Popular Democracy
The Paradox of Participation
Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza


Chapter One

The Participation Age

Every day, participatory websites are created by parliaments, governments and local authorities, allowing citizens to contribute directly to decision-making processes, to debate political options in real-time, and thus to influence the decisions made by their representatives. Is this an answer to the so-called “crisis of politics” which manifests itself through citizens’ disaffection from political parties and representative institutions?

—Call for proposals for the Second World Forum for Democracy, 20131

In November 2013 the Council of Europe organized the Second World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg, France. More than 1,400 people from one hundred countries took part in this high-profile conference. The participants addressed twenty-one themes (organized in “labs”) under the conference’s overall theme, “Re-wiring Democracy: Connecting Institutions and Citizens in the Digital Age.” The goal of the conference was for participants to collectively reflect on the challenges facing democracy in societies characterized by political disaffection and to consider how to address these challenges through online and offline participation.

One of the keynote speakers was Alderman Joe Moore, who four years earlier had set up the first experiment in participatory budgeting in the United States, in Chicago’s 49th Ward. Less than two weeks after the conference, the Obama administration released its Second Open Government Action Plan, which called for greater citizen involvement in government through democratic participation.2 The document “recogniz[es] the value of the American public as a strategic partner” and outlines twenty-three specific initiatives to increase citizen participation and transparency. These include identifying and documenting best practices of participation, involving the public in agency rule making, increasing citizen science programs, and promoting community participation in budget decisions through tools like participatory budgeting.3 At the time of the Open Government Action Plan’s release, political leaders and experts from more than a dozen African countries were attending the International Conference on Citizen Participation in Tunis.4 The organizers of this conference sought to encourage African citizens to participate in the management of public affairs across the continent.

Today participation is so ubiquitous that former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton has described the current era as the “Participation Age.” According to Clinton this era is marked by widespread expectation for voice and engagement, and “people whose voices were never heard [before] now can be heard.”5 Clinton is not alone in this assessment. As Matt Leighninger writes in his 2006 book The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance—And Why Politics Will Never Be the Same, “In the 20th century, public life revolved around government; in the 21st century, it will center on citizens.” Similarly very many others discuss the dawning of an era in which citizens have come to participate in all sorts of matters previously reserved for government bureaucrats and politicians. There is general agreement that we are living through what Caroline Lee, Michael McQuarrie, and Edward Walker have called a “participatory revolution.” Today, they note, “across the political spectrum, increasing citizen voice is viewed as a necessary counterweight to elite power and bureaucratic rationality.”6

Enthusiasm for citizen participation abounds, even if its magnitude is difficult to quantify. As Archon Fung suggests, part of the difficulty in estimating the extent of participation is that “the forms of participatory innovation are often local, sometimes temporary, and highly varied.”7 But all indications suggest it is a major trend. At the global level, the World Bank has invested $85 billion in development assistance for participation in the last decade.8 For North America a survey from 2009 found that almost “all cities responded that they provided ‘opportunities for civic engagement in community problem solving and decision making’” and that nearly three-fourths of them had instruments in place for citizen decision making in strategic planning that year.9 In Western Europe the figures are similar, and several countries now mandate citizen participation as part of recent local government reforms.10

Whether citizen participation has actually displaced technocracy and elected politicians, a remarkable consensus has emerged around its desirability. Participatory democracy has become an imperative of our time, the subject of countless international conferences, government projects, and policy reforms, and is at the center of much recent contemporary political thinking.11 In the last two decades an increasingly diverse cast of characters—multilateral donors, international NGOs, and policy experts alike—have touted “participation in government” as a panacea for a wide set of ills. Applied to both the Global South (particularly as seen in the “post-Washington consensus”) and the Global North, participation has become a central tenet in thinking about government. Alongside ideas such as good governance, NGOs, civil society, grassroots action, decentralization, sustainability, local innovations, and social entrepreneurship, participation has now achieved the status of something unquestionably good and infinitely malleable. From the World Bank to Occupy and the Arab Spring, to new political parties like Podemos, to NGOs and consultancies, the idea of participation today occupies an exceptional position in the pantheon of policy prescriptions. Across the political spectrum and across policy domains it has become a privileged prescription for solving difficult problems and remedying the inherent flaws of democracy.

It has not always been this way. Up until the 1970s participatory democracy was largely associated with the political left, social movement idealists, or local cooperatives and generally viewed with suspicion by planners in mainstream institutions.12 In the United States, for example, Francesca Polletta has documented participatory democracy’s central role in the most important social movements of the 1960s and argued that participation conceived in this way was so important because it was prefigurative. The idea was that “to operate in radically democratic fashion was to prefigure the radically democratic society” and would thus “make the means reflect the ends.”13 Activists expected participation to bring about emancipation for citizens in a world otherwise dominated by political and economic elites.14 And when the large movements went into eclipse as small-scale and local initiatives, sympathetic observers from the left, like Harry Boyte, imagined this was the beginning of “a backyard revolution” in which these prefigurative practices, premised on equality, solidarity, and social justice, would yield the transformative changes that movements themselves did not manage to achieve.15

However today we are witnessing a new political moment in which citizen participation is no longer the assumed domain of outsiders but has become widely encouraged, if not directly mandated, by governments and multilateral agencies. Corporations themselves are beginning to promote participatory processes as part of “corporate social responsibility” campaigns if not as part of efforts to neutralize negative publicity from grassroots campaigns against them, as Ed Walker has documented.16 Participation is certainly no longer a counterpower; it has decisively become part of the planning of power itself. If talk of participation once evoked the “Port Huron Statement” and politically radical groups like Students for a Democratic Society, today we are as likely to hear it from the White House, British Petroleum, or the World Bank.

Moreover participation has evolved from being a corrective for entrenched professional expertise to being its own globalized field of expertise. According to Archon Fung the field of actors who “initiate and support citizen participation now constitute a diverse and mutually interacting” set of organizations and groups.17 Among them in the United States, for example, are the “International Association for Public Participation, Everyday Democracy, the Kettering Foundation, and the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University” as well as “the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the Participatory Budgeting Project, and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium.”18 Caroline Lee, who has studied the rise of the “Public Engagement Industry,” dates its appearance to the late 1980s but notes a tremendous growth in the 2000s. Demand for services of the International Association for Public Participation, for example, tripled between 2005 and 2008.19 Today participatory instruments quickly travel the world as processes of “fast policy transfer.”20 At times they seem to do so without apparent boundaries, as with the case we study in this book, which inverts the traditional journey of technologies from North to South.

The spread of participation globally—this “age of participation”—is profoundly paradoxical. In addition to its complicated origins and the broad cast of characters who today advocate it, the timing of events is also counterintuitive. Participation has spread precisely at the moment when an increasing number of decisions, because of their technical demands or their global scope, have become insulated from democratic decision making. Whether we are speaking of the specifics of global trade policy, the global property rights of water, environmental regulation, or the management of complex financial instruments, an increasing number of important decisions take place in juridical or expert settings completely beyond the reach of the demos.21 More than one commentator has noted the coincidental rise of interest in participation and an increasing neoliberalization of public policy as well as an increase in inequalities.22 Some have charged that participation not only has failed to arrest increasing inequalities but has directly been implemented to legitimate them. Colin Crouch has called the growing power of corporate interests and the concomitant emptying out of the power of democratic institutions to hold them accountable a growing postdemocratic condition.23 Wendy Brown has described the current moment as a “neoliberal stealth revolution” that is systematically undermining the demos.24 At the very least we are living in a context, as David Held and others have noted, of profound mismatch between scales of democracy and scales of decision making.25

Participation and Its Critics

This rise of enthusiasm for participatory democracy that has taken place around the world over the last twenty years has certainly inspired skepticism. Critical voices protest that while participatory democracy’s scope has expanded, its emancipatory dimension has all but disappeared from policy discourse on the subject. Recently critics have disputed participatory boosterism for failing to address questions of power, inequality, and politics.26 Frances Cleaver, for example, argues that the belief in participation is based on three postulates: “participation is intrinsically a ‘good thing’ (especially for the participants); a focus on ‘getting the techniques right’ is the principal way of ensuring the success of such approaches, and considerations of power and politics on the whole should be avoided as divisive and obstructive.”27

More broadly, scholars have begun to point to participation, and participatory prescriptions specifically, as part and parcel of neoliberal reforms.28 In general terms participatory democracy appears to have spread just as governments have retrenched. In many instances local governments have introduced participation to improve the fiscal management of public administrations facing financial constraints. Dwindling resources and uncertain futures have driven administrations to transform their practices to guarantee the services they promised. At the same time, they have had to satisfy new economic imperatives: efficiency, productivity, achieving goals, and so on. Is it any accident that, as some critics have charged, “participation is the buzzword of the neoliberal era?”29

Relatedly there is the worry that participation paves the way to a depoliticization of the public sphere, a point made most forcefully by scholars within the governmentality tradition. As part of a new rationality of government that calls forward an entrepreneurial citizen, participation emphasizes important characteristics of that citizen: self-regulation, responsibility for individual problems, and a nonconflictive partnership with the state.30 In this formulation people are “conceived as individuals who are to be active in their own government.”31 Governmentality scholars’ central concern is that participation works to deny the political basis of conflicts and inequities and shifts responsibilities for problems to individuals and communities.32

This last criticism is particularly poignant because governments under the philosophy of “new public management” in the 1980s and 1990s tried to emulate private enterprise by turning citizens into consumers of government services, as we describe in the next chapter. In that model, citizen participation served the role of identifying individual preferences. The public realm was thus reduced to a site of conflicts over individual preferences and to a channel of communication between service providers and clients rather than a space for collective self-determination.

While these critiques are useful, we believe scholars should not so readily dismiss these emerging forms of participatory democracy. Setting aside for a moment the question whether participation makes for effective public policy, we should be attentive to the possibility that participation may shift power relations in a given context. Participation implies a collective space and also presumes a certain equality between participants, with each person a partner in a shared world—of course “presupposing that one can play the same game as one’s adversary.”33 In today’s unequal and fragmented cities and societies it is a far from trivial accomplishment to establish settings for discussion premised on the equality of all participants and their common fate in the sense of public good. There is always something potentially subversive, and unpredictable, in arrangements that imply this equality.

Critics are also sometimes dismissive of the differences between the “new public management” of the 1980s and trends since the 2000s such as “public governance.” New public management—with its idea of the citizen-consumer and its explicit goal of a minimal government modeled on the private sector—certainly sat more easily with neoliberal frameworks than current participatory frameworks, which do evoke both equality and a collective. Wendy Brown’s account of the “neoliberal stealth revolution,” for example, is one where all spheres of life are becoming subject to economic rationality, as “the demos disintegrates into bits of human capital; concerns with justice cede to the mandates of growth rates, credit ratings, and investment climates; [and] equality dissolves into market competition.”34

In addition the spread of political participation around the world has not only been the prerogative of opportunist politicians or mega-agencies like the World Bank, nor is it simply an outgrowth of neoliberal thinking. In many if not most cases it is the result of the active work of NGOs and other organizations in partnership with reformers within the state. Today hundreds of civic organizations lobby for participation at the local, national, and international levels. A great number of specialists are trained in participatory practices, travel to other countries, and replicate participatory experiments. The specialists aim to widen democratic spheres and adapt the participatory instruments to local contexts. This global network in many ways resembles networks of “transnational advocacy,” such as those fighting for human rights.35 Looking at how participation templates travel complicates the perception of northern-based actors’ dominance in generating those blueprints, as in the case of economic knowledge.36 The story of the travel of participatory budgeting from Brazil to the Global North, as we describe later in the book, in some ways bears the mark of “counter-hegemonic globalization,” to use the phrase of Peter Evans, insofar as it signals the belief that “transnational connections can potentially be harnessed to the construction of more equitable distributions of wealth and power.”37

Finally we have to at least consider the possibility that participation may be the victim of its own success. In contrast to the past, participation today has jumped both the economic and the political efficiency hurdles. In the 1970s, for example, reports often criticized instances of participation for being little more than a disorganized crowd of people.38 Today there are endless tools and techniques for managing participants and their expectations. These range from the field of “civic tech”—developing myriad technological devices—to many successful instances of in-person participation: participatory budgeting in Brazil, the debate over Iceland’s constitution, and citizen juries in British Columbia, to name a few. Together these have shown that participatory democracy can be efficient and can manage large numbers of people within complex circumstances without creating any threat to the political order. Advocates argue that perhaps we have simply become good at participation, having now developed the tools and know-how to implement it across many settings. That the World Bank has become a proponent of participatory democracy at the global level may indicate that participation can infiltrate even institutions otherwise devoted to economic efficiency.39

The implementation of participation within these institutions could signify that participation is forcing those within these contexts to expand their horizons. In fact that is the strategic question that “real utopian” thinkers Archon Fung and Erik Wright force us to ask in their proposals for “empowered participatory governance.”40 Within the parameters of local governance in Europe and the United States—usually a site of retrenched governments—citizen participation could signal the broadening of the political subject, the acceptance of the other as colegislator in public affairs, and a subtle extension of the limits of democracy. While advocates acknowledge that participation may not always represent a transformational policy, it may nonetheless mark a step forward in democratic thinking and equality among the members of a political community.

Reframing the Question

The goal of this book is to offer a sustained reflection on this political moment. We do so with a specific purpose, which is less about accounting for these remarkable developments than asking about what they imply. To borrow James Ferguson’s phrase, the point of the analysis here is to ultimately ask how this participatory revolution “may be transforming the field of political limits and possibilities.”41 It is an engaged book in that we have been part of the processes we describe and that our intention is very much to interfere in the terms of the debate.

But we are less concerned with whether participation is a “successful” policy or instrument than in how it comes to be assembled and what its effect may ultimately be in foreclosing some alternatives and opening others. The purpose of this book is not to settle the question whether e-voting is more or less effective than face-to-face deliberations at drawing out young or underprivileged participants. Our goal rather is to say something about what participation, as currently practiced, makes possible and what it might make possible. This book identifies the broader parameters of new governance—what we call the “new spirit of government”—and describes how one practice achieved the status of a global model in that framework. We then turn to an ethnographic account of the practice’s landing in two very distinct contexts. Finally we revisit the lessons of those encounters and seek to make a strategic intervention into how they may serve an emancipatory project.

A word about our standpoint. As we alluded to above, the exponential rise of participation in the last two decades has fueled a debate between critics and boosters, and much like competing accounts of the rise of free markets, it pits opponents “that tell a formally similar story but with the moral polarity inverted.”42 Both critics and enthusiasts acknowledge an unprecedented growth of interest in and implementation of participation since the 2000s, but one set of analysts sees it as a pervasive and more perverse form of neoliberal responsibilization while another marks it as a citizen revolution. We very much take up the challenge that Ferguson has laid down for scholars to “engage with these new configurations of governmental power in a way that goes beyond the politics of denunciation, the politics of the ‘anti.’43 This implies both forgoing “the pleasures of the easy, dismissive critique” and attention to “the rich world of actual social and political practice, the world of tap-turning and experimentation.”44 Fundamentally if advocates of participation are guilty of turning a blind eye to power, and politics, and interests, then critics often ignore its potential as a space of possibilities. Those limits and possibilities, we believe, are to be found in the world of specific practices and contexts, not in general logics.

The study in this book is somewhat unusual. In the years that it took to put it together we have relied on observations, interviews, analysis of texts, and devices, as well as much reflection and conversation about our own involvement in this world. Doing so has upended our own understandings of what anthropologist David Mosse has described as the division between “desk” and “field” in ethnographic work.45 It is more common in the world of participation today for engaged scholars to cross boundaries into the world of practice and implementation than for those in the world of practice to step back and offer a more distanced analysis.46

We understand this book as an ethnographic account in the sense of understanding meanings, practices, and relationships, yet it is more of an ethnography of following actors than observing sustained interaction at any one place or with one set of actors.47 We build on the work of previous ethnographers who have sought to capture objects in motion across global landscapes.48 And we draw on recent critical urban studies from geographers who have called attention to “the critical investigation of policies-in-motion across multiple sites, with a focus on how regulatory practices and institutions achieve ‘model’ status, and circulate and mutate between places and through distended policy networks.”49

We are also fundamentally inspired by the call from Science and Technology Studies who insist on studying process in the making, “before the controversies involved in its fabrication are closed, before the complexities of its inner working are taken-for-granted” and before “the patterns of organizational power and influence [ . . . ] are forgotten or rationalized.”50 In doing so we follow the story from controversy to controversy, from one city in Brazil in the late 1980s through to Europe and then the United States in the 2010s. In an important sense our approach is also indebted to microhistory and its insistence on reconstruction of larger realities from smaller events.51

In this context our framework also benefits a great deal from what Jamie Peck has described as an emergent “comparative imagination” that “has constructively opened the horizon for a different kind of urban studies” beyond comparisons structured around nation-states or even the idea of precisely comparable units.52 Accordingly, in seeking to understand participatory experiments both in a wider field of thinking about governance and in very specific contexts, we have heeded the warning to avoid “unreflexive and shorthand uses of ‘neoliberalism’ as an all-purpose, ambient signifier, ready for standardized application irrespective of context.”53

The Research Literature and Its Limits

Our approach here is different from much of the current scholarship that approaches participatory democracy empirically. By now an abundance of literature has emerged alongside the growth of these participatory endeavors. Much of this scholarship implicitly adopts the point of view of those implementing participatory experiments, if it is not directly carried out by those implementers or their allies themselves. That is, scholars often ask questions that mirror those of the projects’ implementers or its funders, such as: Who participates? What is the depth and scope of participation? Is the project successful? Is the process actually participant centered and does it take the view of participants?

As useful as that literature has been and as much as we rely on its specific insights for the arguments we make here, we purposefully depart from it. We do so for several reasons. First, the literature generally takes for granted the democratizing effects of participation. It is not uncommon for scholarship to take the participation of several thousand participants in some process as prima facie evidence of democratization or empowerment. Similarly scholars assume that stating agreement to “democratic values” or “trust in government” in response to questions pertaining to participation is evidence of democratization. The literature very seldom asks if participation extends beyond the institutionalized forum and almost never addresses the fundamental question of how preferences are aggregated and translated into actual outcomes in participation.54

Second, the literature nearly always privileges the local forum as the central unit of transformation. Participant surveys or ethnographies take the meeting as the center of social action and the remaining institutional apparatus fades from view. In fact scholars pay attention to the processes as a participant might, focusing on the quality of deliberation and debate. These scholars often view government machinery as ambiguous or peripheral to the process.55 The literature seldom shines a light on the processes of implementing participatory instruments themselves or the conflicts these efforts generate within administrations. This localist reading thus excludes any consideration of democratic innovations beyond the procedures to which they are normally applied and, more importantly, hinders discussions of their capacity to transform existing power relations. Mark Purcell has described this as the “local trap” into which analysts can easily fall.56 And Jamie Peck correctly warns that “‘alternatives’ too should be evaluated in and against these wider fields of difference, not as separatist enclaves.”57 Although in this book we sometimes cover seemingly micro details of particular experiences, we go to some pains to locate these in the broader context of governance, power, and politics and also in the context of broader changes in thinking about governance.

Most crucial for us however is that the literature takes for granted how administrations, practitioners, and participants assemble “participation.” That is, before asking what participation does, scholars rarely ask what participation is and what it means within specific sites. While the literature covering this topic is insightful, it is often unvariegated and relies on retrospective accounts of “a series of inevitable stages moving from the abstract to the concrete.”58 Both critics and proponents of participation tend to overlook how any participatory project requires allies, and how any such project provokes tensions and conflicts. Whether scholars describe it a priori as a neoliberal project or celebrate it as a prima facie democratic advance, participation in either case seems to arrive on the scene as ready-made and is then tested for its effects.

We look instead to the insights of the more dispassionate, usually comparative projects that have looked at various local contexts, meanings, and politics of participation. Scholars such as Gabriel Hetland, Benjamin Goldfrank, Brian Wampler, Stephanie McNulty, Yves Sintomer, and Joan Font, among others, have long insisted that participation not be looked at outside of broader political contexts.59

The institutionalization of participation is always “a collective process” in which heterogeneous actors come together around issues and agree to work on them jointly.60 Critics of participation-as-neoliberalism downplay the collective nature of participation projects. Participatory projects are never the work of a single omnipotent and authoritative actor. These projects usually involve a range of participants from different levels of government—“stakeholders,” broadly defined—and a wide range of experts. Then there is the work of enrolling additional actors to participate. With each new actor enrolled there is always some redefinition of what participation will consist of. On the other hand, those who celebrate participation often underemphasize the power dynamics and conflict that are inherently part of establishing participation. The very definition of participation—the project’s goals or who can be a legitimate participant—represents the power of some agents to define those agendas. As we discuss later in the book and as any insider to participatory processes can attest, participation also calls forth laborious efforts by the organizations of government to mobilize resources, allies, and agents with the aims of fixing its limits, of defining a proper field of operations, and of neutralizing runaway participatory arguments.

In shifting the conversation away from the point of view of participation’s implementers, we are calling for a critical distance and a sense of estrangement from these processes. We have come to believe that greater agnosticism would benefit critical scholars evaluating participatory processes, rather than relying on what anthropologists call “ontological complicity.”

Democratization from Above

Taking our cues from Pierre Lascoumes and Patrick Le Gales, for us participation is an instrument, a “device that is both technical and social, that organizes specific social relations between the state and those it is addressed to, according to the representations and meanings it carries,”61 which implies that participatory instruments do not arrive ready-made.62 Moreover when these projects do “land,” they represent an array of actors with different interests invested in (or opposed to) the device. Policy instruments in this way “are not neutral devices: they produce specific effects, independently of the objective pursued (the aims ascribed to them), which structure public policy according to their own logic.”63 Here we suggest that new participatory devices (democratic innovations) open a new political context with important effects on democratic performance.

Nearly all democratic innovations today are developed around the idea of everyone’s equal right to be heard—that is, participants are invited to decide conjointly and there are no political hierarchies in the decision-making process. It does not mean that all democratic innovations are successful stories of enabling broad participation, but rather that democratic performances are going to be structured from that idea. For that reason these efforts imply a universal framework of political action, which aims to achieve a collective understanding from which all kind of actors will justify or critique the flow of events. This encourages, at least inside the participatory process, the emergence of a common space around which politics can revolve. From such a space the conflicts of power that arise through democratic innovations reveal the struggle for sovereignty. Debate between citizens, political representatives, and technical experts depends on the concept of political equality, which allows the participant to assert herself as a partner in a shared world, moving politics onto the terrain of mutual empowerment.

Throughout the book we focus on the question of political coordination. For us political coordination is the answer to the central problem in democracies: How are different identities, claims, and interests in a complex society constructed and coordinated? Under what principles are they rendered equivalent? What is the limit of the demos, and what is its reach? Sociologists and social theorists from Max Weber to Jürgen Habermas and Charles Tilly, who considered conditions under which diverse societal demands are debated and met, have treated these as central questions. In very broad terms, these are the concerns of relational political sociologists. And recent critical theorists have also taken up these concerns. Ernesto Laclau, for example, is concerned with the logic of equivalence between different demands and between actors in complex societies,64 while Bruno Latour insists that we investigate, first of all, how the demos is assembled. Jacques Rancière asks principally who is allowed to participate in decision making and in the division of societal rewards, and what kinds of identities and claims are considered sensible.65

Attentiveness to political coordination implies attention to justifications. In societies where there is some room for the interpretation of the social and political order, the question of why this policy and not another also remains open and is fraught with ambiguities. But our focus here is on specific effects rather than general principles at play. Political coordination takes place through specific instruments (democratic innovations) that have specific effects in structuring political interactions according to their own logic. In this case it is the logic of making decisions without hierarchies.

From this point of view democratic innovations pose a number of questions. They may pose important challenges to democratic performance, awakening resistance and criticism from within administrative apparatuses, as we’ll see. Unlike traditional political thinking on the left, the concept of participation through democratic innovations reconciles protests and proposals. Participation begins not from a place of conflict but from one of shared interest. The participant listens to what others say and then decides what is best. Even without recourse to the notion that there may be no good citizens, the participant is transposed to a place in which she must make collective decisions and where a diversity of strategies might be deployed. Yet the open stage of democratic innovations is already enclosed within the boundaries of the debate, which in the majority of cases are imposed by those in government. Similarly “equality” is an automatic assumption that may mask structural difficulties preventing some voices from being heard. Finally it is not clear what is under discussion or how it should be discussed. For example, can everybody in fact participate in the debate? The “problem space” defined by these democratic innovations provokes core questions: What is to be decided? Who decides what is up for debate? How will decisions be made? Furthermore what kind of political project do these processes represent (is it more democratic or less?).

In the following chapters we will analyze the democratic innovations at this juncture. In the next chapter we look at these participatory institutions in more detail, discussing the principles of political coordination that orient them. We recognize that these processes are closely linked to globalization. Democratic innovations travel fast, are replicated, copied, and easily adapted in widely differing contexts. In that sense their proliferation around the world in recent years offers us an ideal framework with which to interpret globalization. Why do these processes take place, and does their participatory nature produce certain consequences? Chapter 3 is thus devoted to analyzing how democratic innovations travel and the kind of influence the travel itself has on specific instruments. In the succeeding chapters, 4 and 5, we will look more deeply into the aforementioned issues regarding the limits of democratic innovations, using ethnographic work carried out in the United States and Spain. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 take as their specific example the inception and development of a particular democratic innovation—participatory budgeting—in three different cities: Porto Alegre (Brazil), Chicago (USA), and Córdoba (Spain). Participatory budgeting is a democratic innovation based on the simple premise that ordinary citizens should have a say in how public budgets are decided. Developed among leftist social movements and municipal administrators in Brazil in the late 1980s, it has since been copied and adapted in hundreds of municipalities around the world.

Participatory budgeting is one of the marquee participatory institutions of the contemporary moment, routinely being included in lists of best practices in both the Global North and Global South. It thus provides a strategic angle from which to address the fundamental questions the current era asks of us—questions which critics and promoters alike have increasingly asked: What does this turn to participation mean? Is it transformative? Is it a “quiet revolution,” as some enthusiasts have argued? Are these social changes that lie at the interstices of power, or simply neoliberalism in disguise? Fundamentally can we still think in terms of social transformation? The questions are broad and our answers are modest, but we hope these chapters will contribute to the current debate on democracy. In the final chapter we offer some reflections from a wider political perspective on the direction in which our analysis might lead.


1. “Forum Mondial de la Démocratie.”

2. “The United States releases its Second Open Government National Action Plan.”

3. “The Open Government Partnership Second Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America.”

4. “Communiqué sur la Conférence Internationale sur la Participation Citoyenne et Budgets Participatifs en Afrique.”

5. Travaline, “Clinton tells marketers we live in a Participation Age . . .”

6. Lee, McQuarrie, and Walker, Democratizing inequalities, 7.

7. Fung, “Putting the public back into governance,” 514.

8. Mansuri and Rao, Localizing development. Cited in Fung, “Putting the public back into governance,” 514.

9. National League of Cities, Making local democracy work. Godwin explores the data further to show “that a large majority (69 percent) had citizens serve on ad hoc task forces and a fairly high percentage of cities held neighborhood meetings (48 percent) and town meetings (39 percent)” (Godwin, “Civic engagement and fiscal stress in American cities,” 253).

10. Recent research in Southern Europe highlights that most municipalities “have developed considerable participatory activity” (Font, Della Porta, and Sintomer, Participatory democracy in Southern Europe, 42).

11. Peck and Theodore, “Mobilizing policy.”

12. For a fascinating account of the place of participatory democracy in the history of U.S. social movements, see Polletta, “Participatory democracy in the new millennium”; “Awkward movements”; “Social movement cultures.”

13. Polletta, “How participatory democracy became white,” 275.

14. See, for example, the discussion in Case and Taylor, Co-ops, communes and collectives; and for a classic study of the antinuclear movement, see Downey, “Ideology and the clamshell identity.”

15. Boyte, Backyard revolution.

16. Walker, “Privatizing participation”; Kleine and Von Hauff, “Sustainability-driven implementation of corporate social responsibility.” See also Walker and Rea, “Political mobilization of firms and industries.”

17. Fung, “Putting the Public Back into Governance,” 520.

18. Ibid., 521.

19. Lee, Do-it-yourself democracy.

20. Peck and Theodore, “Mobilizing policy.”

21. Jasanoff, Fifth branch.

22. Lee, McQuarrie, and Walker, Democratizing inequalities.

23. Crouch, Post-democracy.

24. Brown, Undoing the demos.

25. Held, Prospects for democracy.

26. Cooke and Kothari, Participation.

27. Cleaver, “Paradoxes of participation,” 598.

28. Hickey and Mohan, Participation—From tyranny to transformation?

29. Leal, “Participation.”

30. See Li, “Beyond ‘the state’ and failed schemes”; Ong, Neoliberalism as exception.

31. Rose, “Death of the social?” 330.

32. Ferguson, Anti-politics machine.

33. Rancière, Future of the image, 78.

34. Brown, Undoing the demos, 2.

35. Keck and Sikkink, Activists beyond borders.

36. Babb, “Social consequences of structural adjustment.”

37. Evans, “Counterhegemonic globalization.”

38. Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki, Crisis of democracy.

39. See Goldfrank, “World Bank and the globalization of participatory budgeting.”

40. See Fung and Wright, “Deepening democracy.”

41. Ferguson, Give a man a fish, 2.

42. Ibid., 1.

43. Ibid., 171.

44. Ibid., 67.

45. Mosse, “Anti-social anthropology?”

46. For example, in addition to Mosse’s book on development there is also Carothers, Assessing democracy assistance.

47. In addition to the observations and interviews, both authors also worked on—and actively promoted—participatory budgeting in different capacities over the years. Gianpaolo was one of the founders of the Participatory Budgeting Project described in Chapter 5 and assisted the alderman on a volunteer basis. Ernesto is one of the founders of Antigona, a collective that assists the implementation of participatory projects in Spain, and worked on Córdoba’s participatory budget as an employee of city hall. Nicole Summers, our coauthor for Chapter 5, was a staffer in the ward office. As we have mentioned, we very much subscribe to the view that the traditional division between “field” and “desk” does not hold for many of us whose professional work continues to engage the relevant communities. However this does not mean there are no potential ethical pitfalls in these entanglements. All of the evidence in this book only comes from open, public meetings, published statements, and formal, explicit interviews. We do not include any identifying details about individuals other than for elected officials.

48. There are many excellent works by the likes of Tania Li, Aiwah Ong, and slightly earlier, James Marcus, in anthropology, who make the case for various versions of what we think of as ethnographies of circulation. In sociology, in a slightly different register, scholars like Leslie Selziger, Millie Thayer (global ethnography), and Michael Burawoy make a case for micro interactions in global structures.

49. Peck and Theodore, “Mobilizing policy.”

50. Preston, Cooper, and Coombs, “Fabricating budgets,” 564.

51. Ginzburg, Clues, myths, and the historical method.

52. Peck, “Cities beyond compare?” 160.

53. Ibid., 172.

54. In fairness, many civil society theorists such as Habermas and Fraser recognize this problem but generally deal with it at a very high level of abstraction.

55. This is certainly true of our own earlier work. See Baiocchi, “Participation, politics, and activism,” as a prime example. This is also true of very many subsequent studies on participatory budgeting.

56. Purcell, “Urban democracy and the local trap.”

57. Peck, “Cities beyond compare?” 172.

58. Lascoumes and Le Gales, “Introduction: Understanding public policy through its instruments,” 10.

59. Hetland, “The crooked line”; Wampler and McNulty, “Does participatory governance Matter?; Font, Della Porta, and Sintomer, Participatory democracy in Southern Europe; Goldfrank, “The World Bank and the globalization of participatory budgeting.”

60. Latour, Science in action, 29. Similarly scholars of diffusion have argued that a program which seems appealing on a surface level “attracts disproportionate attention” and is embraced because of “its apparent promise, not its demonstrated effects” (Weyland, Bounded rationality and policy diffusion).

61. The definition continues: “It is a particular type of institution, a technical device with the generic purpose of carrying a concrete concept of the politics/society relationship and sustained by a concept of regulation” (Lascoumes and Le Gales, “Introduction: Understanding public policy through its instruments,” 4).

62. As Lascoumes and Le Gales put it: “landing from heaven” (4).

63. Lascoumes and Le Gales, “Introduction: Understanding public policy through its instruments,” 7.

64. See Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and socialist strategy; Mouffe, Democratic paradox; and Laclau, On populist reason.

65. Rancière, Aux bords du politique.