The Digital Agency for International Development

Bringing participatory budgeting online in Brazil - Aptivate takes a look behind the scenes

By Anna on 24 June 2014

Matt Haikin is Aptivate’s Research Lead on a project to create a Guide to Evaluating Digital Citizen Engagement. The guide is the core part of a tender Aptivate won this year in partnership with IDS and ICA , to build a Digital Engagement Evaluation Framework. This is an initiative of the World Bank's Global Governance Practice. It includes evaluating four such projects from Brazil, Uganda, India and Cameroon to explore how digital channels of engagement impact on citizens’ ability to communicate with their governments, and the government’s ability and desire to listen.

I caught up with Matt on his return from Brazil, where he has been exploring “the impact of introducing online voting, on the state-level participatory budgeting in Rio Grande do Sul”. He spent two weeks leading this evaluation, working closely with Fredrik Sjoberg from the World Bank, gathering data and interviewing people to help explore this impact.

So, what is participatory budgeting?

Participatory budgeting is a process in which all citizens are able to have a legally-binding say over how their local government allocates some of its budget. Brazil has a long history of participatory budgeting spanning over 20 years (at least in Porto Alegre, where I was). The Porto Alegre model is seen by many people as a huge success and is a model that is being looked at and to some degree copied in many other countries. Not just developing countries, but in parts of the US and Europe too.

Why is assessing the role of digital engagement important? 

It is clear that the pool of online voters tends to be younger, more middle class and (slightly) more male. Given that historically the participatory budgeting has not included the middle-classes, there is an argument that this is a good thing as it makes the voting more representative of the population.  However, the participatory budgeting movement originated out of a very specific desire to empower poor and marginalised communities and enable them to engage with their governments in a way they had been previously unable to. So others would argue that bringing in the middle-class voters defeats the object of the process. It is a fascinating debate and one with a lot of facets to it.

Although my evaluation is focused on specific aspects of the online vote (for example, does it bring in different people, do they engage differently from offline voters),  hope I am able to bring some of this wider debate into the evaluation report.

So what did you get up to in Brazil to evaluate the impact of the online vote? 

I spent 2 hectic weeks in Brazil, based in the city of Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul. The voting process was open for 3 days (2 days online only, and 1 day including face-to-face voting) and we had an online survey, a team of 50 people conducting ‘exit polls’ and also an innovative Interactive Voice Response automated telephone survey to try to reach people who didn’t vote. The decentralised nature of the process made the face-to-face survey a particular challenge - as nobody was sure exactly where the voting stations would be, so we spend a hectic morning finding where people were voting to send people to survey them. At times it felt like being in the control centre of some military operation - compounded by my lack of Portuguese. The survey company were great - they even had the imagination to send someone out on a motorbike to find polling stations and then call back to HQ so someone could be sent there to do surveys!

Despite the stress - we achieved some great results. We got over 1,800 exit polls, around 2,000 of the Interactive Voice Response surveys, and over 30,000 online surveys completed! It’s a great pool of data and we are now busy exploring and mining it, results due soon. 

Awesome! So why are the World Bank interested in these results? 

The World Bank invests a lot of money in citizen engagement work, and inevitably more and more of this uses digital technology. So it is vital for them to have a consistent way of understanding and evaluating the impact of these investments. 

Wider than this however, both Aptivate and the World Bank hope that The Guide we are producing will be something that others outside of the Bank will also use - other funders and donors, but also NGOs. Aptivate is particularly keen that small NGOs without big budgets can make use of it, and this is something we are hoping to explore in more depth following the publication of the Guide. Maybe a set of interactive online tools will enable smaller startups and consultants to benefit from the Guide too, who knows?

Why are Aptivate interested in this? 

As an organisation Aptivate are dedicated to developing tools to facilitate participatory development, and so such a project directly chimes with our philosophy and knowledge base. The Guide is also a great opportunity to deepen our partnership with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) ICA:UK, (“the participation and development charity”) who are our consortium partners in creating the Guide.

What was your highlight of being in Brazil?

Being on the ground and being directly involved in field research was great - particularly as I had previously studied participatory budgeting during my Masters, so experiencing and observing the reality was fascinating. Observing the way in which different polling stations persuaded people to vote was a great experience.  Some people, were clearly well informed community activists advertising the benefits of voting and what it has achieved in their community, while others were more akin to to “charity muggers” - holding a clipboard out and harassing all and sundry to vote!  Most surprising was how many of the polling stations seemed to be run and staffed by the police (sometimes with fire brigade and health services too) - not something I would ever have anticipated! All in all it was a fascinating insight - and has challenged a lot of my preconceptions about the process and about the online vs. offline debate. It will be great to explore it while writing up the report, and I am definitely looking forward to being involved in further field research in the future.

Watch this space for updates on the next three field evaluations in Uganda, India and Cameroon, and sign up for our newsletter if you’d like to hear about the final Guide once it is published by the World Bank in early 2015.