thematic issues; they also initiate community

mobilization to select regional delegates. These meetings are crucial to ventilate

community demands and to discuss their relative priority. These meetings are convened

and chaired by the popular councils or by the community leaderships and are at times very

conflictual, since the different political orientations of the community organizations

surface in the identification and formulation of demands, and tend to impregnate the whole

debate. Below, I shall deal with the issue of the autonomy of these meetings, as well as the

autonomy of the intermediate-meetings mentioned next.

The first rodada of assemblies, held in March and April, has the following objectives: a

rendering of accounts, by the executive, of the Investment Plan of the previous year and

presentation of the Plan approved for the current budget; the evaluation, by the citizens

(by region or themes) and the executive, of the Investment Plan of the previous year; the

first partial election of the delegates to the Fora of Delegates (regional and thematic); the

remaining regional or thematic delegates will be elected during the next step of the process.

The regional assemblies are open to the public but only the registered inhabitants of the

region have the right to vote. The evolution of the criterion to determine the number of

delegates to the regional and thematic fora bears Witness to the increasing involvement of

the citizens in the PB…

This option reflects the Prefeitura’s concern with getting -more people

involved in the PB. The delegates elected in the first round of plenary assemblies and then

in the “intermediary meetings” are usually indicated by the leaders of the associations

present at the meetings. Thus, a citizen not integrated in a collective structure does not

have much chance of being elected delegate (more on this below).

Between the first and the second rodada of the assemblies, March through

June, the so—called intermediate preparatory meetings take place. They are

organized by the community or thematic organizations and associations,

though now “coached” by the regional or thematic CROP and other rep—

resentatives of the executive...The levels of conflictuality depend on the level of community

organization and on the level of political polarization among the leaderships. At these

intermediate meetings each region or theme hierarchizes the sectorial priorities. ...On the

basis of these priorities and hierarchies, adding up the grades of the different priorities in

all the regions the executive establishes the three first priorities of the budget in

preparation. In the course of years, housing, sewerage, paving and land legalization

(regularization of landed property) have been the commonest themes of the three main

priorities, the order of priority oscillating amongst them. For instance, for the 2001 budget

the three priorities were: paving (34 points), housing (32 points), and sewerage (27 points).

During the past few years, education and health care have emerged as priorities.

The second rodada of Regional and Thematic Assemblies held in june and

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July is coordinated and chaired by representatives of the executive in conjunction with the

popular organizations of the region or theme.

The structure of the meetings is as follows: the executive presents the most

important principles of the fiscal and revenue policies and expenditure

policies that will have a bearing on the preparation of the budget for the fol

lowing year; the executive also proposes the general criteria for the

distribution of investment resources.

The delegates of the communities present to the citizens and the executive the hierarchized

demands approved in the intermediate meetings (regional or thematic). I in these

assemblies two effective councilors and two substitutes in every region and theme are

elected for the COP (participatory budgeting council). The councilors are elected for a

one—year mandate and can be re—elected only once. ...The Fora of Delegates are

collegiate organs with consulting, controlling, and mobilizing functions. The Fora meet

once a month and the two major tasks of the delegates are to supervise the works and to

act as intermediaries between the COP and the regions or thematic areas. As we will see

below, the information flows are not without problems.

The COP is the main participatory institution. It plans, proposes, super—

vises, and deliberates on the budget’s revenue and expenditure (Budgetary

Proposal). There the elected citizens get acquainted with the municipal

finances, discuss and establish the general criteria for resource allocation, and

defend the priorities of regions and themes. At the Council sessions the insti—

tutional mediation between citizens and community organizations on one

side and municipal government on the other concerning budgetary decisions is conducted

at the most concrete and intense level. Once inaugurated in July/August, the Council meets

once a week on a set day, usually from 6 to 8 pm.” (Santos, 2007).

While Santos provides detail, we can take a few overarching themes from Brazil’s PB

process found in the work of Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza. In their book, “Popular

Democracy,” they attempt to isolate a few key threats from the Brazilian experiences. First, Porto

Alegre explicitly framed democratic participation through a liberal lens, explicitly framing

individuals in the assemblies as individuals and not recognizing them as representatives of

institutional affiliations (Baicchi and Ganuza, 2017). This was designed to extend democratic

participation beyond those who are affiliated with groups which articulate their interests to power.

The powerfully entrenched civil society institutions have sought to monopolize access to decision

makers. In a country emerging from years of military rule, PB was selected as a mechanism to

prevent factionalism from overwhelming politics and to create a new outlet for democratic citizen

input. Community facilitators guided conversations, with a focus on articulating a popular mandate

for political prioritization over closing down conversations due to an abstracted notion of

“technical expertise” (ibid).

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As the 80s turned into the 90s, Porto Alegre backed the nascent PB with robust

administrative reform. Processes used to democratically allocate resources via PB allowed officials

to push through a regional tax hike, creating robust administrative reform to match the

communicative information flow established in the assemblies. Indeed, Baiocchi and Ganuza note

that given these administrative reforms that used popular pressure to substantially increase tax

revenues, Porto Alegre’s PB sessions were not just about citizen participation. They were about

meeting a leftist government’s popular mandate for economic redistribution, as they write:

“The years of 1990 and 1991 were devoted to recuperating the financial and investment

capacity of the municipality. Expenditure control combined with municipal fiscal reform

and larger federal and state transferences allowed by the 1988 Constitution were the

policies that increased investment percentage of the budget to 10 per cent in 1990, 16.3

per cent in 1991, and 17 per cent in 1992. As regards the municipal fiscal reform,

progressivity was introduced in the tax on urban property (IPTU, Property Tax on Urban

Land and Homeownership), the ISSQN (literally, tax on any kind of service), and several

tariffs concerning municipal services were updated (for instance, garbage collection) and

indexed to inflation (then skyrocketing) at the same time that the surveillance of tax and

tariff payments was made more efficient. The most dramatic change concerned the IPTU

and the ISSQN. In the case of the former, in 1990 it amounted to 5.8 per cent of municipal

revenue, in 1992 it reached 13.8 per cent, and today it varies between 17 and 18 per cent.

The ISSQN represented 20 per cent of the municipal revenue in 1998.

The tax reform, which was crucial to relaunch the popular administration, had to be

approved by the Cfimara de Vereadores. Because the Popular Front did not have the

majority in the Cainara, the PT and the executive promoted a massive mobilization of the

popular classes to pressure the legislators to approve the tax reform law. As Tarso Genro

recalls, the rightist and centrist legislators, taken by surprise, could not understand why

the people would pressure them to raise taxes (Harnecker, 1993: 10).” (Ibid).

During the 90s, the Porto Alegre model became known worldwide and began to be exported to

other countries as an innovative new approach to civic participatory governance.

It is in the context of how this model was exported that we find the seeds of the limitations,

critiques and potential cooptions of participatory budgets. In 2001, the world social forum was

held in Porto Alegre for the first time. Progressively-oriented lawmakers, activists, staff,

consultants, and think-tank employees from all over the world heard firsthand from people on the

ground about their PB and the successes they had in the town. But it is in the seeds of this

transmission of information where the seeds for the misappropriation of the methodology lie. At

this moment, the brand of neoliberalism exemplified by Clinton and Blaire, called New Public

Management (NPM) had led to perceived increased efficiency but a decline in democratic

participation. Disenchantment with NPM’s focus on viewing the government through the lens of

the 3 Ms (markets, managers and measurement) had opened space for a new theory of public

management, Public Governance. While NPM argued that technocratic management was in part

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creating a better consumer experience for the citizen and was critical to overcoming the malaise

of Big Government, public governance argues it was not the size of government, but its

relationship with the people which mattered. As such, consultants and advocates began to pitch a

variety of measures to increase citizen involvement with the government. Rather than turning to

the theories of radical grassroots democratization from the 1960s, public governance theorists

turned toward new theories of democratic innovation. These theories meant to embed citizens into

the existing government apparatus in an antagonistic relationship, rather than accede to calls for

the people-powered civil society formations to supersede government in an antagonistic “hostile

takeover.” With this ideological background in place, Western and European technocrats and

liberals took the Porto Alegre model and placed it into the democratic innovation mold, ignoring

the more antagonistic economic redistribution demanded by grassroots advocates which birthed

the model in the first place. Thus, when the director of Porto Alegre’s PB efforts spoke on the issue

in the early 2000s, he was interpreted through the lens of “good governance,” “democratic

innovation” and incorporating citizens into the machinery of government, while the radical leftist

roots of the PB effort were literally “lost in translation”:

“Perhaps the most striking element of the trip were the public presentations, in particular

those of de Souza, the director of planning in Porto Alegre. Of course most attendees were

thrilled and proud to share their modest experiences with the radical administrators from

the Global South. But de Souza’s talk was free of leftist platitudes or utopian gestures. In

fact he was highly technical and down-to- earth, focusing on the “how” and not the “what”

or “why” of participatory democracy, as one attendee recalled. His presentation, at times

in bureaucratic tones, followed the steps of composing a yearly budget, allocating it to

departments, and coordinating between them. Rather than invite participants to dream of

a just society, the talk explained how to reconcile efficient administration, open

participation, and the implementation of policies based on social justice. As Mayor Pont

would say later, this was the utopia of reconciling apparently opposing ideas.

The talk in Córdoba was emblematic of the way Porto Alegre officials framed their project

at the time and typical of the international presentations: a series of slides that connected

rational efficiency and social justice in a dense, sixty-minute speech. Several of the slides

were concerned with the mundane details of the various administrative reforms, such as

property tax increases, the reassignment of technical staff, and most of all the creation of

a new planning department. But as the experiment began to spread beyond Latin America

and Spain, this part of the talk became increasingly less prominent. And as others began

to translate Porto Alegre’s story into a set of applicable lessons, it dropped out

altogether.” (Baicchi and Ganuza, 2017)

Later in their book, Baicchi and Ganuza expound upon this analysis, arguing it was the

malleability of PB which allowed its exportation into liberal Western countries, writing:

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“If PB traveled in the 1990s as a centerpiece of a political strategy, as a standard-bearer

for a new kind of electoral left-wing politics, in the 2000s it traveled isolated from the

comprehensive administrative reforms that linked it to the original political project in

Porto Alegre. This made it a more malleable tool, compatible with any number of political

projects. Another clear consequence of this transformation is the marginalization of social

justice principles that inspired the initiative in the first place. In this way participatory

budgeting, as a politically polyvalent method to improve governance from outside, first

became an attractive idea in both Europe and the United States.” (Baicchi and Ganuza,


Additionally, focusing on the technical functioning of PB in Porto Alegre ignores the specific

cultural conditions which birthed it. PB did not create a forum for citizen participation in Porto

Alegre out of nowhere. In fact, it was the exact opposite; Porto Alegre was the reflection of the

city’s long-standing traditions of popular mobilization and citizen participation. Boaventum de

Sousa Santos remarks on this when he writes:

“Porto Alegre is a city of ample democratic traditions, a strong, highly organized civil

society. The military dictatorship met with fierce political resistance in Rio Grande do Sul,

especially in Porto Alegre. For example, because of the pressure exerted by the democratic

opposition against the repressive institutions of the dictatorship, political prisoners could

not be “safely imprisoned” in the city and were often sent outside the city, usually to $510

Paulo. The opposition was led by intellectuals, labor unions, and the only legalized

opposition party, Movimento Demiocratico Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement,

henceforth MDB). The MDB attracted all the clandestine organizations—whether

socialist, communist or revolutionary—Christian—opposed to the military dictatorship.

Since the political situation rendered unviable almost all political struggle at the national

(macro—political) level, the above mentioned organizations focused their activity on

strengthening the unions and on such community movements as neighborhood and street

associations, soccer clubs, cooperatives, mother’s clubs, cultural groups, and so on. These

movements and organizations were either of a general nature or concerned with specific

demands, such as the struggle for bus lines, the struggle for sewers or street paving, the

struggle for housing or health centers, and so on. A powerful, diversified, popular

movement thus emerged, one that in the early 1980s became deeply involved in local

government. (Santos, 2007)

The Marxist-Leninist roots of this community organizing and their resistance to military

dictatorship supported by the CIA, is obscured as the Porto Alegre model is exported.

But a deeper look at the demographics of Porto Alegre reveals another possible, more

nefarious potential critique of the Porto Alegre model. Eighty percent of the population of Porto

Alegre is categorized as white; in a country where over 40% of the population is categorized as

multiracial, that is a notable fact. One wonders if the ethnic heterogeneity of the population could

help smooth the PB process, as the process was not seen as inherently providing resources to those

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outside of larger social groups, but more of a division of resources within it. Finally, the politics

of the PB process, though stemming from Leftist roots, were found to be malleable enough to fit

within conservative political frameworks. Indeed, with its intentional focus on undermining the

established organizations and community groups, many of which came from a leftist perspective,

PB in many ways effectively served the interests of the right. It effectively served as a containment

vessel for left-wing concerns, as these diverse groups were forced to send individual

representatives to advocate for their group interests at the assemblies. In addition to potentially

pitting leftist groups against each other, it put them in contact with people who were not held

accountable to an institutional formation. Individual citizens were engaging PB like a consumer

product to get their personal grievances heard rather than demanding changes for community good.

Indeed, when conservatives took power in 2004, they kept the increasingly bureaucratized PB

process in place and proceeded to gut the deeper administrative changes to ensure the process

benefit favored political patrons and the local elites (ibid).

This leads to the ultimate question of the deeper political resonance on PB: if PB could

create a larger democratic participation in Brazil and spread through the country, how could Brazil,

the land which birthed PB, also birth the sort of reactionary, biased and bigoted social movement

which could lead Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of the country? According to the Washington

Post, despite their malleability and deliberate intent to prevent capture by the left, many still

perceived PB as an instrument of the left. In the face of Bolsono, some of the PB assemblies are

essentially reforming themselves as instruments of the right, further watering down the

administrative changes in the Porto Alegre model and stacking the participatory bodies with

Bolsonaro supporters (Lima, 2019).

As PB spread outside of Brazil, other theorists attempted to tweak the model and apply it

to particular circumstances, including attempting to smooth some of the conflictual tendencies of

PB with experiences from a seemingly unrelated domain.

Making “Democracy” Fun- Incorporating Elements of Gaming as PB Spreads Worldwide

In the Argentinian city of Rosario, the city planners had a problem. The attempts to

incorporate the slums in the center of the city came with serious disruption of people's lives. People

would have to be moved, houses built without documented or official property rights established

would have to be destroyed and new community architecture planned. In other parts of the slums,

full-scale violent resistance broke out in response to attempts to clear and rebuild the slums. In

2005, lawmakers sought to radically redesign the process, which followed traditional notions of

“participation” but got limited buy-in, with principals from radical leftist theater and a

participatory design using designed dynamics from classic games such as Tetris, to “gamify” urban


Josh Lerner, director of the Boston-based nonprofit “Participatory Budgeting,” wrote a

book attempting to extol the virtues of what he sees as an “evolved” PB process which seeks to

use design “tricks of the trade” to increase participation and feedback on PB projects (note: the

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Argentinian example might be more akin to participatory planning). In his book, “Making

Democracy Fun,” Lerner presents Rosario as an example of two different applications of game

design to PB and planning:

1st - City of the Children. Plaza of Dreams. Officials worked with youth to use theater as an

information-gathering tool. Using the theories of Augusto Boal, author of the book “Theater of the

Oppressed,” youth acted out scenarios reflecting their everyday lives and struggles with service

provision and authority in their neighborhoods. The goal was to use these as information-gathering

sessions for the construction of various plazas throughout Rosario which would be used as spaces

to meet the desires of youth.

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2nd- The authorities used participatory games to produce maps for service provision and the

establishment of land rights. With the Rosario Hábitat process, the city used maps and transparent

puzzle pieces designed to fit together like a puzzle. The authorities sought to allow participants to

design their own living arrangements and to determine how the community would have to change

with the installation of urban infrastructure, sewage, water and other amenities impacting land

availability. Lerner argues that with proper guidance, this process can smooth the tensions inherent

in planning choices.

Lerner provides an in-depth description of one process he observed, which provides context as to

what it involves.

“After the initial planning workshops, staff hold rule-making workshops in

each sector of each villa, using a participatory process to establish clear program

rules. One Tuesday morning, I observed a rule-making workshop in

Villa Itatí, at a health center recently built by Rosario Hábitat. Inside the

meeting room, staff arranged 25 plastic chairs in an oval, leaving a scuffed

white table in the middle. As they posted flipchart paper and maps on the

walls, residents began to arrive, each one receiving a folder with handouts.

By 9:45, 20 people were waiting in their chairs, so the lead facilitator

started the workshop. Despite his young face, Juan spoke with an unusually

calm and clear Spanish. He explained that today the residents of villa sector

A would start deciding which of their houses would relocate and to where,

so that new roads and infrastructure could be built. Their specific tasks: pick

criteria for determining who stays and who leaves, and start to map out passageways

in the new block.

Paula, another facilitator, pointed to a poster on the wall, labeled Fixed

Rules. “Eleven basic Rosario Hábitat rules are outlined here,” she clarified,

“and in your handouts.” As she explained, passageways were necessary so

that all houses would have direct and safe access to the roads. Juan went

over the other rules and explained their rationales: each new lot must be at

least 100 m2 large (to ensure equality and basic living standards), no more

than 30 percent of the families could move from the villa (to ensure that

people’s livelihoods were not disrupted excessively), and so forth. People

asked a few questions of clarification, nodding as staff responded.

“These rules are a good start,” Juan concluded, “but now it’s your turn

to decide on new ones.” If there were three families living in a space that

only fit two 100-m2 lots, how would they decide who would relocate? Juan

explained that people in other workshops had suggested several criteria for

making such decisions: for example, length of tenancy, how precarious the

house is, number of inhabitants, family members with disabilities, chance,

and mutual agreement. Juan posted on the wall sheets of colored paper

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presenting these criteria.

Paula asked if anyone had other criteria to add. Yasmín said that she

wanted to stay near her brother’s family, so maybe they could add “family

members nearby” to the list. Juan nodded and posted it on the wall. Maxi

joked that “whoever serves the mate gets to stay.” Others suggested a few

more serious criteria. After 15 minutes the discussion died down, so Juan

called for a vote to set the order of the criteria. Paula handed each family a

paper strip with the numbers 1 to 10 printed in a column. Juan explained

that everyone should think about which criteria mattered most, and then

come up to the wall to label them in order of importance. After some discussions,

people tore their sheets into 10 pieces and, armed with glue sticks,

stuck the numbers on the criteria sheets to show their preferences (see figure

5.4). Paula counted the votes, to determine which criteria would have

top priority for deciding land disputes.

Juan thanked everyone for prioritizing the criteria, and invited them up

to the table in the middle of the room. A giant map lay on the table, with

each family’s house labeled. Their task was to suggest where passageways

should go, using several long rectangular cutouts of colored transparency

Paula asked if anyone had other criteria to add. Yasmín said that she

wanted to stay near her brother’s family, so maybe they could add “family sheets. As Juan

explained, each cutout represented a passageway, to scale

with the map. He moved several cutouts around the map, to illustrate how

they could be placed.

After Juan’s demonstration, the neighbors began moving the pieces

around, and new questions surfaced. Did the passageways have to be

straight, like the cutouts? Yes, because otherwise they would be unsafe.

Why were some cutouts wider than others? Because the width depended

on how many families used the passageway to reach their house. As Mónica

noticed, the cutouts were labeled with different sizes: 1.5 meters wide for

access to one house, 1.8 meters for two houses, and so forth.

After 20 minutes of playing with the cutouts, participants settled on

locations for two passageways. With criteria and passageways decided, Juan

called the meeting to a close around 11:00.

The rule-making workshop, and others like it, helped generate and legitimate

Rosario Hábitat’s rules—what residents could and could not do. To do

this, it used several of the same game mechanics that designers use to establish

game rules: participant-generated rules, multimodal presentation, narrative,

just-in-time information, and modeling.

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First, Rosario Hábitat let participants develop and order their own rules for

negotiating land conflicts. While most games start with fixed rules, some

enable players to craft their own rules—through what Salen and Zimmerman

call “transformative social play.”17 Sometimes players end up more

interested in the rules they create than in the original rules.18 This seemed

to be the case in Rosario Hábitat. As Mónica boasted, “We set the rules ourselves

. . . so if we complain it’ll be stupid. And they have to be maintained

because the agreement was collective and consensual.” Sergio added that he

couldn’t go against the rules because “they’re decisions of my neighbors in

the villa.” Small face-to-face meetings were essential for participatory rulemaking,

since they allowed for more comfortable dialogue and flexibility

than larger or online forums.

Rosario Hábitat also imposes some fixed rules, however. Some are technical constraints

for installing infrastructure, while others outline the

rights of residents. The rule-making workshop did not assume that people

instantly understood the rules, but rather that rules needed to be constantly

communicated, explained, and reinforced. Like good games, the workshops

accomplished this through multimodal presentation of information.

As James Gee observed, games convey meaning and knowledge through

images, words, sounds, and other modalities. Just as board games such

as Monopoly communicate rules (such as collect $200 on passing Go) by presenting

them in the instructions and writing them on the game board, the

workshop facilitators communicated rules by distributing them as handouts,

writing them on the wall, and reading them aloud. When asked how

clear the rules were, one participant pointed to the wall and said, “They’re

very clear, because they’re there.”

In some cases, however, the reasoning behind rules is not obvious. Many

games craft narratives to explain why players can or cannot take certain

actions, and Rosario Hábitat took a similar approach. Facilitators tried to

situate and explain fixed rules within a broader story of neighborhood

change. In this story, community members would try to distribute land

more equally and fairly, while disrupting the neighborhood as little as possible.

This narrative helped frame the rules of 100 m2 per lot and maximum

of 30 percent relocations, for example, as tools to advance common goals,

rather than as arbitrary limits. One facilitator felt that this explanation

helped people “accept because they understand,” rather than just accept


Finally, the workshop helped participants more deeply understand the

rules through just-in-time information and modeling. Games avoid over-

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whelming players with information, instead presenting it only at the

moment when it is actually useful. Similarly the workshop explained the

rules about passageway size and shape at the moment when participants

were actually arranging passageways on the map. By gradually adding more

information, the workshop helped participants process the rules bit by bit.

The colored passageway cutouts also served to model the rules. They provided

physical models of the rules governing passageway size and shape—

1.5 m width for one family, straight lines, and so forth. Having both, Juan

first moved the pieces around on the map, and likewise modeled the kinds

of trade-offs and calculations that would ultimately have to be made.” (Lerner, 2014,

This process appears to have an almost alchemical power to it. By creating cooperative

games, the author claims the process was able to smooth tension which had been roiled by other

attempts at urban renewal. A deeper examination of the processes described reveals more of their


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The Rosario process attempts to create space for citizen-generated input within the rules

defined by the political establishment. Therefore, it ignores the lessons of resources redistribution

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and land reform presented by Porto Alegre. Rather than redistributing resources, it is literally

distributing a scarce resource of land, creating an incentive for those within the process to buy into

based upon securing a favorable position for themselves and their family rather than broadening

social quality for their community. By presenting a 30% relocation rate as an ironclad rule of the

process, the process can be seen as attempting to manufacture consent for what is, in essence, a

form of slum removal done at the behest of downtown business interests (the books notes the

importance of slum removal to maintain Rosario’s thriving urban core). It is a clear example of

the consumerification of democratic participation, as the participatory process is designed to meet

discreet desires for family and friends to live close to one another, rather than to change the larger

social and economic ecosystem in which they live.

Deeper analysis reveals many of Lerner’s vaunted gameplay “tricks of the trade” can be

subject to critique. His analysis on the value of “just in time” information, a gameplay technique

designed to give players relevant information when they need it to complete a task and not before

to avoid information overload, makes sense when the goal is to slay a computerized dragon. But

in the context of a literal life and death decision on the future of a community, it comes across as

paternalistic and troubling. It is essentially a glorification of the staff being the gatekeepers of

knowledge. Despite arguing that the rules were “up for discussion,” it appears some information

was set in stone and not up for debate. The participants didn’t know it unless it bumped up against

an issue which required “just in time” information to be revealed.

A deeper analysis of the Theater of the Oppressed activity reveals similar concerns,

specifically on the replicability of this process. The process of the Theater of the Oppressed has

no direct link to resources or urban planning. The author therefore assumes an inherent value in

the political messages coming from artistic performance and that the authorities present are

sufficiently trained to interpret how these performances should translate into political solutions.

The author himself acknowledged as much, writing:

“Plaza Dreams was not having much impact. More than three years after

winning funding, only one of the 14 plazas had been constructed, and that

one only partly. According to Ana, the rest were suffering from “budget

problems.” “The problem is with the adults. They don’t designate funds

for the City of the Children, don’t put it on the agenda. There’s still a lack

of education among the municipal staff. When it comes time to finalize

something, they say that it’s a mess and nothing can be done.” The City of

the Children made Rosario look good, but for Ana, the administration was

not really supporting the program.

Others placed the blame elsewhere. “It’s how the City of the Children

positions itself,” suggested another member of the Intergovernmental

Commission. While the program was officially housed in the Department

of Children, it was physically and ideologically isolated. Staff worked in a

refurbished train station far from the department headquarters. Most of

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them were trained as artists or psychologists. Other departmental staff complained

that the council coordinators insisted too firmly on implementing

children’s “authentic” ideas, without adult contamination. As a result the

program often came into conflict with the planners, technicians, and other

adults who had the power and expertise to turn ideas into reality.

These conflicts were part of a deeper problem with Plaza Dreams (and

with the City of the Children program): the coordinators insisted on separating

children’s play from adult work. During the workshop games, facilitators

did not share any information about the plaza, nor did they ask the

children to tackle the real decisions that planners would have to make.

Afterward, planners designed the spaces mainly on their own, without


This separation between play and work distracted children’s attention

and trivialized meaningful planning decisions. The workshops focused

attention entirely on play and games, concealing the children’s ultimate

lack of power over design decisions. To design public spaces, planners

need to address tricky issues such as accessibility, environmental impacts,

and safety. In the workshop these serious topics were reduced to abstract

splashes of paint and ambiguous snippets of poetry.” (Lerner, 2014, 110-111).

This practical concern over whether the play sessions accomplish their missions should not obscure

deeper concerns as to the dangers inherent in how this play was politically used and carried out.

The town of Rosario, like Porto Alegre, is a town with a disproportionately large white population

compared to the rest of the country. This fact is particularly relevant for Argentina given its history

of forced migration of Black citizens in the 19th century and “Blanqueamiento,” or intentionally

encouraging (white) european immigration in the 20th century. Many scholars have questioned the

emancipatory power of performance for Black people given the history of racialized stereotypes

projected onto Black bodies. They present the possibility that these forms of “theatrical”

performance can create a form of fetishization of Black bodies which might deter Black citizens

from participating or lead the process to become infused with racial bias (Yancy, 2006).

To Lerner’s credit, he does pepper his text with acknowledgments of the limitations of

these gaming design-infused PB processes. But even in his acknowledgments of the limitations of

the process, he reveals his personal inability to grasp the political limitations of the process

analysed by Baicchi and Ganuza. In analysing a session of Rosario Hábitat which did not work,

Lerner blames the problem not on the fundamental limitations of the process, but on a failure to

apply game design principles properly, such as demonstrating the process and using affect and

direction to create the heralded “magic circle” effect, where people can suspend reality and buy

into the process. Similarly, Lerner explains that people bought into the process more when they

saw things being built and understood that there would be significant government investment in

their community. However, he does not see this as the sort of transactional, consumer-based theory

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of participatory governance Baicchi and Ganuza caution us about but instead chalks the victory up

to these facilitators better executing his vaunted game design principals to smooth out potential


That the very impetus for the installation of this process was violent resistance in the streets

by people in other parts of the city, one wonders if the “smoothing of conflict” is even desirable,

given the reality of dislocation and potential gentrification this process would entail. In a Latin

American country where US-backed CIA dictators created a historical legacy of violence, Lerner

says nothing about these structural conditions and simply notes how happy the people going

through the process seem, which raises the question as to whether PB can serve as a sort of opioid,

dulling the impact of neoliberal structural violence by creating the illusion of control in those who

participate in the process.

PB in America- The Chicago Example

While there are recent examples of PB in America, many are very recent and have news

articles written about them and therefore, do not make for the best in-depth scholarly analysis. The

PB process in Chicago, however, is one of the longest-running and presents a vantage point from

which to see the unique challenge of using PB in an American urban environment.

The Chicago process has been described as “attempting to create a bottom up process from

the top down” (Baicchi and Ganuza, 2017). In an attempt to respond to criticism about the lack of

focus on district-specific policy, the former alderman for the 49th ward of the city, Joe Moore,

decided to allocate his discretionary “menu money” fund of approximately 1.3 million dollars per

the results of the PB process. Far from the radical redistributive politics of Porto Alegre or the

liberation theater of Rosario, the process which ensued was far more technocratic, reflecting:

“In the 49th Ward, Moore used PB to allocate his discretionary “menu money,” a

$1.3 million fund given annually to aldermen for infrastructure projects. The fund is a

trivial matter in Chicago city politics; constituents are largely unaware of it and allocation

decisions face little public scrutiny. Thus when Moore proposed participatory budgeting

for the 49th Ward, not only was the process of deliberation foreign to residents; the

community was unfamiliar with the budget itself. From the start Moore recognized that he

faced an inherent contradiction in trying to build a bottom-up process from the top down.

Early on he convened a steering committee of local activists to put a “Rogers Park stamp”

on the process. With help from the Participatory Budgeting Project the committee made

initial decisions regarding the design of the process (writing and approving a rule book),

met regularly to plan its next steps, and facilitated the first community meetings.

Throughout, the steering committee thought of itself as the backbone and directive body of

PB in the ward.

In early November 2009 the PB organizers held nine neighborhood assemblies

throughout the ward—eight in different neighborhood areas and one wardwide assembly

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for Spanish-speaking residents. After the steering committee sent out invitations and e-

mails to presumably all thirty thousand households in the ward, residents turned out in

small but substantial numbers; about forty community members attended each initial

meeting. The assemblies were divided into two main parts. First, the alderman and the

steering committee introduced the concept of participatory budgeting and the details of the

menu money budget. The facilitators explained that the project aimed to transfer power to

the people in the spirit of a more “democratic democracy.” They also provided information

about some of the constraints and common uses of menu money. In the second part of the

meeting, participants were divided into discussion groups to deliberate about

infrastructure needs and priorities.

Participants proposed a range of ideas such as a community swimming pool,

pothole filling, murals, and bike lanes. Steering committee members facilitated these

groups, operating as if they knew more about the menu money budget than the other

participants. They believed this meeting structure would ensure that the initial stages of

the process ran smoothly. At the end of these initial assemblies the facilitators invited

residents to stay involved in the process by becoming community representatives.

These “Community Reps” as they came to be known were responsible for

developing concrete spending proposals for the final wardwide vote. About sixty residents

volunteered to become community reps. Each rep chose to serve on one of six budgeting

committees: transportation, traffic safety, public safety, parks and environment, streets,

and art and other projects. Committees met separately and could exercise considerable

discretion in determining the process, outcomes, and criteria for project selection. There

was no minimum or maximum limit to the number of projects that could be slated; members

could work in subcommittees or together as one group; and whether decisions would be

based on community needs or on representatives’ interests was open for debate. Ultimately

the six committees proposed a total of thirty-six projects ranging from street resurfacing

to bike lanes to community gardens.

The PB facilitators then placed the proposals, including project descriptions and

estimated price tags, on a ballot. They invited all ward residents age sixteen and over to

vote for up to eight projects —a rule the steering committee developed before the process

began. Community reps and the steering committee organized a massive “get out the vote”

effort involving yard signs, community banners, and displays of project posters. Many

community representatives campaigned for their committee’s projects. Over the course of

a single voting-day event and a week of early voting, over 1,600 people cast their ballots

in a ward of approximately 30,000 eligible voters. The projects that won the most votes

were funded from the $1.3 million of the alderman’s discretionary budget.” (ibid).

In the Chicago process, we see much of what was warned about in the previous processes

in Brazil and Argentina and the results which the watering down of the Porto Alegre model

presented. In Brazil, care was taken (perhaps too much care) to prevent established civil society

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interests from controlling the PB process whereas in Chicago, established homeowners

associations and community groups played a key role in the process. The transportation committee

was especially filled with local political wheelers and dealers. This led to one of the more

contentious fights in the PB process, with a proposal to expand bike lanes being rejected by city

technocrats who claimed the proposed design was not feasible. This caused a schism within the

transportation committee between younger, more activist types who saw the bike lanes as an

essential part of an eco-friendly social movement and thus, off the table for compromise and older

community activist types more acquainted with negotiating with Chicago’s political machine

(ibid). There was a similar fight over the cost estimate for a dog park, with the city’s technocrats

estimating the cost much higher than the citizens and demanding that the park mirror the design

of parks designed for humans, even if it was designed for dogs (ibid). The other lesson of Porto

Alegre, not allowing technical expertise to overwhelm democratic community will, was also not

learned. That the pot of money used was small and obscure also fit with the analysis that the

redistribution portion of the Porto Alegre example was not met. The Chicago PB mirrored Porto

Alegre and Rosario in one unflattering way; it similarly had issues reflecting the diversity of the

community, as Baicchi and Ganuza note:

“Chicago’s process in contrast has been less inclusive, tending to privilege the

participation of homeowners and college-educated whites.31 A 2013 survey of participants

in neighborhood assemblies and among community representatives found that Latino

participants were severely underrepresented, while African American participants were

still underrepresented.32 Moreover social justice organizations have been largely absent

in the overall Chicago process. In one ward researchers report that groups ‘representing

the interests of low-income renters’ have been largely absent from the process. Though

they ‘were invited to join,’ they ‘were not made to feel welcome’ and tried to “disassociate

themselves” from participatory budgeting.”33 The same researchers note that ‘despite the

large presence of community groups in Chicago, only a fraction of them were enrolled in

the PB process’…”(Baicchi and Ganuza, 2017).

While it is tempting to see Chicago's PB process as a failure, it might be more accurate to see it as

successful in meeting the goal of PB as they had been defined and thus, revealing the limitations

of the technocratic, “citizen as consumer” style definitions of PB that have applied. In meetings

for the Chicago PB, folks visiting the steering committee wondered out loud whether this was a

group of “professionals who were afraid of working class people” and whether this was a “group

of the alderman’s supporters”. Dismissing these criticisms of the process as ad hominem personal

attacks or misinformed ignore the stated goal of PB which is to generate increased political

consensus through antagonistic deliberation between citizens to encourage the community to work

in deeper collaboration with the state. Working class folks antagonistic to the middle class political

order and social justice radicals antagonistic to the centrist political machine are thus always

already framed as outside the process and threats to the “magic circle,” as they may interject calls

for administrative change and resource redistribution which exceed the space the PB process can

accommodate. It is interesting that although John Lerner is the co-founder of the nonprofit brought

in to help design the Chicago process, he does not mention the process in his book, leading on to

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only project what his commentary on the Chicago process would be; likely that they should have

played more and better games to align people’s self-interests more efficiently. This ignores the

fact that all of the source of conflict in the Chicago process between the activists and the

establishment community representatives on the PB transportation committee, and between the

political administration and the PB committee, is from different people doing exactly what Lerner

and other PB advocates ask them to do: operate in their own self-interests. When these selfinterests

competed beyond the “magic circle” of gameplay Lerner promotes, there was not an

infrastructure of community organizing or political base building present to push back, as these

sorts of potentially confrontational efforts are the exact sort of effects PB is designed to trade off

with, which the example in Rosario shows. Baicchi and Ganuza reflect on this notion of competing

ideas of “good citizenship” and what that entails playing out in the battle between the PB

transportation committee and the administration technocrats, writing:

“The committee proposed the path because participants wanted

more recreational space for biking and walking. The proponents of the project were selfinterested

in the sense that their goal was to improve their own pursuits. To them this

seemed like a legitimate motivation: they were residents of the ward and as such felt

justified in making a demand they believed would advance their personal interests.

According to recollections by participants, the alderman’s office did not agree. The staff

recognized that the representatives were entitled to make demands as citizens in the

process, but they held that legitimate demands were grounded in concerns for the larger

community. Many residents, especially condominium owners whose land abutted the

property, would oppose the path. Thus, as one participant remembered, the concern was

raised that the committee “needed to think in terms of the whole neighborhood.” They were

told by the alderman’s office that “we should have taken this opposition into consideration,

and the fact that we did not was taken as disregard” for the community’s wider set of

interests. The bike path proponents’ self-interested motivations conflicted with an

unspoken assumption of good citizenship. It was not enough to want a project that would

satisfy your own interests, however reasonable they may seem. Rather participants should

want the project to benefit the entire community, and propose it in terms that reflected this

interest.” (ibid).

Without a broad framing of social justice and broad community benefit, the advocates on the

transportation committee were (correctly) seen as self-interested and thus, were seen as not having

a leg to stand on when met with NIMBY (not in my back yard) opposition arguing the flip side,

that they had a material, personal and quality of life interest in not having the bike lanes. Were

they not citizens? Didn’t their participation matter? Without any mechanisms to adjudicate these

kinds of conflicts, Chicago’s PB would continue to be seen as an insular process where

“professional citizens” get to “play” at being city planner and manifest projects which meet their

personal consumer desires, far from the radical emancipatory democratic revolution Lerner


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When Lerner was invited to Baltimore, he demonstrated his PB processes. Members of the

community felt his processes were not reflective of what would be best for the community, and

launched a political campaign to get the Baltimore City Children and Youth fund to reflect a

participatory process which would genuinely empower the community. There was a meeting held

in 2016 by a local nonprofit, Strong City, which invited the Boston-based PB process to Baltimore

to pilot some of their processes and inform people in the community of what they have done. Upon

seeing some of the aforementioned “gamified” PB process championed by Lerner and

conversation with those familiar with the PB Projects who touted “successes” stories in Boston,

concern began to brew among some that these were efforts to get the Boston process adopted in

Baltimore. Also, there was concern that these processes would not reflect what many community

experts felt would be the best use of these funds.

First, there was conversation about making a smaller portion of the 12 million dollars

available via some sort of PB process, with the remaining amount being managed by a traditional

grant making institution (such as the Family League or Strong City Baltimore). This idea raised

concerns that an incident similar to what happened in Porto Alegre would occur, being that the PB

process would be the mandatory process for all community folk, closing off the majority of these

funds that were locked into the traditional grant-making process for larger, more established

nonprofits. Second, after hearing of the processes in Boston, which used gamified processes to

isolate community concerns and create the contours of an RFP which was then vetted and put up

for an internet vote, concerns were raised that while the process on face seemed fair and

democratic, the larger, more established nonprofit would be able to launch better digital PR

campaigns to get votes for their projects, essentially tilting the scale toward middle-class

knowledge economy professionals (who, in Baltimore, are disproportionately white) and against

working class grassroots activists who do work in the most needy communities in Baltimore

(which are mostly Black). Due to the objections by civil society organizations, a task force was

established to determine the next steps.

Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund

In 2015, youth in Baltimore protested the death of a young Black man, Freddie Gray, by

burning cars and throwing rocks at police. In 2016, via the efforts of then-City Council President

Jack Young, citizens passed a public ordinance at the ballot box which allocated 3% of the city’s

collective property tax dollars (approximately 12 million dollars per year) to the Baltimore City

Children and Youth Fund, a non-lapsing government fund which would provide support for

organizations working with children and youth.

As soon as the city established this fund, the fight over who would hold the funds and how

the funds would be dispersed began. The task force finished its work in 2017, offering

recommendations that the youth fund focus on supporting community groups doing work in the

most needy communities, specifically those who typically do not have access to large public or

philanthropic investments. The task force was co-chaired by Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle CEO

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Adam Jackson and John Brothers of the T. Rowe Price foundation, and also featured a diverse

cross section of youth, elders, nonprofit professionals, and representatives from the government

who were installed as non-voting, ex officio members. This task force created recommendations

that the youth fund should focus on capacity building for grassroots institutions, an area seen as

essential but often underinvested in by philanthropic institutions. The task force also stated that a

local Black foundation, Associated Black Charities (ABC), should hold the fund and administer

the creation of a grant review team made up of a representative cross section of Baltimorians whose

task would be to evaluate grant proposals, rank them and decide where the money was allocated.

ABC was selected because they were the only institution in the region with expertise in and an

explicit focus on racial equity. Larger pots of money were reserved explicitly for organizations

which submitted cooperative proposals, creating incentives for cooperation rather than incentives

for competition among organizations. Finally, the task force stated that institutions should not have

to be 501c3 nonprofit organizations to receive funds, and recognized that formal nonprofit

incorporation is a barrier to entry for many community-based youth service providers. The

ordinance which established the youth fund was a codification of the task force recommendations.

The fund began its work in 2018. ABC subcontracted to a Black consulting firm, Frontline

Solutions, which included Black consultants with experience working in Baltimore (Annie E.

Casey Foundation) and handled much of the technical assistance. First, informational meetings

were held throughout the city, preparing potential grantees on how to write their proposals and

explaining the evaluation criteria for this grant, which would be different than traditional grants.

It would include an explicit racial equity lens and focus on capacity building for typically

underfunded grassroots institutions. After the RFP went out, a call for individuals to serve on the

grant review team also went out, offering a competitive hourly salary for serving as a citizen grant

reviewer. The reviewers were selected with an emphasis on geographic and racial equity, which

made the review team reflective of the demographic of the city. Other priorities included nonprofit

experience, social justice advocacy experience, and personal experience, such as providing or

receiving youth services. After reviewing 400 proposals, totaling over 70 million dollars in

requested funds, the grant reviewers ranked proposals based upon the selected criteria. After

combining the rankings, the portfolio of institutions was examined by the youth fund and it

announced 65 organizations for funding (Associated Black Charities, 2018).

Jackson Model - People’s Assembly

While falling more into the space of “participatory planning,” the model from Jackson,

Mississippi must be included, as it served in part as inspiration for the Baltimore model.

Jackson, Mississippi may appear as an unlikely model for progressive government in

America, yet its current progressive political leadership is a reflection of decades of grassroots

organizing. In 2013, decades after coming to Mississippi from Detroit as a member of the Republic

of New Africa, progresive lawyer Chokwe Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson. The victory

was a victory not just for him, but also for the powerful civil society forces which brought him to

the mayor’s seat, specifically the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Cooperation Jackson.

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After Chokwe’s death in 2014, his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, was elected in 2017 and tasked

with the mandate to continue his father’s legacy of engaging in governing from the perspective of

enhancing Black community self-determination.

As opposed to the Porto Alegre model, which sought to use a “participatory” process to

disempower civil society groups in the political process, Jackson’s “People’s Assembly” is run by

a civil society group and seeks to be cultivated by civil society groups in the name of empowering

individuals, specifically the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which uses the assembly to purvey

its message on radical Black self-determination to the government (Bragg, 2017). Similarly, while

tied to the government currently in power, the assembly’s attempt to resist being cast as a tool to

“manufacture consent” for the contemporary government and instead serving grassroots desires

was to be interfaced with those in power in a deep, structural way. In interviews with government

officials and People’s Assembly participants, the structure was shown to be a container for a less

instrumentalized vision of participatory governance, where deep conversation and mutual

education can take place:

“Akil Bakari, the co-chair of the mayor's transition team, maintains that despite Omari's

detailed speech peeling through every element of the mayor's plan, there has to be a clear

understanding and distinction that the people's assembly is not married to Lumumba in

particular, and would continue even if he was not in office.

"(The people's assembly) is totally independent and autonomous of the City of Jackson,"

Bakari told the Jackson Free Press a couple days after the assembly. "It's going to exist in

function regardless of who's in the mayor's office.

"Obviously, we like to have a good relationship with whoever is there, and we just happen

to have a relationship with the one that's there now, but the whole intent and purposes of

it is to create and build people power independent of any political party or whoever is in

the mayor's office."

Bakari is also part of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a "radical" self-determination

movement that the mayor's father, former Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, started. Its hallmark

principles include a demand for reparations for slavery in the U.S. and the creation of an

independent black nation in the Deep South.

The MXGM believes in people's assemblies as a democratic tool.

"The Assemblies are organized as expressions of participatory or direct democracy," the

MXGM website reads, "wherein there is guided facilitation and agenda setting provided

by the committees that compose the People's Task Force, but no preordained hierarchy."

Bakari said this first assembly was more introductory for people who are unfamiliar with

this process. "What we really want to do is educate people around what participatory

governance looks like, democracy, budgeting," Bakari said. "Upcoming assemblies will be

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around those concepts and ideas." He also clarified that the mayor was invited, although

he did not attend because he was at what Lumumba describes as a "mayor's school"

conference at Harvard University.

In his office, Mayor Lumumba spoke to the Jackson Free Press about the assembly, which

started under his father's city-council tenure with an intent he says is centered around an

idea that he and his sister, Rukia Lumumba, repeat often: "Three minutes on a microphone

does not make community participation." In city council meetings, citizens who wish to

voice their concerns on an agenda item during the public-hearing session are limited to

three minutes' speaking time.” (Bragg, 2017)

For the first time, in July 2019, the city of Jackson partnered with the Jackson-based

People’s Advocacy Institute to engage in PB activity through the People’s Assembly. While not

much has been written around the specifics of the activity, members of LBS made the trip to

Jackson to experience the activity firsthand. While the activity did involve a game, the game

seemed to be designed in a manner quite different than the gamification described by Lerner.

Rather than gamifying a decision on how to spend a small part of the city’s budget, citizens were

presented with the entire civic budget, with full details on insurance, interest, and obligations and

were given money to express how they would want the discretionary funds allocated. This would

seem to violate several of Lerner’s principals, including the “magic circle,” where players are

taught to abstract their decisions from the real world, as well as Lerner’s injunction to not overload

participants with too much information up front. While Lerner feared this would overwhelm

“players,” showing the real world trade-offs on budgetary spending for an entire civil budget

seemed to galvanize the players to engage in the game thoughtfully and creatively. Rather than

creating elaborate advocacy campaigns for relatively small allocations, as was the case in Chicago,

the game was designed to produce data which would go directly into the city’s budgetary decision

for the entire budget. Players were given “just in time” information, as those who were overseeing

the game were on hand to explain when players’ decisions may have violated budgeting laws.

While Lerner may have viewed this as poorly designed gameplay, showing citizens what tradeoffs

were possible and which were not may have been an essential pedagogical tool which

answered citizens’ critical questions on why money simply can not be shifted around on a massive

civic scale.

By refusing to use a “magic circle” theory of disembodiment, the game located the citizens

of Jackson in a specific time and place and gave them control over the budgetary decisions which

would affect their entire city. This gave citizens material stakes in the process of playing the game

which seemed qualitatively different than the experience individuals felt when discussing small

pots of money tied to specific allocations. The motivation for playing becomes different, as there

is no possibility of getting personal “pet projects” funded. Instead, you are providing information

to be aggregated by the city and included in budgetary decisions. The entire process shows the

value of attentive and well-trained technical assistance staff and being able to guide people through

this complex game. It also shows the value of the reservoir of public support the regime in Jackson,

Mississippi has built up over decades of grassroots organizing and electoral political campaigns.

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Best Principals

An analysis of the Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund reflects many of the lessons

previously outlined in this chapter, lessons one could consider “best practices,” though given the

necessity of accounting for geographic and community specificity may make the term “best

principals” more appropriate.

l Resource Redistribution- While property tax dollars are typically seen as going towards

schools, Baltimore’s budget shifts money largely toward policing and depends on the state

of Maryland for education dollars. As such, the youth fund can be seen as a redistribution

of resources from policing to youth services.

l Bottom Up Political Agitation- Ballot initiatives are often approved by Baltimore voters

by default. Nevertheless, by having the initiative go to the ballot box, it created a public

mandate for the changes the youth fund instituted.

l Community Outreach - Democratic Impulses Over Technocratic Focus- By not only having

outreach meetings but ones with a focus on having credible folks in the community

translate community democratic impulses into demands which could withstand

technocratic scrutiny, the youth fund helped create a degree of trust in community.

l Coupling the process with Robust Administrative Reform- By having the ordinance be a

continuation of the task force recommendation, the youth fund has written into law certain

requirements on how these funds shall be allocated, which inoculate the fund from being

siphoned off for other governmental needs. By placing the money first into ABC and then

mandating the creation of a new governmental intermediary, the goal is to prevent other

governmental entities from holding the funds, and thus being tempted to spend down some

of the funds on other priorities.

l Protecting the Process from Capture of Civil Society Organizations- By demanding the

fund stay out of the purview of the Family League and Strong City, the fund centered the

grant review team as the key decision maker on grants. By ensuring robust conflict on

interest protections on the grant review team and ensuring the institution selecting the grant

review team, ABC and the Frontline Solutions consultants they hired, both have explicit

experience with using racial equity as an institutional lens and help guide the grant review

team selection to prevent too many established “community association” types from

dominating the grant selection team, a dynamic which was not present with the Chicago

selection committee.

l An Explicit Focus on Racial Equity- The demographics of Porto Alegre and Rosario may

have been connected to the (relative) success of their PB processes. However, their inability

to use a race-conscious lens limits the applicability of their processes outside of their

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specific locations. Baltimore, a majority Black city with an established rescue disparity

between Black and white service providers, demands an upfront racially conscious

approach to PB. One need only look at the guiding principles of the Baltimore City

Children and Youth Fund to see how the BCYF is directly addressing questions of racial


“1) Racial Equity: The entire grant review process must be built on racial equity. We

should clearly identify and directly address how society’s power structures show up in the

operation of the Proposal Review Panel, including how assumptions about race may figure

into the decision-making process. Specifically, white people should not dominate or drive

the conversation. Additionally, the evaluation of different programs should include a basic

understanding and appreciation of the cultural resources and assets within each


2) Intergenerational Leadership: In the West we often greet each other by saying, “How

are you doing?” The Maasai people of East Africa greet each other by asking, “How are

the children?” This greeting represents the idea that the well-being of the children defines

the well-being of the community. The purpose of the Fund is to help the whole city of

Baltimore to embrace and live out the worldview embodied in this Maasai greeting.

Specifically, the well-being of our children is everyone’s responsibility. The Proposal

Review Panel must include youth leaders along with adults. Having different generations

work together will reflect how our entire community must work together to improve the

quality of life for our young people.

3) Community Ownership: The purpose of the Fund is to provide the communities typically

seen as merely recipients of services with equal, authentic decision-making power to

disperse the Fund’s resources. This means that the members of the Proposal Review Panel

should reflect the totality of our community. Specifically, the Proposal Review Panel must

include a variety of people who are highly committed to the communities they serve.

4) Collective Decision-Making: “Gatekeeping,” when one person has too much power in

a decision-making process, marginalizes the people and communities who are most hurt

by structural racism. Gatekeepers can use their power to circumvent community

accountability and limit access to power and resources. Therefore, the Proposal Review

Panel must structure its decision-making process to be collective, not individual.

Specifically, the Proposal Review Panel will work together truly as a group to make

decisions. (Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund, 2018)

l A Focus on Institutional Capacity Building (i.e. Sustainability Beyond the Funding Period)

- BCYF attempts to leave the intuitions they fund stronger than they left them.

Understanding the nature of these processes means the grantees can not depend on

perpetual infusion of large amounts of public dollars. By creating funding for capacity

building, BCYF attempts to help institutions acquire a diversity of funding streams and

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develop a plan for institutional sustainability.

While the BCYF did many things well, some places where the BCYF had issues were also places

where other PB projects were limited, showing a need to understand these dynamics for future

“best principals.”

l Preparing for Resistance from Political Bureaucracy use to Unilateral Control - The

Chicago example proves that, even if those using PB are middle-class white professionals,

the sheer fact that individuals are challenging the bureaucratic status quo will create

resistance. BCFY has also been subject to bureaucratic misunderstanding, necessitating

increased communication and relationship management between the youth fund and

government bureaucracy.

l Balancing the need for gaining popular credibility and buy in with preventing PB capture

by “Professional Citizens” and established civil society - Porto Alegre essentially doubled

down isolating civil society institutions from the established PB process, leading the PB to

being a tool to potentially undermine the organized left. The BCYF was led by a political

push from the bottom up, and was designed to not allow those forces to dominate the

process and to create a genuine space for uplifting grassroots services providers.

Continuing to balance political support for PB while allowing PB to be seen as a genuine

reflection of grassroots work and not a selection by a political active few is a balance all

PB processes must walk.

Baicchi and Ganuza conclude their book with a list of questions, what they call “counterfactual

standards” by which we can judge and evaluate PB proposals. They conclude that there are lists of

administrative and deliberative standards for which PB should strive. They ultimately conclude

that toolkits and manuals focus too much on the communicative and interpersonal elements of PB

which are compatible with and useful for the neoliberalism project (i.e. Lerner), but the ultimate

goal is to establish a sense of community sovereignty which resists the enclosure of communities

in the false scarcity of market logic and racial capitalism :

“Moving this critical framework to participatory budgeting and democratic innovations

gives us several counterfactual standards against which we can judge specific experiences

and their procedures:

1. What is the intensity of the participation? Who actually participates? Do features of

participatory spaces prevent these processes

from being open to all?

2. How inclusive is the deliberation? In addition to being present at assemblies, do all

citizens “deliberate”? Are there systematic biases

about who speaks and who decides? Is the technical language made accessible to all?

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3. How democratic is the deliberation? What is the quality of decisions emanating from

the participatory process? Do participants feel free to openly debate or discuss the rules

governing discussions?20

The scholarship on participatory budgeting in Brazil and other countries has addressed

the communicative dimension quite carefully, and research efforts continue to focus on

“participant surveys.” But self-rule does not subsist only in communication. The second

facet of participatory budgeting is the coupling of PB assemblies with administrative

structures. We refer to this as the sovereignty dimension...

1. The primacy of the participatory forums. If the participatory forums are not the exclusive

point of contact between government and citizen, how important of a point of contact are

they? Are there other ways of accessing government resources, and how important are


2. The scope and importance of administrative issues that are subjected to participation.

How much of the local budget is subjected to

participation, and how important is that budget to social justice efforts?

3. The degree of actual participatory power over the budget. Are there institutionalized,

direct, and transparent links between participation and government action? What if any

administrative reforms are undertaken to prepare the state apparatus to receive

participatory inputs? What discretion do elected officials, technical staff, and bureaucrats

have over the decisions once they are made?

4. Participation’s self-regulating, or constitutional aspect. To what extent are participants

able to determine the rules of participation; to debate and determine social justice criteria

that will order the process; to determine the reach of participatory influence over

government affairs?

If we were to take our sets of questions about communication and sovereignty to today’s

“how-to” manuals and to currently circulating blueprints for participatory budgeting, the

result would be to show that processes seldom include anything but the communicative


Toolkits and blueprints generally only include the first dimension, having little to say about

the second, which is understood to depend entirely on local implementation. The real

democratic reforms and connectors between communication and state actions are

frequently “black-boxed.” This does not mean, however, that the sovereignty dimension is

necessarily missing in every experiment, but only that it is largely contingent on the will of

local representatives. Toolkits for global implementation often emphasize the yearly cycle

of meetings, rules for open and transparent assemblies, and how to carry

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out voting procedures on proposals. They say little about how reforms enable those

proposals’ compatibility with administrative logics. These toolkits fail to describe

mechanisms that would allow participants to define the terms of participation or how to

make those the primary interfaces.

Indeed, looking then at the many global cases of PB, we find a commonality around

the set of meetings to discuss investments, but these are embedded within diverse national

and political contexts that dictate the overall priority and purpose of the participatory

budget. Normally the focus is on citizen apathy rather than social justice or political

transformation. Thus local projects are rarely successful at implementing sovereignty

reforms. As we have already expressed, we worry that PB becomes a participatory

experience that leaves citizens thinking collectively about trivial issues from the standpoint

of the administration of power, as has so often been the case with traditional participatory

devices.26 And as some recent research has shown, this is happening in all kinds of

participatory experiences.27 From this context the deep skepticism of citizens about their

ability to influence policy making is justified, because the prevailing division of powers

between public authorities and citizens is far from being challenged.28” (Baicchi and

Ganuza, 2017).

Baicchi and Ganuza write a balanced text which attempts to value what the form of PB can

be, but has fidelity to the power relations which create the contours of what PB actually becomes

when deployed. That Baicchi and Ganuza end with a discussion on sovereignty is interesting, as

the discussion of sovereignty among Afrikan people is extremely robust and has led to constant

conversation and political organizing around the ultimate plan to support Black community selfdetermination:


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