Participatory budgeting in Central and Eastern Europe

Excerpt from Adrian Dohotaru’s book “Participatory budgeting: between emancipation and hijacking”

The excerpt below is an introductory chapter from Adi Dohotaru’s book, Participatory budgeting: between emancipation and hijacking, Presa Universitară Clujeană, 2022, recently published this summer. The volume, based not only on a literature review but on dozens of interviews and field observations, explains what happened to the initial civic proposals and shows how superficially the local administrations implemented this participatory process. At the same time, it also presents the existing disputes in the left-wing intellectual field in Romania regarding participatory budgeting. Finally, the volume also shows how an in-depth process design can lead to the return of the stakes of citizen emancipation, as they were in Latin America and in the proposals of Central and Eastern European activists.

The book can also be downloaded from the publisher’s website:

Central and Eastern Europe is the region where the participatory budgeting (PB) mechanism is currently the most widespread in the world. Thousands of localities in Poland, where participatory budgeting is mandatory, hundreds of localities in Ukraine, dozens of localities in Romania, hundreds of other localities in the countries of the region are experimenting with a symbolic form of participatory budgeting whereby less than 1% of the local budget is distributed, through citizen involvement, and directed towards investments, usually at neighbourhood level.

Where legislation exists, the number of participatory budgeting schemes is multiplied by a factor of ten, as in Poland or, at regional level, in Sicily, where 2% of funds are distributed in this way. One of the major problems is the lack of detail on participatory and deliberative procedures, designed to avoid the authorities simply ticking off such processes. This is not just a problem of lack of budgetary funds, but of the quality of participation[1].

While participatory budgeting was originally a tool for citizen involvement and deliberation on budget priorities at neighbourhood level, following international diffusion it has, for example in Central and Eastern European countries, turned into a competition of small civic proposals[2] for small amounts of money.

In its origins and intentions, participatory budgeting is both a social justice mechanism and a tool for making budget spending transparent and fighting corruption. In Porto Alegre, for example, participatory budgeting investments were made inversely proportional to the quality of life in a neighbourhood, thus involving social categories previously excluded from decision-making and public office. As allocations were made under the often clientelistic military dictatorship, the new, more progressive local governments decided that allocations should be made through a broader process of decision-making transparency, through deliberation in public spaces. These were practices that spread participatory budgeting to the level of the main political mechanism for citizen engagement.

Participatory budgeting has been promoted along progressive lines by participants in various World Social Forum events, in a historical context where the process was thought of as a continuing mechanism for the redistribution of power, similar to communes, workers’ councils and soviets. The PB started from a 2% budget allocation and grew to 20% within a decade, with tens of thousands of people attending annual thematic gatherings as part of the process. As the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2005 was attended by 150,000 people with progressive views, researchers, activists and politicians later spread the process worldwide[3].

Participatory budgeting has also been promoted by the World Bank as a mechanism for good governance, a top-down dimension that has also been taken up in CEE (Central and Eastern Europe) countries. In the CEE countries, the activist influence was initially important in popularising the mechanism, but in the absence of new left-wing social and political movements, as in Latin America, it was transposed in a technocratic way, as in other regions and continents. From the promised emancipation, the mechanism has mostly ended up being co-opted, sometimes hijacked, and used as a political PR tool. In short, in CEE countries, although several steps are needed to “socialise the development vision”[4], this is at best mimicked by the BP.

The wider the diffusion, the more what is generically called “participatory budgeting” became an umbrella term for any participatory democratic process, regardless of size, that had a minimum budget. The aims changed in the sense that the CEE countries no longer wanted to change the status quo, but only minor improvements, through cosmetic deliberations or not at all[5].

The conclusions of the original BP studies, for example in 2013, are still valid today. A major impediment to the deep adoption of BP mechanisms is the paternalistic political culture, but also a weakness of civil society, which is unwilling to “actively engage in public affairs”, apart from a minority of citizens, usually materially well-off or politically educated. At other times, active involvement takes the form of protests rather than discussions. In addition to participatory budgeting adapted to Europe, perhaps too adapted, there are also consultations and classic participation, either by proximity or by organised interests, or the legal right to public information. BP theoretically allocates money better, “following the trend of innovation and co-creation”. The problem lies in small amounts and therefore relatively low interest, plus poor implementation with unjustified delays or political PR[6].

In 2019, almost 12,000 PBs were estimated in the Participatory Budgeting Atlas – 40% of them in Europe, and half in CEE countries, belonging to the former communist regime[7]. During the pandemic, the number of PBs dropped from over 10,000 in 2019 to just over 4. 000 in 2020, a 60% decrease, suggesting that solidarity and social justice are not the driving force for the mechanism[8]. Poland accounts for almost 40% of participatory budgets in Europe, followed by Portugal with 32.5%, Spain with 6.5%, Ukraine with almost 5% and the Czech Republic with 3.2%. Romania, with (at least) 26 localities where participatory budgeting is implemented, reaches 0.5%[9]. The advantages of introducing participatory budgeting in the region are clear, although not all countries in the region have PB. In Hungary, for example, there are no politicians or parties that support participatory budgeting, and there are even serious problems with the budgetary transparency of traditional investments[10]. It is a risk that does not bypass the domestic forms of PB: some crumbs of the budget are offered, a mockery of transparency, and large investments remain opaque.

Even with the current problems, the PB shows greater public involvement than in previous budget procedures. From investment decisions voted on by a few dozen councillors in a locality, we get hundreds to thousands or tens of thousands (depending on the size of the locality) of voters for small community projects: a schoolyard renovated and open to the general public, a bike path built, inclusive toilets made and for people with motor disabilities. In this sense, participatory budgeting is becoming, as has already been pointed out, a school of democracy, where voting is no longer exercised only once every four years. Also, in a post-1989 regional context, plagued by corruption, participatory budgeting demands transparency from local administrations. Authorities are interested in implementing the mechanism to ensure legitimacy and a minimum of trust in public institutions.

The disadvantages of adopting a technocratic vision of minimal participatory budgeting are highlighted in the literature[11]: the amounts are too small to threaten the business-as-usual atmosphere at city level, where major decisions are taken at the macro level, often without transparent mechanisms for public information and consultation, with civic co-decision even more remote as a plan. Then, even when allocations are increased following civic criticism or expert objections, the stakes have nothing to do with higher allocations on specific projects, although this is also relevant. What is more important is that the direction of this participation mechanism should be targeted at budgetary priorities and strategic, multiannual allocation decisions. With the focus on small projects, possibly implemented quickly to deliver results, the deliberative dimension is, with few exceptions, non-existent in the region, where a competitive rather than consensual or deliberative model has been adopted.

Another major tension is that between high normative aspirations such as anti-corruption, civic engagement, co-decision, etc., and modest achievements, and those with major delays, or reports of completion despite evidence of partial implementation. The literature, but also simple field observations in CEE countries have similar conclusions: deliberation is a key element that has been either abandoned or downplayed when transposing participatory budgeting from Latin America to the region.

Popularizers of PB in the Czech Republic, influenced by similar movements in Latin America, have emphasized since 2010 a co-deciding process regarding the direction of city development, but “now most, if not all, participatory budgeting processes are project-oriented”, not process-oriented and strategic investment priorities[12]. PB is seen as “the icing on the cake”, the initiators of this mechanism in the Czech Republic tell me. Big issues like transport or housing are left to the administration or the market. After the strategic decisions are made, if there is still money, then they continue with BP, “but it is not really seen as something important”[13].

Participatory budgeting was initiated in the Czech Republic, as in Romania[14] or Poland, with proposals from civil society with progressive and environmentalist views. In Prague, PB is accepted with the 2014 elections by more left-leaning parties, but in general the orientation is top-down, without social pressure for democratization of the decision.

In the Czech Republic, BP is adopting the “Sopot model”, originally proposed by Polish activist Marcin Gerwin, a resident of Sopot (Poland). The initiative was formulated in a more radical way, in the grip of “occupations” and “indignations” during the financial crisis, but after negotiations with the City Hall the project was significantly watered down. The sums are relatively small, with projects of up to €40,000 for small investments. In addition, there is a lack of coordination between the districts and the City Hall, as in Prague. There are also no clearly specialised departments in city halls on participatory budgeting. In Romanian cities, on the other hand, there is no clearly designated person in charge of participatory budgeting on the PB website.

The PB coordinators in the Czech Republic, as in Romania, are at most part-time employees with responsibilities in this process and have another function in the town hall’s organisation chart. Competences on such processes are low, and the allocation of administrative responsibilities in the process is done top-down, which sometimes causes resistance from civil servants[15].

Proposals in the region are made individually, as agreed by the Sopot City Council in 2011. The focus is on the voting process, not deliberation, and on topics so specific that over time the number of participants decreases once the city’s specific problems are exposed publicly.

This is why activists like Marcin Gerwin, who popularised PB in Sopot and then throughout Poland, so that national legislation has made PB mandatory for several years now, propose that participatory budgeting, which is declining in Poland in terms of involvement after several editions, should be combined, if the political and administrative will exists, with other participatory processes, such as the citizens’ forum, based on “descriptive representation”. In the context of Gdansk, Marcin Gerwin explains to me, this means 56 people from all neighbourhoods and age groups, with attention to gender equality, with an addition for women, who make up 54% of the city’s population, with participants paid 150 euros for a few hours’ meeting and five deliberative meetings. The citizens’ forum initially deliberates budget priorities by area, so it doesn’t just deal with small investments. Then it also deliberates on specific proposals submitted through citizens’ forums: “people submit projects and, at the end, in the autumn, for example, the citizens’ forum meets for the second part. Then the citizens in the Forum deliberate and choose. The person who submitted the project can come and describe it, and the Forum asks questions for clarification, and then they decide”[16].

The case of Poland is highly relevant, as it has set the standards in the region. Without deliberation, without redistribution, without conflict, PB risks being seized as a public policy tool for predefined purposes. In the entrepreneurial description of BP by the Sopot City Council, criticized for lack of depth and deliberation by the civic initiative group of which Gerwin was a member, BP is a “technology that Sopot, like a company, must invest in”[17].

In the absence of deliberation, BP can turn into administrative PR. “People govern together, submitting the project and voting on it”[18]: this is how a representative of the administration in Gdank describes the situation of the steps to set up a playground, a winning project at BP, illustrative of the way BP is run in Poland. However, it is difficult to see how a vote, without prior debate, for a simple playground leads to co-decision and co-governance by citizens in symbiosis with the administration, other than caricaturing public participation and applying it to less essential things.

Another consensus among experts and activists, but not officially accepted by administrations, is that while digital elements of the process are important, PB needs to go beyond the digital process of initiatives subject to voting, as it is now carried out in most cities in the region: “PB should not be a digital tool. You have to deliberate on projects, there have been three similar projects on the same area… This should be the role of the municipality: meet!”[19].

Among the problems I identified was mobilisation around the projects by groups with some influence in the city. In Cluj or Alba Iulia, some of the most voted projects are promoted by school principals, who have a wider network of support among colleagues, students and parents to bring resources to the school, but without the school then being opened to the general public following public investment through participatory budgeting. The problem has been partly solved in Poland, where schoolyards are open to the public, but other projects are off-limits to the general public and free of charge: “Some people submit projects inside the school, such as buying furniture. We have a big discussion on this, because another problem identified with participatory budgeting is very powerful groups. For example, in Poland, we have very strong associations, for example of cyclists and in schools. They have very good connections and they mobilise and submit many projects and then activate people to vote for them. We are looking for mechanisms to stabilise the situation and open up this process for ordinary people, not for very skilled organisers,”[20] the former BP coordinator in Warsaw tells me.

In Poland, participation remains the most impressive compared to other CEE countries, despite the small percentage of the city’s budget, between 0.2% and 1%. Participation, in the 18 voivodship capitals, ranged from 5% to 25%, although the average in the other larger cities is below 10%[21], with a slight downward trend.

This desire to open up to ordinary citizens is more difficult to achieve, as in Central and Eastern Europe social justice is not an implicit and explicit demand of participatory budgeting as it has been formulated elsewhere in the world[22].

The initial stake of the combination of activists/researchers/cultural practitioners who proposed PB in cities like Warsaw, Prague or Cluj was that PB should function as a redistributive principle, but it was easy for the initial intentions to be hijacked or reformulated in a minor, individualistic and technocratic key, because the proposals were not based on mass social and political movements as in Latin America. The law adopted in 2018 in Poland sets some minimum thresholds, such as the obligation to distribute through participatory processes 0.5% of the budget[23], to ensure that municipalities do not lower the threshold further.

Prior to this obligation, Polish cities allocated relatively tiny amounts, none of which were spent in full, in the period 2013-2018, and on several small projects, below 0.5% of the investment budget[24]. The situation is similar to that in Romania, where the PB has small amounts allocated and budget execution is considerably lower in relation to budget allocation, due to delayed implementation of projects or even abandonment[25]. The problem is worse in Romanian cities where budget execution in general is below 30%, in the case of Iasi[26] in 2021, or below 60% in the case of Cluj in the last 5 years[27]. As in other Romanian cities, civil society has found that the PB, introduced in 2017 in Bucharest for a sum of €4 million, is an “image exercise”, the process being “fundamentally flawed, with a popularity contest methodology and not a participatory budgeting exercise”. Out of 20 projects budgeted in 2018, with a maximum amount per project of €200,000, only 4 were implemented by summer 2019[28].

BP is “city marketing” with the aim of ensuring legitimacy of authorities and cooperation from citizens on strategic directions already adopted. True participation is transformative beyond minor changes in the sense of the right to the city. From this point of view, projects must have a “holistic, multi-scalar dimension”[29]. PB in CEE countries is a symbolic gesture towards citizens, with no impact on the distribution of resources. There is no deliberation on the projects chosen for the vote, only referendum, which can lead to frustration with the “revolutionary” rhetoric of co-deciding, with which BP is presented by enthusiasts or local power marketers[30].

Despite the problems, participatory budgeting makes sense in a context where legislation allowing for citizen involvement in decision-making is ineffective, rarely used or not used at all, as in Romania. Local legislative initiatives can only be made with the signatures of 5% of voting residents, without the possibility of online mobilisation. Referendums are exceptional, and the Citizens’ Forum in Slovenia, for example, has a bureaucratic procedure for convening them. Participatory budgeting can be good mainly because of the civic fatigue of advocating to the authorities for every social and environmental cause, and in this sense pressure is “very inefficient” in relation to the effort required[31]. PB is a “departure from bureaucratic culture”[32] through collective decision making, as has happened in Slovenia, where participation has proved quite broad, with good percentages of the population participating in such processes.

PB cannot evolve without bottom-up counterbalance, especially as in the central European context it is often used as a calling card for cities or officials, and measures are implemented top-down without participatory design[33]. Therefore, proposals coming from the associative environment are relevant, especially from those organisations that have facilitated such processes. The dilemma of the weight of online digital participation, which is easier compared to face-to-face deliberative meetings, has been solved by the Slovak group Utopia, which proposed BP in Slovakia, and which defines BP as the materialisation of the “right to the city” (Henri Lefebvre). Utopia has developed a mixed process, where deliberation carries 30% weight in the acceptance of the final draft, online voting 10% and paper voting, following deliberation, 60%. In 2017, during deliberations, the participants agreed by consensus, in order of priority, on the following criteria for prioritising the winning projects: project impact, number of beneficiaries, contribution to reducing inequalities, promotion of active citizenship, economic resilience, lack of environmental damage. The Utopia Association is also campaigning for national legislative changes for a unitary participatory budgeting[34]. So far, PB is taking place at the local regional level in Slovakia, but for small amounts. There is no specific legislation, but a charter has been created at government level that sets out the basic principles[35].

In Ukraine, more than 150 communities introduce BP between 2015 and 2019, 3.5% of the population of cities engage in BP, and cities spend on average only 0.2% of their budget. To prevent the fragmentation of PB into small projects with year-to-year completion problems, one option proposed by experts in the region is to work in longer, two-year cycles that can be designed so as not to overlap with election years. Deliberation and voting could be done one year and implementation the following year. If implementation is longer, the administration can take the necessary steps in the second part of the first year. Monthly or possibly quarterly reports on the monitoring of projects[36] (feasibility study, technical project, actual implementation, etc.) are then relevant for transparency.

PB does not automatically increase participation in local or national elections, but it can be argued that the design is too superficial to provoke wider participation, and the implementation time in CEE countries is too short for a firm conclusion. On the other hand, macro-processes of weakening democracy cannot be compensated for by local participatory micro-processes. For example, participatory budgeting has been implemented for several years in the Czech Republic, in a few dozen municipalities, and has not gone beyond 0.6-0.7% of the investment budget, the amount in one year for all projects in 25 cities with 1.4 million inhabitants being only 3.7 million euros[37]. The highest percentage in the region is in Katowice, Poland, with 0.85% of the development budget. The maximum participation in Czech cities was reached in smaller cities, but did not exceed 16% of the population. In Poland, it exceptionally reached 30%, then the percentage decreased.

[1] Giovanni Allegretti, Matteo Bassoli, Greta Colavolpe, “On the Verge of Institutionalisation? Participatory Budgeting Evidence in Five Italian Regions”, Financial Journal, no. 2 (13), 2021, pp. 25-45.

[2] Mayor Allen Coliban of Brasov called this mechanism a “contest” and the possible winners “project managers”, in a technocratic and competitive language, whereby the original meaning of BP dissipates into a corporate governance context, without the mechanism itself being neoliberal in nature. Press conference of 02.02.2022,

[3] Michael Menser, We Decide! Theories and Cases in Participatory Democracy, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2018, p. 72.

[4] Danuta Szpilko, Joanna Szydło, Justyna Winkowska, “Social Participation of City Inhabitants Versus Their Future Orientation. Evidence From Poland”, WSEAS Transactions on Business and Economics, vol. 17, 2020, pp. 699-700.

[5] Juraj Nemec, David Špaček, Michiel S. de Vries, “Unraveled Practices of Participatory Budgeting in European Democracies”, in Michiel S. De Vries, Juraj Nemec, David Špaček (coord.), International Trends in Participatory Budgeting. Between Trivial Pursuits and Best Practices, Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2022, pp. 287-313.

[6] Jelizaveta Krenjova, Ringa Raudla, “Participatory Budgeting at the Local Level: Challenges and Opportunities for New Democracies”, Halduskultuur – Administrative Culture 14 (1), 2013, p. 31.

[7] Nelson Dias, Sahsil Enríquez, Simone Júlio (coord.), Participatory Budgeting Worldwide Atlas 2019, Epopeia and Oficina, 2019, p. 32, available at

[8] Nelson Dias, Sahsil Enríquez, Rafaela Cardita, Simone Júlio, Tatiane Serrano (coord.), Participatory Budgeting World Atlas 2020-2021, p. 16.

[9] Ibid, p. 190.

[10] Márti Sipos, Petra Edina Reszkető, Budapest Participatory Budget. Case Study Report, 2019, available at

[11] Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Ernesto Ganuza, “Participatory Budgeting as if Emancipation Mattered”, Politics & Society, 1(42), 2014, pp. 29-50.

[12] Discussion with Tomáš Tožička, Alternativa Zdola, 14 May 2019.

[13] Ilona Švihlikova, Alternativa Zdola, Alternative from Below, dialogue conducted in Prague, 14 May 2019.

[14] In Cluj, participatory budgeting is accepted by the city hall on the basis of proposals initiated by the author in 2012, together with other associations and civic activist groups in the context of the anti-austerity protests in winter-spring 2012.

[15] Vojtěch Černý, Prague Participatory Budget. Case Study, Report & Analysis, 2018, p. 19, available at

[16] Dialogue with Marcin Gerwin, 14 August 2017.

[17] Wojciech Kębłowski, Mathieu Van Criekingen, “How ‘Alternative’ Alternative Urban Policies Really Are?”, Métropoles, 15, 2014, p. 14, available at http://

[18] Interview conducted with Krzysztof Garski, PR Gdansk City Hall, 14 August 2017.

[19] Interview with Prof. Mariusz Czepczyński, advisor at Gdansk City Hall, 16 August 2017. Such information about the importance of the deliberations, however, was confirmed to me by all the process coordinators I met, from Porto Alegre, Lisbon or Warsaw.

[20] Dialogue with Urszula Majewska, BP Warsaw coordinator, international expert on other participatory processes in Eastern Europe, 28 December 2016. She extended her expertise to Georgia, where she confessed that the satisfaction was higher precisely because of the introduction of a deliberative phase.

[21] Malgorzata Madej, “Participatory Budgeting in the Major Cities in Poland – Case Study of 2018 Editions”, Politics in Central Europe, 15 (2), 2019, p. 274.

[22] Emil Boc, “The Development of Participatory Budgeting Processes in Cluj-Napoca”, Transylvanian Review of Administrative Sciences, No. 58 E, 2019, p. 48.

[23] Anna Sudolska-Bytof, Maria Janiak, Warsaw Participatory Budget. Case Study Report & Analysis, 2019, available at

[24] Dorota Bednarska-Olejniczak & Jaroslaw Olejniczak, Participatory Budgeting in Poland in 2013-2018 – Six Years of Experiences and Directions of Changes, in Nelson Dias et al, Participatory Budgeting World Atlas 2020-2021, p. 349.

[25] For example, a project with signage for cyclists or another to revitalise a central market was abandoned, although feasibility studies and possibly design tenders could be carried out within the amounts set by the regulation.

[26] Alex Andrei, “Black figures at City Hall: Chirică spent only 20% of the money invested”, Ziarul de Iași, 29 October 2021,

[27]M.M., “Cluj-Napoca municipality budget approved. USR shatters the myth of Emil Boc’s housekeeper: Has under 60% achievement in the last 5 years”,, 8 February 2022,

[28] See the 4 years in office report. 2016-2020. Almost nothing, available at

[29] Wojciech Kębłowski, Mathieu Van Criekingen, op. cit. pp. 4-5.

[30] Dawid Sześciło, “Participatory Budgeting in Poland: Quasi-Referendum Instead of Deliberation”, Hrvatska i komparativna javna uprava: časopis za teoriju i praksu javne uprave, no. 2 (15), 2015, pp. 373-388.

[31] Matic Primc, Participatory Budgeting in Slovenia: A Budding Field, in Nelson Dias et al, Participatory Budgeting Worldwide Atlas 2019, p. 364.

[32] Ibid, p. 370.

[33] Jakub Bardovič, Jozef Gašparík, “Enablers of Participatory Budgeting in Slovakia During the COVID-19 Pandemic”, Scientific Papers of the University of Pardubice, D: Faculty of Economics and Administration, 1 (29), 2021.

[34] Eva Riečanská, Peter Vittek, Bratislava Participatory Budget. Case Study Report & Analysis, 2019, available at

[35] See A Charter for Good Participatory Budgeting, available at

[36] Dmytro Khutky, Kristina Avramchenko, Impact Evaluation of Participatory Budgeting in Ukraine, Kiev, 2019, available at

[37] Soňa Kukučková, Eduard Bakoš, “Does Participatory Budgeting Bolster Voter Turnout in Elections? The Case of the Czech Republic”, The NISPAcee Journal of Public Administration and Policy, 2 (12), 2019, p. 117.

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