Integrating Multiple Channels of Engagement in Democratic Innovations: Opportunities and Challenges

Integrating Multiple Channels of Engagement in Democratic Innovations: Opportunities and Challenges

Paolo Spada (University of Southampton, UK) and Giovanni Allegretti (Coimbra University, Portugal)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1081-9.ch002


This chapter explores the advantages and disadvantages of integrating multiple channels of engagement within a democratic innovation. Using examples and case studies of recent face-to-face and online multichannel democratic innovations the authors challenge the emerging consensus that redundancy and diversification of venues of participation are always positively correlated with the success of democratic innovations. The chapter concludes by providing ten guidelines for the optimal integration of multiple channels of engagement.
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More than 2800 cities around the world adopt participatory budgeting (PB), a governance innovation that allows non-elected ordinary citizens to shape a portion of the city budget (Sintomer et al. 2013).

Generally, participatory budgeting has three participatory phases: an initial brainstorming phase, in which participants propose potential public projects; a project selection phase, in which participants select projects that will enter the budget; and a monitoring phase, during which participants can follow the implementation of projects. Thus, in typical participatory budgeting, participants can engage the process in multiple ways, from simply attending a meeting to voting, from proposing a project to mobilizing other participants or being elected as representatives of their district (Wampler, 2015; Baiocchi, 2005; Allegretti, 2005; Avritzer & Navarro, 2002; Abers, 2000; Fedozzi, 2000).

Participatory budgeting in large cities integrates separate district level engagement processes, and multiple city level engagement processes. Each of these participatory spaces is a subsystem of the overall PB system. For example in Porto Alegre, Brazil, each of the seventeen districts of the city organize a slightly different participatory process that in itself can be analyzed as a process with and input, a boundary and an output, i.e. a system. Additionally Porto Alegre organizes six participatory processes, called thematic assemblies, dedicated to the allocation of resources to citywide projects on a specific policy domain. Each of these twenty-three subsystems has two participatory spaces. One open to the public (plenary), and one restricted to citizens that are elected during the plenaries (delegate forum). A citywide steering committee composed by two representative for each district and thematic subsystem – the participatory budgeting council – completes the overall participatory architecture. New York City PB, instead, ‘only’ integrates twenty-six district level channels with a citywide steering channel mainly composed by representatives of CSOS.

Additionally many modern PB processes include an online space that, depending on the implementation, varies from an ancillary system of support to visualize data and information, to a voting channel, to a complete separate PB process (e.g.; Belo Horizonte).

Each of these subsystems is a separate channel of engagement specifically designed to target a segment of the population identified by geographical, media or policy preferences.

Most of the current research highlights the positive role of integrating multiple channels of engagement to engage a large and diverse set of participants. However, the conflictive relationship that PB had with e-democracy tells a more complex story in which different channels interact positively or negatively depending on the architecture of the PB system. In this chapter, the authors aim to provide a more nuanced view of the role of multiple channels of engagement in participatory budgeting processes.

The chapter is divided into four sections. In the first, the authors review the history of the conflictive relationship between PB and e-democracy highlighting the role of local conditions, path-dependency and historical trends. In the subsequent section, the authors focus on five critical challenges that multi-channel PBs have faced. Then the authors provide examples of PBs that have successfully managed some of such challenges. Finally, the authors conclude by drawing some preliminary lessons.

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