Citizen Participation in Budgeting: Prospects for Developing Countries

Donald Moynihan


Why is budget participation important? How can meaningful citizen participation in budgeting be fostered? This chapter of a World Bank book examines participation theory and case studies from Brazil, India, South Africa, Uganda and the United States. Citizen participation can make local service delivery more effective. Government attitudes and the role of civil society are both key in improving budget participation. Donors should therefore support civil society, and both donors and NGOs should seek better understanding of government perceptions in order to reduce the costs and increase the benefits of implementing participatory processes.

Participation is important in developing countries as a means of improving the performance and accountability of bureaucracies and improving social justice. There are two basic criteria for participation: it should be broadly representative of the population and should involve meaningful discourse that affects public decision-making. Reviews of participation in Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) processes show that these criteria have not been met in most cases. However citizen involvement in budgeting has been more successful.

Citizen participation made local service delivery more efficient and effective in the country cases reviewed. In most of the case studies, NGOs analysed the budget and mobilised citizens. These NGOs seek to represent the poor and disseminate their views to the government. They do not offer direct citizen involvement, but without their involvement participation would be reduced.

Lessons from the case studies include:

  • Citizen participation is relevant at each stage of the budget process – resource allocation, budget execution and budget evaluation
  • The attitude of government is a major predictor of whether meaningful participation will be undertaken
  • The success of participation depends in part on administrative capacity to disseminate information and hold meetings
  • The media played a key role for NGOs in publicising budget analyses, report cards, survey results and following up issues raised.

Budget participation can influence governments even where they have not embraced direct involvement of citizens in decision-making. This depends on NGOs communicating analyses of spending choices, public service effectiveness, and budget execution to the public, media, and elected officials. A key policy implication for donors is therefore targeted support to civil society. However, donors and NGOs often overlook the importance of government administrations in implementing participation.

Donors and NGOs must take into account government attitudes to participation and find ways to reduce costs and increase benefits of the process:

  • Government administrators have a great deal of control over how participatory activities are structured, who to include, and how much power to share
  • Government officials may be hostile if they see participation as a threat, or merely sceptical, seeing participation as symbolic and expensive
  • Support for participation is most likely to come from political parties that represent the poor or that have been in long term opposition
  • Administrators have justified concerns over expense, being truly representative, and poor quality of decision outcomes arising from the public’s lack of technical knowledge 
  • Budget participation can have a positive effect in forcing collaboration in bureaucracies due to the nature of citizen proposals
  • Participation can: provide information that improves technical or allocative efficiency; offer innovative solutions that would not have arisen from traditional decision-making; and raise acceptance of programmes.


Moynihan, D. P., 2007, 'Citizen Participation in Budgeting: Prospects for Developing Countries', in Participatory Budgeting, ed. A. Shah, The World Bank, Washington, DC, pp. 55-87