Local Participation in Brazil: Porto Alegre’s Model for 21st Century Local Government


This study considers local participation, democracy, and government in Brazil, using Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul as a case study for examining dimensions of citizenship, governance, and accountability. A city with a history of strong civil society mobilization and political activism, Porto Alegre and its innovative programs like participatory budgeting remain on the cutting edge of 21st century government. Participatory budgeting has been widely studied, but this article focuses on innovations in the process and their implications for democracy. The study examines how civil society activism, the relationship between capacity and transparency, the use of technology, and the role of political parties in further innovation relate to Porto Alegre’s budgeting program and the deepening of democracy in Brazil. A differentiation is made between the national, state, and municipal levels of government, and the new roles these levels of government have taken on following Brazil’s transition to democracy. The study discusses the relationship between democratic participation and transparency, as well as information dissemination and capacity building. It finds that through the use of innovative methods, Porto Alegre has built on its participatory initiatives and has succeeded in moving toward active transparency, where other parts of the country or levels of government may lag behind.

Introduction: Local Participation in Brazil

Brazil transitioned to democracy in the 1980s following more than two decades of authoritarian rule under a military dictatorship. Although the transition was set in motion years earlier, the definitive steps in the process involved the military’s relinquishing of power to civilian rule in 1985, and the approval of a new federal constitution in 1988. Following the transition, Brazil’s first popularly elected president Fernando Collor de Mello took office in 1990. The legislature impeached Collor two years later on substantial corruption charges. After the turn of the century, the first transfer of power to the opposition party occurred when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party – PT) assumed the presidency in 2003. Although Brazil’s transition to democracy was anything but monotonous, a certain stability did emerge. Though functional, the country’s democracy is not without its problems. Some have described Brazilian democracy as non-transparent, clientelistic, and even feckless. Corruption is endemic, the party system is heavily fragmented, and some have questioned, quite seriously, whether Brazil is governable.1
In June 2013, more than one million Brazilians took to the streets in a series of manifestations that spread across the country, demonstrating the young democracy’s vitality as well as the challenges it faces. The protests varied in degree of intensity, and instances of violence were relatively isolated. On June 17 and 20, large groups demonstrated in nearly all state capitals and major cities. They protested a wide range of issues, including subpar public services, corruption, out of control and misdirected public spending, and lack of transparency. Using the post-authoritarian democratic transition as a point of departure, this paper explores some of the new dimensions of citizenship, governance, and accountability in Brazil by looking to the subnational level.

While Brazil’s history is replete with examples of strong political figures and power brokers at the federal and state levels, the 1988 Constitution marks an important shift and significant delegation of power to the state and municipal levels. This codified decentralization deliberately seeks to combat an authoritarian and centralized past. The memories of Brazil’s constitutional monarchy (1822-89), paternalistic rule of Getúlio Vargas (1930-45, 51-54), and military dictatorship (1964-85) are perhaps the most recognizable examples of this history of centralized authority. However, Stepan cautions that decentralization will not inherently lead to more democratic outcomes, and although intentioned to bring government closer to the people, the devolution of authority can also empower local elites.2 In order to consider the strengths and weaknesses of Brazilian federalism, a decentered analysis is useful. More specifically, a three-level framework that considers Brazilian’s federal system by looking at the national, state, and municipal levels of government allows for analysis of subnational processes alongside the broader picture of Brazilian democracy.3

In Brazil, as in other countries in Latin America that have reformed and rewritten constitutions in a rather ambitious manner, a gap may exist between what is codified and what the government has the capacity to enforce.4 Additionally, local initiatives, regardless of whether or not they are well-intentioned, require a certain degree of governance capacity as well as the mobilization and participation of civil society. In this sense, the democratic transition in Brazil follows the path identified by O’Donnell and Schmitter, which recognizes that the proliferation of popular forums of expression leads to an increased burden on elected representatives to address smaller-scale local issues. The federal government does not have the resources to effectively administrate all municipal maintenance projects, school construction, and other types of public works in a country as large as Brazil. The demands placed on the system would overload a single, centralized authority, and would hardly be practical. Following a transition to democracy, leaders cannot rely solely on comprehensive, national-level pacts and reforms, necessitating a degree of decentralization.5 This decentralization allows for more efficient allocation of resources, and the reactivation of a previously repressed civil society during the transitional period may create conditions that allow for the deepening of democracy.

Civil society’s role in a transition scenario can be traced through political institutions and mobilization at the local level. In a federalist pact such as Brazil’s, one can view local civil society demands as balancing against or confronting the central power of the federal entity.6 Institutionalizing a policy of decentralization provides space for civil society to have their demands regarding public policy issues or social investments channeled to key decision makers. Perhaps the most salient example of this civil society activism in Brazil is the case of Porto Alegre. The city has a long history of activism and is the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state. In 1989, the left-wing PT initiated a participatory budgeting (PB) program in Porto Alegre. This process has now spread throughout the country, region, and beyond, and the United Nations has lauded Porto Alegre’s participatory budget as an exemplary program. The process has received much scholarly attention, and there is an extensive body of literature that includes comparative studies and assessments of PB’s implications for local governance.7 While PB is hailed as an innovative measure that effectively increases participation and accountability, its implementation has received mixed reviews in different places.

The case of Porto Alegre constitutes the success story of PB, and many authors attribute this to its active and robust civil society.8 An urban center with about 1.5 million inhabitants, Porto Alegre has received worldwide recognition as a democratic and participatory municipality. Through comparative studies, several authors pinpoint factors that serve to improve or hinder the successful implementation of PB. PB has been widely studied, but this paper focuses on the innovations and adaptations of the process, as well as the implications for other local participatory measures. This paper also looks at Porto Alegre’s process in depth, studying the evolution of the process and how it has been molded to fit the city’s current reality. PB, the sine qua non of PT’s local government formula, has been institutionalized and continued under other political parties at the municipal level in many cities, but is this a sufficient end point? The strength and effectiveness of PB and other participatory measures depend on the involvement of citizens who are engaged, well informed, and willing to play by the rules of the game. The process enables citizens to set priorities and allocate resources at the municipal level, as well as to monitor government implementation of projects and investments.9 Much has changed since PB’s debut in 1989, and it is time to look at the new tools available to support more vigorous participation in such initiatives in the digital age. This paper shifts the conversation on PB to consider factors that affect the strength of participatory democracy in the Brazilian context. These factors include: civil society activism, the relationship between capacity and transparency, the use of technology, and the role of political parties in furthering participatory initiatives.

Civil Society and Participatory Measures in Porto Alegre

Civil Society, Decentralization, and the Participatory Budget

Given its history as a center of political activism, it is hardly surprising that Porto Alegre experienced some of Brazil’s most intense protests in June 2013. The city’s profile and landscape is rather unique. The popular waterside Usina Gasômetro, a previously abandoned electric power plant, houses a café, cinema, alternative art gallery, and digital training center. Many gather here to watch the sunset or drink a chimarrão (traditional herbal drink in southern Brazil). Despite this simple and tranquil backdrop, walking through the aftermath of the June protests on a chilly winter day in mid-July, one might have thought they had stumbled upon a post-conflict zone. Graffiti covered not only the streets and public spaces, but residential buildings, and monuments as well (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Photos of graffiti-covered urban spaces in Porto Alegre, RS following protests, July 2013, taken by author with iPhone 5 camera and arranged using the PhotoGrid app.

Figure 1: Photos of graffiti-covered urban spaces in Porto Alegre, RS following protests, July 2013, taken by author with iPhone 5 camera and arranged using the PhotoGrid app.

Contrasting with its bleak and fairly run-down scenery is Porto Alegre’s vibrant civil society. Its cross-cutting ties can be easily observed by any outsider. These ties manifest themselves in the city’s public spaces. While sitting in Parque Farroupilha on a Saturday morning, I witnessed a religious concert and a progressive student-led gathering occurring simultaneously on opposite ends of the venue. Families, couples, joggers, and dog-walkers interacted amidst these activities as well. Separately, while observing some of the city’s participatory budgeting meetings, it was clear that young and old residents of the city were grouped in various ways, ranging from neighborhood associations and NGO affiliations to student organizations and religious groups. Another aspect worth highlighting is the coexistence of a large urban area and rural space within the same municipality. Although it boasts a high literacy rate and comparatively strong human development index ratings, Porto Alegre has a simple, working-class feel.

The PB process has become part of the city’s identity, and has solidified Porto Alegre’s reputation as an innovative and highly democratic municipality. The story of the PB dates back to Brazil’s democratic transition. In a newly democratic political system, there is often a moment of opportunity for significant reform amid the widespread mobilization of civil society.10 Taking advantage of this transitional moment in Brazil, the federal government delegated certain tasks and responsibilities to municipalities. Municipalities assumed responsibility for providing public health care, education, and administering infrastructure projects and other public works during this time. Following this devolution of authority, municipal governments in Brazil now control between 15 and 20 percent of overall government spending.11 This type of decentralization is undertaken at the initiative of the central government in order to achieve the goals of stability, democracy, and/or economic development.12

Decentralization is a desirable and logical outcome in a polity the size of Brazil, but there are several caveats. Given Brazil’s authoritarian past and highly regionalized politics, devolving power to the local level will not inherently yield democratic results. Institutions could remain vulnerable to elite capture, and local elites may remain in power. The literature on subnational authoritarianism supports the conclusion that democratic governance at the national level does not preclude the potential for authoritarian enclaves to persist at the local level.13 Although PB is highly institutionalized in Porto Alegre, as a general rule the city’s prefeito (mayor) retains a high degree of power over the budget proposals. Incentives to respect the PB may be high in Porto Alegre, but in other municipalities with less institutionalized participatory measures this could prove more challenging.

Porto Alegre’s Participatory Budgeting Process

Porto Alegre has achieved great success with its PB program, and it is quite developed. One can characterize the process as loop of participation and accountability, which encompasses input from citizens, channeling of their demands, articulation on a higher level, formulation of a proposal, execution of demands, and monitoring and assessment of results. In order to describe the PB process in a stylized manner, Figure 2, a chart provided by the municipal government of Porto Alegre, lays out the timeline of this yearlong cycle. The city is divided into 17 regions and six thematic forums, as outlined in the Regimento Interno (Internal Regime), which governs the process. As PB is not outlined in any federal, state, or municipal laws, the regimento effectively codifies the PB process. Carlos Siegle de Souza, Porto Alegre’s PB coordinator, described the regimento as a type of pact or agreement between the population and the city government. The regimento is revisited and updated each year in order to reflect lessons learned and to refine the process, Siegle added.14 The thematic forums are an example of such an innovation, and they incentivize participants to focus on broader themes in addition to local concerns. These six thematic forums focus on issues such as health, education, economic development, taxation, culture, and others that pertain to entire city. Porto Alegre’s most recent change, reflected in Figure 2, lengthens the period for discussing the overall investment plan and changes to the regimento from two to three months to allow for more deliberation.15

Figure 2: PB Cycle in Porto Alegre – Adapted from Portal Transparência Porto Alegre, http://www2.portoalegre.rs.gov.br/op/ (translation by author).

Figure 2: PB Cycle in Porto Alegre – Adapted from Portal Transparência Porto Alegre, http://www2.portoalegre.rs.gov.br/op/ (translation by author).

As the cycle begins, the neighborhoods within each of the city’s 17 regions hold assemblies to consider their priorities and areas of concern. At this stage, anyone may make a budgetary demand. If technically feasible, the demand is registered in the overall budgeting program (the “services and investment plan”) under that particular region and appropriate thematic area. The neighborhoods will also elect delegates for the regional forums. The neighborhood divisions depend on the region. For example, while region 02 – Noroeste is subdivided into 12 neighborhoods; regions 05, 06, 08, and 11 (Norte, Nordeste, Restinga, and Cristal) have no subdivisions. Figure 3 shows Porto Alegre’s various neighborhoods (divided by black lines) and 17 regions (marked by color). At the regional forums, two delegates and two alternates are elected to represent each region on the Municipal Budget Council (COP), which has responsibility for formulating a draft budget proposal for the mayor’s office. The delegates are elected via proportional representation, and the government trains them on the process before their cycle begins.16

Figure 3: Neighborhoods and PB regions of Porto Alegre - Portal Transparência Porto Alegre, http://www2.portoalegre.rs.gov.br/op/.

Figure 3: Neighborhoods and PB regions of Porto Alegre – Portal Transparência Porto Alegre, http://www2.portoalegre.rs.gov.br/op/.

The COP assembles their proposal based on the prioritization of demands voted on by the various regional and thematic forum participants. However, some demands are simply not feasible due to budgetary or practical restrictions. Siegle shared that in 24 years of PB in Porto Alegre, he estimates that about 7,000 demands have been successfully handled, while the majority, some 70-80,000 demands, have not. Still, he sees the overall gain as a net positive, and noted that a majority of demands are not feasible due to forces beyond the government’s control. The demands are carefully vetted, but even then certain projects can result impractical once more information comes to light. In order to illustrate this point, Siegle spoke about a particular housing project that had been proposed and accepted. The municipal government liked the project proposal, so they acquired adequate funding from the federal government and mobilized their resources to execute it. When they began digging the foundation for the housing complex, they found that the proposed project site sat above an old hangar. In order to properly extract the metal pieces on site, they would have expended the cost of simply constructing the housing project several times over.17 This is just one anecdotal example of how projects budgeted on paper may require additional resources for their implementation.

The final proposal from the COP goes directly to the mayor’s office, which approves or denies the proposal. As mentioned, the mayor has considerable power and oversight of the process, including line-item veto authority. However, the incentive structure is such that the mayor of Porto Alegre will hardly ever reject a PB proposal. Comparative studies have noted that much of PB’s success hinges on the willingness of the mayor to implement the process and cooperate effectively.18 Although the COP will decide on the distributive rules and monitor implementation of any budget created under PB, the process requires a high degree of cooperation from city hall.

The municipal government’s role in the PB process is largely organizational. Siegle described his job as that of an executive secretary, primarily securing meeting space and publicizing events and forums. He noted that the government does not intervene in the PB process unless specifically requested, and stated that his office generally establishes strong personal relationships with perennial PB participants from the city’s various regions.19 The mayor will sit in on regional and thematic forums, which are often 3-4 hour affairs in which everyone has the opportunity to speak for a five-minute period on their specific demands and concerns. Thus, the mayor is integrated into the process early in the cycle, and is not just a final approval stamp at the end.

This exposure of the municipal government renders the accountability loop of PB even stronger. Personal relationships and the informal institutions surrounding the process in Porto Alegre also reinforce this cooperation, compelling the city government not only to listen, but also to respond. The PB forums and events are social activities as well. Although exchanges at the forums may be heated at times, individuals from all classes, races, and parts of society can be seen mingling and interacting before and after the forums. The mayor does not enter with an entourage. He simply walks in and greets members of society before taking his seat at the front of the room. At a July 2013 thematic forum, current mayor José Fortunati greeted all participants as if they were close friends. He embraced the men, kissed the women, and slapped hands and high-fived with university-aged students.

Porto Alegre’s community environment and cross-cutting social ties were apparent at the thematic forum on economic development, taxation, tourism, and employment, held at the state legislative assembly on July 18, 2013. Participation in the forums is completely voluntary, and the entire auditorium was filled with people of all ages, races, and apparent socioeconomic situation. The city government representatives sit at the front, although the process of discussing demands and concerns is directed by the elected budget councilor. Certain group representatives make rounds prior to the event, lobbying for their priorities. One man from region 02 told me that he was most concerned with job creation, and less so with tourism projects. The 2014 FIFA (soccer) World Cup would give the city’s tourism sector a sufficient boost, he explained. Groupings at the event included neighborhood and community associations, non-governmental organizations, and cause-based groups such as Fome Zero (zero hunger). University students and members of religious groups also attended. The forums are held in the evenings so most people are able to attend after work. There is no time limit on the meeting, and city government officials are willing to sit and participate as long as necessary. Thus, the six thematic forums and 17 regional forums are annual opportunities to voice concerns directly to the government.

Why the Participatory Budget Works

There are several aspects of the PB process aimed at ensuring the effective distribution of resources, which have proven effective in the case of Porto Alegre. For example, the elected councilors of the COP go on caravans to different parts of the city in order to assess needs on site. Through this process, it is believed that councilors will be able to consider the needs of the city in the aggregate, rather than just focusing on their own neighborhood or region. Fung’s review of the PB literature notes that many processes have increased investment to poor areas and increased the quality of public works in several cities.20 Although the caravans may seem like a pro forma gesture, the PB process generally does channel investments and resources to the areas of the city that have the greatest need. This type of consciousness requires an engaged and informed citizen base of delegates, which is also important given PB’s control over a portion of the overall municipal budget.21 Although some citizens may use the early stages of the process to articulate specific and personal demands, the process ideally evolves in a way such that the greater needs of the city are prioritized above any one particular agenda. Citizens’ ability to view the greater picture and adhere to the institutionalized rules of the game is part of what distinguishes PB from a popular consultation or town hall meeting.

While the PB process, in its stylized form, appears productive in that it gets citizens engaged, what are the tangible benefits of the process? It presumably sacrifices a degree of efficiency in order to allow for broader participation and citizen involvement. Thus, do the government resources expended on organizing and facilitating PB meetings and forums make a difference? In order for citizens to continually engage in and see merit in this process, there must be substantive progress. This progress, or return, cannot be something that gets buried in the bureaucratic process for several years, or citizens may quickly become disillusioned and choose not engage in the future. Pateman concludes that the PB process establishes a clear connection between participation and outcomes, inspires citizens to consider the good of their municipality as a whole, and is effective at redistributing resources to where they are most needed.22

Many authors note that the PB process requires a mobilized, engaged, and informed civil society for greatest success. Wampler finds that those who participate are often individuals from low-income neighborhoods with low levels of education.23 In order to successfully participate in a process of resource allocation, these individuals rely on and consume information provided by the government. The government training provided to COP delegates is one such example, although this training is still largely focused on the administrative aspects of the budgeting process. The learning process, particularly as it relates to citizenship and exercise thereof, is underemphasized in the literature on PB. While an educated individual or mobilized civil society group may possess the requisite knowledge and abilities to effectively participate in the process, someone without the experience or civic knowledge may face a larger learning curve. Consequently, it does not appear coincidental that Porto Alegre, the home of PB, has a comparatively high literacy rate and remarkably active civil society. The lack of these preconditions could also explain PB’s less successful implementation or failures in other municipalities. Thus, participatory government initiatives should focus not only on creating space for participation, but building capacity as well.

Active Transparency, Capacity Building, and Digital Citizenship

The New Dimensions of Transparency in Brazil

The capacity building aspect, as previously highlighted, is a key component contributing to the success of PB or other participatory measures. This is not to say that the government should be solely responsible to “capacitate” their citizens in a paternalistic manner, but rather that government business can be conducted in an open manner that provides more room for substantive and informed participation. The PB and other participatory processes should not be conducted as a charade of consultation, in which the societal participation component is just a rubber stamp. Through providing information about how the government conducts business, channels may open for substantive participation. When this information is presented in a coherent, accessible, and transparent manner, citizens are empowered and can use it to actively participate in processes like PB.

The 21st century offers new tools for instantaneous access to information, and information is now transmitted and consumed in different ways. Brazil’s central government has been at the forefront of attempting to use these new tools to create transparency, an area that has been historically lacking in the country. The Lei de Acesso à Informação (Lei n° 12.527/2011 – hereafter, Access Law) of November 2011 is emblematic of these changes, and lays out orders and incentives for state and municipal governments to take action and engage in “active transparency.” In fact, this initiative will perhaps be one of President Dilma Rousseff’s most significant legacies. The term “active transparency” comes directly from the Access Law, and means that the government should not be passively transparent and only respond when called upon to do so, but rather that it should provide a wide range of basic information, frequent questions and answers, and anything unclassified to which citizens should be privy.24 The United States’ Freedom of Information Act of 1966 (FOIA) is a useful comparison by which to measure the scope and scale of Brazil’s Access Law. Although FOIA is a useful tool for information-seeking citizens and journalists in the United States, a large number of requests for files and records become lost amid the various layers of bureaucracy at executive branch agencies. The Brazilian Access Law seeks to disseminate information widely in an active manner, and does so in an innovative fashion.

Although Brazil’s 1988 Constitution does contain certain provisions for access to information, the Access Law goes beyond this. The law details what can and cannot be shared with the public, outlining standard procedures for protection of classified information. It also stipulates mandatory disclosure of certain information, and requires that public entities provide this information “by all means necessary and without solicitation.” Municipalities with 10,000 or more inhabitants are obliged to post their information online. The law’s minimum standards for disclosure include:

  • The organizational structure of the government.
  • Addresses and telephone numbers of public offices, and the hours that they are open to the public.
  • Financial data such as expenditures or transfers.
  • Information about government contracts and legal proceedings.
  • Information about projects, action, and public works.
  • Responses to frequently asked questions by society.25

This information and data is located in a “Portal Transparência,” or “Transparency Portal,” on the Internet. While browsing through different Transparency Portals, it becomes clear that some are easier to navigate than others, and that some cities include just the bare minimum while others elect to provide additional information. Porto Alegre’s Portal contains information on PB, upcoming events, and live cameras for traffic and weather purposes, in addition to the information required by the Access Law. Additionally, it lists government expenses in real time, and details them down to the travel tickets and daily expenses of key officials.26 The Portal for the municipality of Ipatinga, Minas Gerais is another good example, and it includes a link to their “Portal Cidadão” (Citizen Portal) that provides material on upcoming public events, news, and health information.27 Other municipalities have holes in their portals. For example, one can find information missing on the portals for several municipalities in Rio de Janeiro state via a quick web search. When selected, required information may return a message stating, “no data published.”28 It is possible that some municipalities have yet to fully implement the necessary information sharing techniques mandated by the Access Law, and it may be too early to comment definitively on enforcement of the law on the national level. Regardless, it is telling that municipalities with strong civil society mobilization and successful cases of PB have extensive and user-friendly Transparency Portals.

In order for the steps toward active transparency to be effective, compliance, maintenance, and access are important. Several Brazilian municipalities have joined the contingent of cities worldwide that provide free wireless Internet hotspots for their citizens. Others, such as Ipatinga and Porto Alegre, have taken steps to provide access portals in public spaces like clinics, schools, and shopping malls, which allow all citizens to view public data, pay their bills, and access government services and information.29 Internet freedom is an issue linked to government transparency in the 21st century, and Brazil has taken important steps toward this goal. In Freedom House’s 2012 Freedom on the Net Report, Brazil was one of the few countries in the world ranked as “free.” 30 Internet penetration in the country hovers around the 50 percent mark, but Brazil has the most Internet users and most sophisticated electronic communication network in Latin America.31 Lower penetration may be expected in a society with such high indices of inequality, but government and private initiatives have made efforts to connect more people to the Internet.

Local efforts to provide free wireless or public access points is an area in which Brazil could increase transparency and capitalize on gains made through the legal framework of the Access Law. As capacity building is linked to the government’s ability to conduct business in a transparent manner, local governments and participatory initiatives would benefit from exploring ways to expand access by reaching more citizens. This aspect of capacity building is unfortunately not that simple. The history of digital capacity building and inclusion in Brazil is one tainted by the corrupt practices and failed initiatives of the past. McCann highlights this fact, noting that certain digital training centers run by the government in the past were linked to kickback schemes and fraud.32 Regardless, it is arguable that the current project in Porto Alegre is a far cry from the initiatives of the past, and does provide valuable services for citizens with the goal of greater inclusion. Figure 4 shows a center in Porto Alegre, one of many that provides Internet access and computer classes.

Figure 4: Digital Capacitation Center in Porto Alegre, RS, July 2013, photo taken by author with iPhone 5 camera.

Figure 4: Digital Capacitation Center in Porto Alegre, RS, July 2013, photo taken by author with iPhone 5 camera.

Citizenship: There’s an App for That

Brazil is the most digitally advanced country in South America. Indeed, it is the most populous country on the continent, and its growing middle class is the primary source of its expanding digital network. A piece published by Forbes in 2012 predicted that the number of smartphone users in Brazil would exceed 75 million by the end of 2013. The country ranks fourth in the world in number of smartphone users, trailing only China, the United States, and Japan.33 Social media is widely popular, and is becoming increasingly accessible with the proliferation of smartphones and mobile devices.34 In a recent survey reported in O Estado de São Paulo, researchers found that 60 percent of Brazilian Facebook users access their accounts using smartphones. To put this in perspective, Brazil registered 76 million active Facebook users during the month of June 2013.35 Porto Alegre has taken note, and uses this new technology to connect with and empower its citizens.

Any porto-alegrense (resident of Porto Alegre) with a smartphone can download an application (app) for their mobile device called, “Porto Alegre: Eu Curto. Eu Cuido” (Porto Alegre: I like it. I take care of it.). The app is still quite new, and supplies information on PB processes and transit information. The PB aspect constitutes the bulk of this app, and includes all demands registered in the current PB investment plan. The demands are organized by region and thematic area, and anyone with the app can check statuses or submit updates. For each project, the app provides information such as the amount of money required, the amount of money disbursed so far, and the status of the government’s progress on the project (see Figure 5). The app also enables citizens to interact digitally with their city government. For example, if a citizen walks by a building scheduled for construction or remodeling, they can open the app and select the specific case. If the status reported on the app is inaccurate or if there are further visible complications, they may submit a report by supplying a photo, write-up, and their physical location via the app. Siegle admitted that keeping the app’s database updated has proven challenging thus far, due in part to reliance on other parts of the city government to update information on their specific projects.36 Regardless, Porto Alegre’s app keeps the city on the cutting edge of democratic citizenship, reducing the distance between the government and the governed, and reducing the transaction costs of citizenship.

Figure 5: Screen shots from Porto Alegre’s smartphone app, taken by author on iPhone 5.

Figure 5: Screen shots from Porto Alegre’s smartphone app, taken by author on iPhone 5.

The Role of Political Parties

Brazil has taken important steps in several areas to deepen its democracy, and many of these initiatives have coincided with the emergence of the PT as a national political force. A discussion of the role of political parties is necessary when considering the future prospects for participatory democracy in Brazil. The analysis of Porto Alegre’s PT-initiated PB program and its dissemination demonstrates that the party system is a viable vehicle for change in terms of governance, administration, and participation. Amid the broader “left turn” in Latin America that has largely focused efforts on social demands rather than the class-based organization of leftist parties of the past, Brazil’s PT has had considerable success at the national level.37 The PT’s grassroots organization and local governance efforts during the country’s transition to democracy have carved out a place on the broader political spectrum in Brazil, which is no small feat given the nature of the country’s political party system. Indeed, the PT’s participatory initiatives and attention to social demands helped propel the party to national importance. Setting the party’s internal divisions and dilemmas aside, as they are beyond the scope of this paper, the PT gained a reputation for good governance and administration through their grassroots efforts at the local level.38
Born out of the industrial parks of São Paulo during the late 1970s, the PT then emerged as an opposition force during the later part of the military dictatorship in the 1980s, comprised of a wide range of groups including unionists, leftist intellectuals, and progressive Catholics.39 Despite its heterogeneity and the varying tendencies within the party, the PT has relatively consistently occupied a defined space on the political spectrum in Brazil. The PB program surfaced when the PT began to win mayorships during the transition, and it gained traction and expanded throughout the country at an impressive pace. Only 13 municipalities implemented PB programs from 1989-92 (all but one were governed by the PT), but over the period from 2005-08, 201 municipalities (63 percent of them PT-governed) had active PB programs.40 The PB initiative was a central component of the modo petista de governar (PT way of governing), which promised redistributive policies and broader participation.41

As various studies have observed, other political parties in power have initiated or continued PB initiatives at the municipal level. Looking at the list of mayors of Porto Alegre from 1989 to the present in Figure 7, mayors from different political parties have continued the PB program since the PT left the city’s mayorship in 2005. Although PB programs began as an experiment of the PT, their continuation for over two decades demonstrates PB’s feasibility and transformation from a political trademark to an institutionalized mechanism. Aside from alternation in political power, PB has faced other challenges. Although not a universal success, PB’s continuation during the 1990s is remarkable in its own right. Important economic reforms and fiscal restraint during Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s presidency (1995-2002) meant that the central government had fewer resources available to transfer to municipalities.42 In many instances, this complicated the municipal government’s ability to address certain concerns and effectively invest in priority projects. The government’s constrained ability to respond quickly and make progress on public works likely created some discontent with the PB. Alternation in power at the municipal, state, and national levels can have a significant impact on how PB initiatives are carried out, although the story of Porto Alegre demonstrates the program’s durability.

Figure 7: Mayors of Porto Alegre, 1989-present.

Figure 7: Mayors of Porto Alegre, 1989-present.

Many Brazilian civil society organizations considered the PT’s electoral triumph on the national level in 2002 as a major victory for their interests, anticipating a watershed moment in national governance. They may have thought that the PT mark would be transferred to the national level, giving preference to demands from below and rejecting the orthodox economic model promoted under Cardoso. Lula (PT) won the presidency after multiple unsuccessful attempts, with support from a broad range of social movements and groups. However, many became disillusioned with Lula’s commitment to economic orthodoxy and hesitance to touch sensitive issues such as land reform.43 Although the PT’s ideology has consistently advocated for participatory and social initiatives, the party saw its monopoly of the left of the political spectrum threatened when Lula began to govern pragmatically rather than pursuing a major overhaul of the system.44

This dynamic within Lula’s own party is reflected in Brazil’s federal system. The highly fragmented political party system tends to organize itself on regional lines and around key personalities. At the national level, rule by coalition is a necessity as it is essentially impossible for any one party to obtain a majority in Congress. Moreover, Brazil’s open list proportional representation system based on statewide districts, lends itself to party switching and opportunistic politics within the national representative legislative entity.45 Politicians often have the incentive to cultivate a personal appeal rather than organize themselves around a particular party or ideological space.46 The large districts make it exceedingly difficult for citizens to keep track of representatives or to hold any individual deputy accountable. Following the June 2013 protests, political reform surfaced once again in mainstream political discourse, although it remains to be seen whether any significant institutional reform will be politically feasible. Given the difficulties that civil society organizations and grassroots movements have in seeing their demands addressed at the national level, participation at the municipal level is an important factor for consideration. This additional access point may be one aspect that strengthens the Brazilian federal system, and a considerable amount of visibility and tangible returns can be achieved at the municipal level, as demonstrated by the PB program.

The PT successfully used its party base and a broad coalition of social movements to rise to power on the national level, but also made concessions in terms of the party’s core ideology. Lula’s pragmatism was both necessary and beneficial; his commitment to economic orthodoxy achieved stability, and his government posted significant economic growth rates. Social spending has remained true to the PT’s ideology, and foreign policy has had a relatively consistent tinge of PT involvement mixed with a healthy dose of pragmatism and professionalism. However, if the PT’s core coalition remains disillusioned with the party’s current direction, this has the potential to stall future innovation apropos participatory measures and expansion of citizen rights. This is not to say that the PT is the only party or entity capable of designing and implementing such programs, but on the national stage the PT is the closest thing that Brazil has to a political party with a clear ideology and message. Institutionalization of programs like PB depends on the support and organization of political parties, particularly in the initial stages, and it appears that the PT’s current situation will make innovation somewhat challenging. In order to truly harness the grassroots at the national level, Brazil requires major institutional reforms designed to strengthen accountability and the political party system.


Brazil’s rising status in Latin America and insertion on the global stage has generated a great deal of research and inquiry. It is remarkable how rapidly certain participatory initiatives have taken root following the country’s democratic transition, although to consider their successes and potential expansion in a teleological sense would be incorrect. Institutions and political actors do not have an inertial movement toward democracy. Brazil’s own history is an example of how the degree of civil, political, and social rights afforded to certain groups can expand and contract over time. It remains to be seen what the PT and other Brazilian political parties will do in order to deepen and build upon participatory and transparency measures already in place. Useful analyses focused on these issues should try to not only identify how effective these programs are, but should also consider constraints and potential innovations.

While research on the implementation and effectiveness of PB is useful, further attention is needed on other aspects of democracy at the municipal level in Brazil. Specific PB case studies and comparative accounts provide valuable data and analysis on these programs, although the conclusions are often the same. The PB program is helpful in engaging citizens in the political process at the municipal level and in creating greater accountability and transparency mechanisms, but it has varying degrees of success depending on where the implementation occurs. Much of this depends on the capacity and mobilization of civil society actors that take part in these processes, not to mention the cooperation of elites. Moving forward, how can municipal governments increase their transparency in ways that bring them closer to their citizens? The active transparency initiative is promising and, if fully implemented, should improve access and embolden participatory initiatives. Additionally, integrating technology in the accountability loop of the PB is one innovation that could have a positive long-term effect on citizen participation in the process.

Porto Alegre remains on the forefront of participatory measures and transparency initiatives in Brazil, and it seems that the world can continue to look to the city for innovative ways to bring government closer to the people. Future research should focus on the effectiveness of transparency initiatives, as well as on capacity building elements that bolster participatory programs. Additionally, the role of political parties and the climate and political will for future innovation should be considered. As with any political analysis of Brazil, this must be carried out with all three levels of the Brazilian federal system in mind. At the national level, it seemed that the moment for sweeping political reform had arrived following the June 2013 protests, even if the vozes das ruas (voices of the street) articulated far more specific demands. Porto Alegre’s openness and forums for expressing popular demands did not preclude their citizens’ strong participation in the June protests, indicating a more profound dissatisfaction with certain aspects of their reality encompassing various levels of government. This underscores the degree of civil society activism in the city, and affirms its place as one of Brazil’s most democratic subnational entities.


Avritzer, Leonardo. Participatory Institutions in Democratic Brazil. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Baiocchi, Gianpaolo. “Radicals in Power.” In Radicals in Power: The Worker’s Party (PT) and experiments in urban democracy in Brazil, edited by Gianpaolo Baiocchi, 1-26. New York: Zed Books, 2003.

Baiocchi, Gianpaolo, Partick Heller, and Marcelo K. Silva. Bootstrapping Democracy:       Transforming Local Governance and Civil Society in Brazil. Stanford, California:    Stanford University Press, 2011.

Carey, John M. and Matthew S. Shugart. “Incentives to Cultivate a Personal Vote: A Rank Ordering of Electoral Formulas.” Electoral Studies, 14:4 (1995): pp. 417-39.

Castañeda, Jorge. “Latin America’s Left Turn.” Foreign Affairs, 85:3 (May-June 2006): 28-43.

Centeno, Miguel Angel. In Blood and Debt: War and the Nation State in Latin America. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

De Castro, Iná Elias. Geografia e Política: Território, escalas de ação e instituições. Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil, 2005.

Democratic Decentralization Programming Handbook. United States Agency for International Development, 2009.

Endler, Ronaldo. Interview with Fala OP. Prefeitura Municipal de Porto Alegre. http://www2.portoalegre.rs.gov.br/op/, 2013.

“Four Predictions for the Brazilian Mobile Phone Market For 2013,” Forbes, December 16, 2012.

Fukuyama, Francis. “The Imperative of State-Building.” Journal of Democracy, 15:2 (April 2004): pp. 17-31.

Fung, Archon. “Reinventing Democracy in Latin America.” Perspectives on Politics 9:4     (December 2011): pp. 857-71.

Gibson, Edward. “Boundary Control: Subnational Authoritarianism in Democratic Countries.” World Politics 58:1 (October 2005): pp. 101-132.

Hochstetler, Kathryn. “Organized Civil Society in Lula’s Brazil.” In Democratic Brazil     Revisited, edited by Peter R. Kingstone and Timothy J. Power, 33-53. Pittsburgh,       Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.

Kelly, Sanja, Sarah Cook, and Mai Truong, editors. Freedom on the Net 2012: A Global    Assessment of Internet and Digital Media. Freedom House, 2012.

Levitsky, Steven, and Kenneth M. Roberts, editors. The Resurgence of the Latin American Left. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Mainwaring, Scott. “Brazil: Weak Parties, Feckless Democracy.” In Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America, edited by Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, 354-98. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995.

McCann, Bryan. The Throes of Democracy: Brazil Since 1989. New York: Zed Books, 2008.

“No Brasil, 60% usam Facebook pelo celular.” O Estado de São Paulo, August 13, 2013.

O’Donnell, Guillermo, and Philippe C. Schmitter. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule:     Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns         Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Pateman, Carole. “Participatory Democracy Revisited.” Perspectives on Politics 10:1 (March 2012): pp. 7-19.

Siegle de Souza, Carlos. Interview by author. Personal interview. Porto Alegre, RS, July 18, 2013.

Stepan, Alfred. “Brazil’s Decentralized Federalism: Bringing Government Closer to the     Citizens?” Daedalus 129:2 (2000): pp. 145-69.

Wampler, Brian. Participatory Budgeting in Brazil: Contestation, Cooperation, and Accountability. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press,           2007.


1 See: Scott Mainwaring, “Brazil: Weak Parties, Feckless Democracy,” in Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America, ed. Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), pp. 354-98.

2 Alfred Stepan, “Decentralized Federalism: Bringing the Government Closer to the Citizens?,” Daedalus 129:2 (Spring 2000), p. 164.

3 Iná Elias de Castro, Geografia Política: Território, escalas de ação e instituições (Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil, 2005), pp. 164-165.

4 See: Francis Fukuyama, “The Imperative of State-Building,” Journal of Democracy 15:2 (April 2004), for a broader discussion of this issue. Also see: Miguel Angel Centeno, In Blood and Debt: War and the Nation State in Latin America (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), for a thought-provoking hypothesis that seeks to explain this phenomenon in Latin America.

5 Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 53.

6 De Castro, Geografia Política, p. 195.

7 See: Brian Wampler, Participatory Budgeting in Brazil (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007); Leonardo Avritzer, Participatory Institutions in Democratic Brazil (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); and Gianpaolo Baiocchi et al., Bootstrapping Democracy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), for an overview of major studies on PB.

8 Baiocchi et al., Bootstrapping Democracy, pp. 13-14, 26-28.

9 Carole Pateman, “Participatory Democracy Revisited,” Perspectives on Politics 10:1 (March 2012).

10 Wampler, Participatory Budgeting in Brazil, pp. 4-5.

11 Archon Fung, “Reinventing Democracy in Latin America, Perspectives on Politics 9:4 (December 2011), p. 858.

12 Democratic Decentralization Programming Handbook, USAID (2009), pp. 21-25.

13 See: Edward Gibson, “Boundary Control: Subnational Authoritarianism in Democratic Countries,” World Politics 58 (October 2005), for a full discussion of this issue.

14 Carlos Siegle de Souza, interview by author, Porto Alegre, RS, July 18, 2013.

15 Ronaldo Endler, interview with Fala OP, Prefeitura Municipal de Porto Alegre, http://www2.portoalegre.rs.gov.br/op/, 2013.

16 Siegle, interview by author.

17 Ibid.

18 Wampler, Participatory Budgeting in Brazil, pp. 35-37, 113-17.

19 Siegle, interview by author.

20 Fung, “Reinventing Democracy in Latin America,” p. 863.

21 Ibid, p. 859; Fung notes that in the case of Porto Alegre, PB comprises between 4 and 21 percent of the municipal budget in any given year. This consists of primarily investments, while recurring expenses such as employee salaries remain under the purview of the municipal government.

22 Pateman, “Participatory Democracy Revisited.”

23 Wampler, Participatory Budgeting in Brazil, pp. 74-80.

24 “Acesso à informação no Brasil,” Controladora-Geral da União, accessed 27 April 2013, http://www.acessoainformacao.gov.br/.

25 Ibid.

26 “Portal Transparência e Acesso à Informação,” Prefeitura Municipal de Porto Alegre, accessed 27 April 2013, http://transparencia.portoalegre.rs.gov.br.

27 “Portal da Transparência,” Prefeitura Municipal de Ipatinga, accessed 27 April 2013, http://transparencia.ipatinga.mg.gov.br.

28 “Portal Oficial da Transparência,” Câmera Municipal de Volta Redonda, accessed 27 April 2013, http://rj.portaldatransparencia.com.br.

29 Fung, “Reinventing Democracy in Latin America,” p. 862.

30 Sanja Kelly et al., Freedom on the Net 2012, Freedom House (2012), p. 100-111.

31 Bryan McCann, The Throes of Democracy (New York: Zed Books, 2008), Ch. 6.

32 Ibid.

33 “Four Predictions for the Brazilian Mobile Phone Market For 2013,” Forbes, December 16, 2012.

34 See: McCann, The Throes of Democracy, Ch. 6, for an insightful discussion of the evolution of social media use in Brazil.

35 “No Brasil, 60% usam Facebook pelo celular,” O Estado de São Paulo, August 13, 2013, B15.

36 Siegle, interview by author.

37 The seminal article on Latin America’s “left turn” is: Jorge Castañeda, “Latin America’s Left Turn,” Foreign Affairs, 85:3 (May-June 2006); and a later, more extensive analysis of the “left turn,” which also includes a chapter on participatory measures, can be found in: Steven Levitsky and Kenneth M. Roberts, ed., The Resurgence of the Latin American Left (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

38 Gianpaolo Baiocchi, “Radicals in Power,” in Radicals in Power: The Worker’s Party (PT) and experiments in urban democracy in Brazil, ed. Gianpaolo Baiocchi (New York: Zed Books, 2003), pp. 1-26.

39 Ibid, pp. 2-3.

40 Fung, “Reinventing Democracy in Latin America,” p. 860.

41 Kathryn Hochstetler, “Organized Civil Society in Lula’s Brazil,” in Democratic Brazil Revisited, ed. Peter R. Kingstone and Timothy J. Power (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), pp. 36-38.

42 Baiocchi et al., Bootstrapping Democracy, pp. 48-51.

43 See: Hochstetler, “Organized Civil Society in Lula’s Brazil,” pp. 38-39, 44-49, for a discussion of these organizations, social movements, and their specific demands.

44 Ibid, p. 52.

45 Mainwaring, “Brazil: Weak Parties, Feckless Democracy,” pp. 376-78.

46 For a study on electoral systems and the incentive to cultivate a personal vote, see: John M. Carey and Matthew S. Shugart, “Incentives to Cultivate a Personal Vote: A Rank Ordering of Electoral Formulas,” Electoral Studies 14:4 (1995).