BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL – Alexandre Sampaio, a community organizer and ecology expert living in São Paulo, Brazil, was browsing his computer earlier this year when he came across an invitation to submit a proposal in a new project where citizens would allocate the federal government’s money. Curious, he clicked the link and submitted a proposal to increase the number of protected biomes in the country’s most fragile ecosystems, including the Cerrado.
Alexandre was one of nearly eight thousand people who submitted ideas on Brasil Participativo, a participatory platform relaunched in May by the Brazilian government under the leadership of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. More than one million people have registered on the site so far.
Brazil has often been cited as a global leader in participatory budgeting, dating back to broad-based budgeting schemes in the 1990s led by the Workers’ Party. But those projects declined over the next two decades due to lack of investment and government prioritization, and were further eroded during former president Jair Bolsonaro’s time in office.
Now, President Lula’s government has identified social engagement as a top priority, and created a number of mechanisms to get public input on the country’s Plurianual Plan, the major budgetary planning instrument of the federal government. The first pillar was a series of plenary sessions across the country. Now Brasil Participativo gives every citizen a chance to vote for three government programs they consider a priority, present three proposals, and support three others.
Some are framing this project as an effort to deepen trust in democracy, just months after attacks on the Brazilian Congress. Tarson Núñez and Luiza Jardim are advocates for participatory democracy in Brazil. They wrote about the new process: “At a time when signs of a crisis in democracy are prevalent around the world, the Brazilian government is seeking to expand and deepen the active participation of citizens in its decisions. The new administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva believes that more democracy is needed to rebuild citizens' trust in political processes.”
Participatory budgeting has gained popularity around the world in recent years, driven in part by the expansion of the Internet, and a recent wave of digital platforms that allows citizens to more easily weigh in on government spending.
Brazil has a long history with participatory budgeting, and is often cited as an example of a country that has implemented citizen-led decision-making effectively. In the 1990, the coastal city of Porto Alegre was home to a participatory budgeting process that, according to one article, “inverted the decision-making process so that citizens decided how a portion of a city's budget was spent. The process gave a voice to the poor whose interests were usually ignored. They now had a say in which projects should be funded and built.”
Participation in the project started slowly, with about a thousand people attending meetings in the first year, but it expanded to forty thousand people a decade later. And the results were encouraging. According to data from the World Bank, the process led to a more equitable distribution of city services. By 1997, sewer and water connections increased from seventy-five percent to ninety-eight percent, health and education budgets tripled, and the number of schools quadrupled.
The current iteration of Brasil Participativo has similar goals to democratize decision-making and devolve power to the local level. The platform gives people the option to submit and vote on proposals to the Pluriannual Plan, which is the set of guidelines, objectives and targets established by the federal government every four years. Over the past several weeks, government leaders held in-person meetings in several cities across the country, where citizens discussed the plan and learned about the online voting platform.
The final day for submissions to the platform was July 14. Once the votes are tallied, the people behind the five most popular proposals will be funded by the federal government to go to Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, where they will participate in a forum to further discuss their ideas.
Brasil Participativo replaces an older digital platform, “Participa + Brasil”, which was itself an iteration of the first nationwide platform created by the federal government, Participa Brasil. Dannytha Câmara, who was responsible for managing Participa Brasil, sees this new platform as a significant improvement.
Câmara says that Participa Brazil was created by a single web developer in 2013. “Participa Brasil and Participa + Brasil fulfilled their functions well at the time, but there were technical limitations that did not allow either platform to grow to include new features,” she says.
For the new platform, the government chose to work with Decidim, a digital participation software created in Barcelona and used widely around the world, from New York to Japan.
One hope for the new platform is that citizens will be familiar with how to log in. Brasil Participativo is linked to the login system of "Gov.br", an online platform that brings together several digital public services. The number of registrations increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the platform was used to distribute emergency aid.Today there are 150 million Brazilians registered. Leaders hope that citizens can take advantage of having an account and login information, without having to register for a new service.
The platform is only a few months old, and the level of participation remains to be seen. Laila Bellix is Director of Digital Participation and Network Communication of the Secretariat of Social Participation, General Secretariat of Brazil’s Presidency. She said that her office has been pleased so far with the outcome – in a few months, Brasil Participativo has become the largest-ever digital participation project in the country. “We did it without a lot of advertising, so the numbers are impressive,” she says.
But she recognizes that the hundreds of thousands of people on the platform are still less than one percent of the country’s population. “We hope that at least 1% of the population will join the platform in the next few months,” she says.
In the eyes of Luiza Jardim, the Brazilian government has yet to make a real effort to encourage participation in the platform.
Jardim is a Program Associate at People Powered, a global hub for participatory democracy, and a PhD candidate in Public Management and Government at Fundação Getulio Vargas, where she is studying digital democracy. She calls Decidim a “great choice”, but warns that participation is an ongoing effort.
“Brasil Participativo is a very important step for Brazil,” Jardim says. “But it is crucial to offer strong possibilities for online participation.”
In Luiza’s analysis, the creation of Brazil Participativo needs to be paired with an ambitious outreach and accessibility strategy led by and funded by the federal government. “A significant part of this country’s population only has access to the Internet on mobile phones,” she says. There are millions more who lack Internet access entirely, or lack literacy skills.
“The government has not yet been specific about how it intends to ensure participation across the country,” she says. She offered several ideas that have worked in other parts of the world: “Librarians around the country could be trained and paid to help register people on the site.” No matter the specifics, “the fact is that this should be an active effort.”
Jardim is concerned that if only a small percentage of the population participates, certain groups could be privileged. “Platform algorithms do not favor hate speech or anti-democratic discourse, as happens with social networks. But it is necessary to monitor and to monitor constantly.”
As for Alexandre Sampaio, his experience after submitting a proposal was less impactful than he hoped. “I’m not a frequent social media user, so I didn’t publicize my proposal as much as others,” he said. “So I found that interaction with other people was low.”
Despite this, he intends to stay involved in the process. “I participate in public hearings and other spaces, and I intend to stay active on the platform”. He also recognizes that the digital experience opens new possibilities. “The focus of my proposal is to expand the number and extent of conservation units of non-forest biomes,” he says. “It will take a change of mindset, and the reach of the Internet really makes a difference in the process of convincing people”.