the Partido dos Trabalhadores and participatory governance in Brazil 


Rebecca Abers

Abers is wetenschappelijk medewerker stadsplanning aan de universiteit van Californië te Los Angeles; verschenen in: Latin America Perspectives, vol. 23, nr. 4 (91), 1996, pp 35-54


Although formally democratic institutions were established in Brazil in the 1980s, to a large extent the extremely unequal power structures that characterized Brazilian political life during the military regime remain in place. Elite political groups have harnessed the electoral system to serve their own interests, and decisions continue to be made behind closed doors, with little accountability to the (poor) majority of the population. Since basic democratic institutions--such as political parties--remain weak, personalis-tic struggles for power often usurp meaningful political debate. These conditions have been exacerbated by a severe economic crisis that has both intensified social problems and drastically limited the capacity of the debt-ridden federal government to respond to them. The result, over the past decade, has been a series of political stalemates at the national level.

Municipal administrations governed by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' party--PT) stand out as striking examples of possibility within this frustrating picture of largely superficial democratization. Since 1988, when the PT won a significant number of mayoral elections for the first time, PT prefeituras (municipal administrations), have challenged the monopoly of traditional elites over local government in a variety of ways. Many PT administrations have successfully eliminated traditional forms of clientelism and corruption, such as the widespread practice of farming-out public works projects to select businesses at exorbitant prices. And most have experimented with lower-cost, small-scale economic development, public service, and urban-environmental projects in poor areas that incorporate greater citizen involvement and control.

One central effort of PT administrations has involved citizen participation not only in the execution of government programs but also in decision making about how government spending should be allocated and the kinds of programs that should be implemented. Such experiments typically involve the creation of municipal and district-level "councils" or "forums," in which ordinary citizens debate issues such as housing, transportation, health care, education, and budgetary policy.


What follows is a preliminary examination of the evolution of participatory experiments in a number of municipal administrations where the PT held office between 1989 and 1992. Although many democratic theorists have called for increased participation in decisionmaking, most writers have also pointed to a number of contradictions that arise when "direct democracy" is put into practice. Focusing on one of the most important areas of popular participation in PT municipal administrations, budgetary policy, this article compares how different administrations coped with three such problems: (1) initially mobilizing the population to take part in the councils, (2) making the technical aspects of city planning accessible to ordinary citizens, and (3) ensuring that participatory mechanisms did not exclude the needs of those who did not participate.


Popular participation in pt ideology


The origins of the PT lie in the radical labor union movement that emerged in southeastern Brazil's heavy industrial sector at the end of the 1970s. Beginning in early 1978, when 80,000 automobile workers held a sit-down strike, waves of massive strikes took place in the industrial district surrounding Sao Paulo, involving at least a half a million workers by the end of the year. In 1979 the military regime allowed new political parties to form for the first time since the 1964 coup. At first, the leaders of the new union movement intended to remain within the mainstream opposition party, the Movimento Democratico Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement--MDB). However, as MDB politicians failed to support the ongoing strike movement, union leaders became convinced of the need for an autonomous workers' party. Thus, in an alliance with a number of other radical groups, including the "progressive" Catholic church, urban social movements, peasant unions, leftist revolutionary groups of a variety of tendencies, human and civil fights activists, and radical intellectuals and politicians, the PT was formed in 1980.

The emergence of the PT represented an important break from earlier Brazilian leftist political groups. The various communist parties of Brazil were principally made up of elite groups from within the military and the intelligentsia. The Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist party--PCB) often appeared to condone existing power hierarchies, supporting the presidencies of Getulio Vargas, Juscelino Kubitschek, and Joao Goulart, and the radical guerril uprising of the dictatorship years also had few ties to a grassroots base. During the military regime, the organizational structure of the "old left" was all but destroyed through violent political repression. This destruction allowed the PT to emerge unburdened by a history of either elite control or alliance with the mainstream: "The initiative in constituting the PT arose within a new, post-1964 working class that, having no experience of Stalinism or populism, understood on the basis of its own experience of class struggle the necessity of an independent political organization" (Lowy, 1987: 455).

Given the heterogeneity of the groups that make up the party, it is not surprising that the official ideology of the PT has been quite vague. The party is brought together by a general commitment to democracy that shuns the elitism, dogmatism, and revolutionary vanguardism of earlier Brazilian socialist parties. Autonomous grassroots control and direct participation are key concepts wielded in most party meetings and conventions. However, beyond these general themes, the specific party line on what "participation" means and how it should be implemented has been formally laid down in only a cursory way. On the one hand, a convergence of many interests and perspectives within the party makes such a formulation difficult. On the other hand, the general ideal of internal democracy and the attempt to include a series of perspectives has caused party leaders to argue against imposing "any particular 'formula' on the masses, allowing instead for the platform, like the party itself, to arise 'from the bottom up' "(Lowy, 1987: 461).

During the first decade of its existence, the PT was pervaded by a general distrust of party and government "machines" and constantly sought to maintain ties to a multitude of grassroots social movements. With this goal in mind, it has attempted to develop an extremely decentralized organizational structure. The ideal--only partially successful in practice — was to found the party in small, grassroots "nuclei" formed by party organizers in urban neighborhoods, workplaces, universities, farms, and rural villages. In each nucleus, party members discuss, deliberate, and elect delegates to local conventions, which in turn elect delegates to state and national conventions. Thus, the party has sought to institutionalize a "pyramidal" system of mediations through which the national directorate is directly tied to the grassroots base.

As party platforms were prepared for the 1988 municipal elections, the PT began to define what a PT municipal administration should look like. The main themes were the decentralization of power, government accountability to autonomous social movements, and a reversal of priorities away from elite groups toward the poor and   disadvantaged. Most militants argued that the structure of a PT government should be similar to that of the party itself. A pyramidal system would emerge through the creation of "popular councils": neighborhood-level organizations would elect district councils, which would in turn elect municipal councils that would have a great deal of control (or, in the eyes of some militants, total control) over the decisions generated by the municipal administration. The general expectation was that, once a PT government was in place, these councils would spontaneously emerge from the autonomous initiative of  the local community movement (Gadotti and Pereira, 1989: 282-287; Silberschneider, 1993: 78-116).

Although such ideals had been established before the 1988 municipal elections, as a whole the practical means for achieving a decentralized, social-movement-based participatory structure of governance was not clear. When, in 1988, PT candidates were elected mayor in 36 Brazilian municipalities, the new governments were faced with the difficult task of achieving these goals in practice.


Popular budget councils and the problems of participation

To collect information on the experiences of PT municipal governments in this first critical phase of electoral success--the 1989 to 1992 term — in July and August of 1993, just six months after another round of municipal elections put 50 new PT mayoral candidates into office, I visited five cities where the PT had won recent  elections. In those cities I sought out government officials who had worked in PT administrations in the previous term. In Porto Alegre and Santos, the PT had won reelection, and most of the informants remained in the same positions they had held earlier. In the other three cities, Belo Horizonte, Goiania, and Sao Jose dos Campos, I interviewed administrators who had worked in other cities where the PT was in office between 1989 and 1993. In this manner I was able to collect information on participatory experiences in a total of six 1989-1992 administrations: Santos, Santo Andre, and Piracicaba in the   state of Sao Paulo; Ipatinga and Joao Monlevarde in the state of Minas Gerais; and Porto Alegre in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Since interviews were primarily with administration personnel (only in Porto Alegre were some nongovernmental organization [NGO] staff and PT militants also interviewed), the following account of popular participation in PT governments does not intend to be a neutral one. Instead, the remainder of this article focuses on the experience of  policymaking from the evolving perspective of the policymakers themselves. Informants were questioned on how their conceptualizations of popular participation changed over the course of the term, on the obstacles they found to promoting popular councils, on the means they found for addressing those obstacles, and on how they intended to avoid repeating the mistakes of the previous term.

Although the interviews touched on a variety of different types of participatory councils (housing, health care, education, and so on), most of the discussions focused on attempts to create "budget councils." The PT has made the transformation of budget policy one of its central local government objectives because the manipulation of city spending has historically been the backbone of local clientelistic structures. Typically, local government spending favors large-scale, centrally located public works at the expense of services and projects providing basic needs for the poor. Such big infrastructure projects fill the coffers of the powerful construction companies that finance political campaigns. At the same time, what limited funds are spent on the urban periphery are usually dependent on promises by local neighborhood leaders to support particular mayoral or city-council candidates in upcoming elections.

In order to give conventionally excluded social groups greater control over budget decisions, PT municipal administrations throughout Brazil have created district and citywide budget councils or forms. In most of the administrations, the councils have been responsible for determining neighborhood and district priorities for the allocation of the 10-20 percent of revenues usually available for capital spending   each year (in most of the cities I examined, the percentage of the   budget available for investment rose significantly over the course of  the term, as the PT administrations raised property taxes on the wealthy). District councils--made up of delegates elected in open assemblies at the neighborhood and district levels--have been formed to debate their priorities for public investment. In some cases they   elect delegates to municipal-level councils that negotiate those priorities directly with the administrations. The organization of these budget councils and the amount of power the administrations have given them have varied tremendously.

The research showed that budget councils raise some particularly interesting questions about the limits and possibilities of popular participation in government decisionmaking. In the first place, budgets are generally considered highly technical aspects of policymaking that require expert knowledge. This suggests that incorporating ordinary citizens into the budget-making process should be a particularly difficult task. Either participation will have to be limited to a radically simplified discussion or only the small portion of the population with adequate time and education will be able to debate budget issues comprehensively. As discussed below, the PT governments surveyed coped with this problem in very different ways.

In the second place, participatory planning is usually encountered in   very localized projects and programs, such as neighborhood renovation projects or housing construction, whereas the municipal budget necessarily encompasses the city as a whole. Although it is possible   to decentralize the budget process to a large degree — calling neighborhood assemblies to debate localized priorities — eventually there must be some mechanism for centralizing decisions, determining which neighborhoods are going to win their demands and which are not. This means either that central administrators must make the decision on some "technical" basis (possibly by simply dividing up resources by neighborhood or district) or that a means must be found for participants to make decisions not only about their own locales but   also about the needs of other neighborhoods. Thus, attempting to incorporate participation into the budget process raises some interesting questions about the tension between participation and centralization.

Both of these issues tie into some of the key debates that have emerged in democratic theory about the problems of participation. Many democratic theorists have called for a participatory democracy in which ordinary citizens meet in assemblies, debate issues, and come to decisions, either by consensus or by voting (see, e.g. Barber, 1984; Held, 1987; Macpherson, 1977; Martsbridge, 1980; Pateman, 1970, Phillips, 1991; Poulantzas, 1978). However, most of these writers have argued that such participatory mechanisms must be combined with representative forms in which decisions are made indirectly by officials selected in general elections in which the entire population votes (see, e.g., Macpherson, 1977; Poulantzas, 1978; Paternan, 1970; Held, 1987; Phillips, 1991; Mansbridge, 1980).
Two sets of reasons have commonly been proposed in theory for this combination of direct and indirect democracy. The first are what can   be termed the "size difficulties" of direct participation. Issues that affect the interests of very large populations cannot be decided in face-to-face assemblies. Broad-based decisions must therefore be made either by representatives of smaller-scale assemblies or by elected officials (Macpherson, 1977; Barber, 1984). The second are what can be considered "representation difficulties." Phillips (1991), for example, notes that those who can participate in lengthy discussions and debates are rarely representative of the entire population. Citizens with less time and resources — such as women and the very   poor — are the least likely to participate. Others have argued that social movements, even when they are made up of underrepresented sectors of the population, often seek gains for their own specific, localized needs rather than for the population as a whole? Highly organized neighborhood groups will rarely promote the interests of  other neighborhoods where popular mobilization is low. This means that unorganized neighborhoods — often the most needy — an be at a strong disadvantage in participatory governments. Some writers — such as Sartori (1987) — have gone so far as to suggest that these problems make participatory decisions less "demoratic" than those made by representatives voted in general elections.

Incorporating popular participation into budget making involves a mixture of these problems. Addressing the size problem entails finding ways to confront the tension between the centralization needed to define a final budget proposal and the decentralization needed to create face-to-face assemblies. At the same time, the highly technical aspect of the budget can easily create representation problems if only those citizens with a high level of education or available time for study can make decisions that depend on understanding how the budget works. Finally, the social movements that are most interested in budget policy are typically community associations seeking investment in infrastructure and services in their neighborhoods. Such groups have a particularly strong tendency to defend their own locales at the expense of other neighborhoods. This implies an interesting combination of the size and representation problems. Where mobilization is very uneven among neighborhoods, some representative mechanism is required if all parts of the city are to have an equal   chance at being attended by the final budget.

The different PT municipal administrations I surveyed produced a wide array of interpretations of the problems and a broad range of responses to them. In some cities the administrators judged these problems insoluble and severely limited the extent to which participatory mechanisms could determine the budget. In other cities creative means were found to address the problems, albeit only incrementally and partially.


Yet before the administrations were faced with these somewhat complex aspects of how a participatory democracy works in practice, they encountered some serious problems in mobilizing the population to participate in the first place.

Getting participatory councils started

The generally simplistic conceptualization of participation held by the PT before it gained significant experience in governing led to frustrating experiences in the first years of government administration, particularly in the attempt to create budget councils. Both administration officials and members of local social movements suffered from the effects of overly high and misguided expectations about how those councils would operate.

In each of the cities studied, the PT was elected on a platform that promised that the new "popular and democratic" administrations would give priority to investing in basic public works and services in poor areas. Guided by the belief that the "people" should determine how city resources would be allocated, each administration in its first year sought to fulfill this promise by inviting citizens to present their demands for public investment. Months after taking office, the administrations of some cities, such as Santos, Porto Alegre, Santo Andre, and Ipatinga, called open assemblies in each district in which participants presented the administrations with long lists of demands. In other cities government officials met with community leaders, held neighborhood meetings, and in some cases even walked door-to-door in poor neighborhoods writing down the needs and requests of residents.

Not surprisingly, the administrations were faced with thousands of demands for public works and services only a fraction of which could be accounted for with the funds available. The projects to be included had to be chosen ad hoc, either by giving preference to the most commonly requested projects, by attending those neighborhoods with the strongest mobilization, or by determining "technically" which projects were most necessary. In some cities the financial situation inherited from previous administrations was so precarious as to make virtually no investment possible in the first year. Numerous administration informants recounted their surprise on discovering that the municipal coffers were not the fountain of wealth they had expected.

In case after case, according to administration informants, the promise to attend to the demands collected followed by the implementation of only a fraction of them led to a dramatic drop in grassroots support for the administrations. This decline in support negatively affected future attempts at implementing participatory programs: when in the second year councils and assemblies were called to define the third year's budget, far fewer citizens attended than in the previous year. A large portion of potential participants had lost faith in the capacity of the government to respond to their demands.

Interviews with PT administrators suggested that this result stemmed not only from the overly high expectations of those who participated in the assemblies but also from the misconceptions of PT administrators themselves. Many came to office with the notion that if an administration was open to hearing the people, social movements would autonomously organize in such a way that they could effectively instruct government on how spending should be distributed and on what kinds of policies should be implemented. Yet when they went to the streets to "listen" to the people, they encountered what might be called a credibility dilemma: whereas PT ideology declared that all government decisions should be made through participatory means, all too often citizens declined to participate without some faith that their efforts would have material results. Those who appeared at the initial assemblies were for the most part members of social movements and community organizations. Accustomed to opposing the local government, those movements maintained their traditional role as "demand ma-kers." According to many informants, despite the PT's strong grassroots ties and the fact that many militants of popular movements gained positions in the new administrations, grassroots organizations maintained a great deal of suspicion of PT municipal administrations, as they did of government in general.

Thus, according to numerous informants, the administrations' attempts to incorporate popular movements into the formulation of the city budget largely failed in the first years not only because of the lack of funds but also because the movements were not certain that participating constructively — that is, going beyond merely making demands to helping the administration devise feasible proposal — would be worth their effort. When the administrations made the critical mistake of promising more than they could possibly produce, they only worsened the credibility problem. In order to break this vicious circle, the governments had to begin implementing projects and programs favoring the poor before meaningful participation in those programs could take place.

Not all of the cities were successful at recharging the participatory budget councils after the first year. In Santos, for example, after a disastrous first year in which assemblies to discuss the budget resulted in a huge, unordered and unmanageable list of demands, participation diminished radically in the second year. Rather than trying again in the third year, administrators retreated from efforts at large-scale, citywide participatory projects altogether. Participatory councils were limited to more localized tasks, such as neighborhood health councils that would observe and inspect but not manage neighborhood health posts.

In other cities, however, administrators continued the participatory budget policies in the second year, hoping, this time around, to generate expectations that were more closely correlated with feasible results and thus to begin to overcome the credibility dilemma. They began to encourage participants to define priorities for public investment rather than simply presenting unqualified lists of demands. In some cities, such as Ipatinga and Piracicaba, council participants were asked to fill out individual surveys that listed each   participant's priorities. In other cities, such as Santo Andre and   Porto Alegre, residents were asked in local assemblies to negotiate ordered lists of investment priorities only the top few of which could be implemented.

Some administrations, most notably in Porto Alegre and Santo Andre,also began to incorporate a strong educational component into the participatory process. In these cities the administrations determined that the process of circumscribing demands depended on the participants' understanding of why funds were limited in the first place. They therefore began to implement training sessions on the structure of the city budget, emphasizing not only how city spending functioned but also how the city acquired its revenue. In Porto Alegre, this educational effort resulted in a widespread popular campaign that successfully pressured the city council to institute progressive property taxes, substantially increasing municipal revenues.

In this way, according to informants in several of the cities surveyed, participation in the second year was much lower than in the first, but the resulting budget generally represented more or less what participants expected. This increased the credibility of the governments and led many more citizens to participate in the third year of budget making. By 1991 a number of PT cities had relatively high attendance in participatory programs aimed at formulating budget priorities, including, among those surveyed, Porto Alegre, Santo Andre, Piracicaba, and Ipatinga.

Making technicality accessible

One planner and PT militant impressed on me the difficulty of deciphering the highly technical character of the budget into language that ordinary citizens could comprehend by pulling out his weight copy of the city budget and flipping through the endless pages of figures and calculations. Indeed, making the vast complexity of a municipal budget accessible was one of the greatest difficulties mentioned in interviews about creating budget councils. The principal way of addressing the technical obscurity of the budget was to give participants only a limited role in formulating it. In most cities, budget councils were allowed only to determine what the priorities for spending should be rather than how resources would be allocated. Thus, district councils--which in some cities were open to the public and in other cities were formed by delegates from neighborhood associations — were to define the three or four most important needs of the district. Those priorities were then integrated into (or left out of) the budget proposals by the administration's "technical" personnel. The general impression was that participation could not go much farther than this general priority setting.

Indeed, several informants argued that even priority setting had to be restricted because participants tended to favor certain kinds of public investments at the expense of others. Popular assemblies usually made demands for specific investments in public infrastructure, such as paving a street or building a school, but often ignored investment in "programs" (such as improving the efficiency of a health post or creating a loan program for micro-businesses) that did not involve building something visible.     

Yet in Porto Alegre budget planners presented a very different picture. Repeatedly, these informants noted that in creating the budget councils, they discovered that the capacity of the participants to understand the subtleties of budgeting was much greater than they had initially expected. In Porto Alegre the participatory budget eventually became the central policy mechanism of the entire administration. By the third year after it was created, practically every decision that involved government spending had to be approved by the municipal budget council. To make this possible, the city of about 1.2 million people was divided into 16 regions, and district budget assemblies were held in each. In those assemblies, open to all who wished to take part, participants presented demands for government investment. A series of meetings took place that included some educational sessions in which the administration explained where revenues came from, the structure of public spending, and the problemsposed by specific demands. After negotiating the investment priorities of each district, in the final meetings district participants elected two "representatives" to the municipal council. They also elected a portion of the participants as "delegates" who met regularly in district budget forums. These delegates followed the activities of the municipal council, pressured representatives to vote according to the priorities set in the district assemblies, and informed them of any new problems being raised at the neighborhood level. The 32 representatives, who now formed the municipal budget council, along with the hundreds of delegates, essentially became specialists in budgeting and investment. The municipal council presented the priorities of the districts to the administration, which formulated a provisional budget. Then, meeting two or three times a week over a period of several months, the council negotiated this proposal with the administration in detail.

The Porto Alegre administration thus addressed the problem of technical complexity in two ways. In the first place, as mentioned above, it devoted a great deal of energy to educating even the lowest-level council participants on the details of the budget   process. According to numerous informants in Porto Alegre, the administrative personnel were constantly surprised at the amount of information that the ordinary participants could understand. In the second place, the finest particulars of the budget — not only capital spending but also the year-to-year variable spending allocated to each department, which would have been difficult for all participants to grasp — became the principal responsibility of those participants' representatives on the municipal council. Thus, while the majority of the participants gained a basic familiarity with the workings of the city budget, their representatives became virtual specialists in budget policy.     

One of the most interesting results of this attempt to make the budget accessible to the participants was that over the course of the first four-year term the council began to demand increasing amounts of information about how city spending was structured. According to a top financial administrator, this forced the administration to define much more clearly than in the past how resources would be allocated. That is, as the administration was pressured to account for the way its revenues were being spent, the central financial department needed to collect and coordinate information on the finances of each government department with much greater accuracy. "Before the participatory budget," the same informant noted, "the budget typically involved little more than allocating the same percentage of revenues to each department that it had received the year before. But with the council, we had to explain how that money was going to be spent. We really had to plan for the first time."     

Thus, paradoxically, whereas most of the administrations made the claim that in order to make the budget accessible to popular participation, simpler versions of the budget had to be presented to the people, in Porto Alegre the administration found that the more participation evolved, the more the administration itself had to come to grips with its own spending practices. This involved learning to predict project costs with much greater accuracy and elaborating those expected costs in much greater detail, from design costs to legal costs to actual construction costs and the subsequent maintenance and personnel costs each project might imply. In order to respond to the questions of participants, the central planning agency also had to develop a computer program linking all the city agencies and providing a daily update on the progress of each investment project. In these ways, popular participation in budget formulation pressured the administration to develop mechanisms that gave city planners much more information and control over government spending than in the past.


Representing the city

The representation difficulties were also treated in very different ways by the different administrations. In the first years of creating  he budget councils, most of the administrations surveyed encountered   two representation problems: (1) more demands for public works and services were presented by organized neighborhoods than by less organized and usually poorer areas, and (2) since neighborhood   representatives usually demanded highly localized services and projects, such as health clinics or road paving, concerns affecting the city as a whole, such as highway construction or central market   renovation, were often overlooked.     

In most of the cities surveyed, the administrations coped with these problems in much the same way as with the technical problems: they allocated a portion of their discretionary funds to participatory decisionmaking but left a large part of the budget for the administration to formulate. Another mechanism to ensure that the  investments were evenly distributed involved determining prior to the decision — through "technical" means — the portion of the budget each  district would receive. This usually implied dividing up the budget according to the population of the district and then making further adjustments according to the relative need of each.     

These mechanisms addressed geographical disparities in community mobilization by limiting the scope of participation and preempted the localistic tendencies of the movements by simply leaving more general investment decisions to the administration. In a few cities, however, alternatives to these participation-restricting mechanisms were found.     

In Santo Andre, the government did significantly limit the portion of  the budget that would be allocated by the councils. The councils were never given total decisionmaking power but were considered only forums  of consultation. However, in an effort to encourage the participants  to be more conscious of the city as a whole, the administration added an interesting twist to their priority-making function: each district council not only had to present priorities for investment within the district but also had to come up with some priorities for the city as a whole. This emphasis led, for example, to requests for the renovation of the city center and the installation of numerous low-priced cultural activities there. These general requests were then "taken into account" by the municipal administration, which continued  to formulate the budget through essentially "technical" means.     

The Porto Alegre administration went even farther. In order to cope with the various representation problems, the administration encouraged the district and municipal councils to weigh the demands presented according to a series of criteria that accounted for the relative need of each district. The result was a complex rating system for determining how much funding each region would receive in the following year's budget. In district-level assemblies, Porto Alegre participants first negotiated an ordered list of the general categories of investment they prioritized, such as pavement, sanitation, transportation, and education. Then, within each investment category, district participants developed a prioritized list of specific investments. The government aggregated the priorities of all 16 districts to determine which investment categories would receive the most funding for that year. Then, a rating system voted by the municipal budget council was applied to some of these investment categories to ascertain how to distribute the budget for each category among the districts.     

For example, the 1993 municipal council approved the following four criteria, principally to be applied to pavement and storm drain investment: (1) the percentage of city blocks in the district not   served by the particular type of infrastructure, (2) the portion of the population in that district living in absolute poverty, (3) the total population of the district, and (4) the priority given to that   investment category by each district council. The municipal council then established a rating system of between 0 and 4 for each criterion. For example, if between 0 and 5,000 residents in a district lived in absolute poverty, that criterion might be rated 1, between 5,000 and 15,000 might be rated 2, and so on. Finally, the council determined how each of the criteria should be weighted. In 1993 the council gave a weight of 3 to the relative need for the specific infrastructure, a weight of 2 to the population in absolute poverty, a weight of 1 to the total population in the district, and a weight of 2 to the priority given to the demand by the district itself. Multiplying the rates by the weights and summing them, the central planning agency calculated an aggregate rating for each district in each investment category, allocating to each district the correlating percentage of the budget for that category. To decide which projects would actually be funded, the districts then followed the prioritized list of specific investments within the category developed in the earlier district assemblies. Since the municipal council closely followed this process of determining proper criteria and of ensuring that they were correctly applied, debate about the relative needs of different parts of the city and how investments could be justly distributed among them was an integral component of the participatory process in Porto Alegre.     

In the beginning of its second term in office, the Porto Alegre administration also added a new program to increase the comprehensiveness of budget decisions and to encourage participants to begin thinking both for the city as a whole and in the longer term. Called the City Constituent Assembly, this program involved the formation of several working groups made up of local activists, union leaders, and interested professionals to develop general long-term guidelines for the city. A coordinating committee composed of members of the administration, the municipal budget council, the City Assembly, and civic associations ranging from universities to union and umbrella community organizations translated the discussions of the working groups into a final document of general planning objectives, which was presented to the municipal budget council in December 1993.     

This effort resulted in the expansion of the budget council system in 1994 to include five "thematic" councils alongside the 16 district councils, each with two representatives on the municipal budget council. The five themes were transportation; education, culture, and recreation; health and social assistance; economic development and tax   policy; and urban development and the organization of the city. This change in the structure of the budget council, still in its embryonic stage, is an effort to broaden participation: while the district councils attract principally members of neighborhood organizations in poor communities, the thematic councils have attracted union activists, academics, and liberal professionals, that is, members of the city's middle class. Although the administration has not yet resolved how to coordinate the general planning directives developed by these thematic councils with the specific investment demands generated in the district councils, the contributions of representatives of these councils to the municipal budget council have further encouraged participants to look beyond the short run and outside their localized particular concerns.


Questions for further research

Although the effectiveness of these policies needs to be studied in much more detail, this preliminary look at the programs that the various governments put into place clearly shows that Porto Alegre has created a very elaborate participatory structure that (at least officially) gives participants much more power than seen elsewhere. The Porto Alegre administration sought to make the technicality of the budget accessible to common citizens both by investing in popular education and by devising a system in which council members who have the time to process detailed technical information have direct accountability to the main body of participants. Furthermore, it attempted to overcome the representation problems that stemmed from the unevenness of popular mobilization in the city by pressuring the participants themselves to look beyond their own particular interests. Thus, while in other cities administrations addressed these dilemmas by limiting the scope of participation, in Porto Alegre the administration sought to confront the problems from within the participatory process itself. Whereas in most cities the councils were only "consultative," in Porto Alegre they achieved final decision-making power over the formulation of the budget. Why did the Porto Alegre case evolve so differently? Although the limited research I conducted did not aim to answer this complex question, it did provide some clues to guide further research in this area.     

Although the official ideology of the PT incorporates an explicit commitment to participation, according to informants in several cities, many well-intentioned PT politicians found that the practice of governing involved intense power struggles that all too easily subordinated such beliefs. Administration leaders often resisted opening policy up to participation for fear of giving oppositional   groups greater power. This suggests that as long as the PT is a minority party with a great deal of very hostile opposition, we cannot count on "political will" alone to ensure that meaningful participatory programs will be implemented.     

A number of variables should be considered for better understanding how the balance of power in Porto Alegre might have shifted in favor of participatory policies. The first concerns the nature and intensity of political opposition to the administration and the chances that  such opposition might infiltrate participatory mechanisms. The main opposition to the PT in Porto Alegre was the center-left Partido Democratico Trabalhista (Democratic Labor party--PDT), which controlled the state government. This party was much more sympathetic   to the PT than the very conservative state governments of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais.     

A second variable is the level of organization of social movements in the region: presumably, highly organized movements will pressure an administration to develop participatory mechanisms. Indeed, Porto Alegre does have a robust history of grassroots organization, especially at the neighborhood level. However, the extent to which this legacy is stronger than in other cities, especially in the industrial cities near Sao Paulo where the labor movement is highly mobilized, is questionable. The effect of the type and extent of citizen mobilization in Porto Alegre upon the success of participatory policies there thus deserves more research attention.     

A third variable concerns the relationship between the administration and the local PT militancy. In numerous cities, after winning the election PT administrations distanced themselves from the grassroots base of the party as they confronted the complexities of governing and the political necessity of making alliances with elite groups. Extreme tensions between administration and party often resulted. It seems likely that where this division was relatively less intense — as in   Porto Alegre — the grassroots sectors of the party might have been more successful in pressuring the government to create participatory mechanisms.     

Although the extent to which the administrations find solutions to the  problems raised by participation is deeply entrenched in local political struggles, it is also important to recognize that when those struggles allow for it, the innovative potential of an administration for improving the participatory process is quite impressive. The vastly different way in which the Porto Alegre administration addressed the problems it encountered should not be attributed to political conditions only. It is a result of insightful and creative   policymaking and a strong commitment to the idea of participation, a commitment that has persisted even in face of the many difficulties of putting that idea into practice.



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