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Bridging the gap

A model for cities to strengthen citizen participation and promote participatory democracy.
Cascais / Portugal
Size of city: 
206 479 habitants


Isabel Xavier Canning
Head of department
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With an electoral abstention rate of over 60%, Cascais (PT) faces a distance problem between its citizens, policies and politicians. In response, the municipality introduced a participatory budget mechanism in 2011 to bring citizens closer to decision-makers. It is a low-cost, legally binding methodology, with two cycles (decision and implementation), involving citizens from the presentation and discussion of ideas, through to the project's opening. Cascais’s participatory budget is accessible to all, promoting social inclusion, gender equality, and integration of all social groups. It is a pioneering model of public administration. Cascais, which has a population of 206 000, has used the participatory budget model for six years, involving more than 150 000 citizens, implementing 88 publicly voted projects, and strengthening people's confidence in their governors. The most voted participatory budget of Portugal, it has been replicated in more than 10 cities and has sparked interest across Europe and beyond.

The solutions offered by the good practice

The participatory budget improves service delivery and the power of citizens to make their voices heard in local politics. There is a trust that generates mobilisation. People approach the municipality because of PB and over time as an outcome, they get increasingly involved. People take responsibility for the management and maintenance of all aspects of projects. They deal with problems and find solutions. A smart city is a democratic and participative city designed through collaborative learning. It is a process by all of us, within public participation, and as a combination of participative and representative democracy. PB develops new behaviours in the community, leading it to take an active role defining priorities for the use of available resources, ensuring and enabling everybody’s right to participate in developing their territory.
PB is a new way of decision-making and a tool for active participation. So, by practising democracy and cultivating a locally participatory culture an impact on the further development of a democratic union is achieved.
PB is the most relevant project that Cascais has to promote public participation. The PB was born of the need to strengthen civil society by modernising public services and combating corruption. Our guidelines are accountability, active citizenship, participation, transparency, and the management of resources according to people’s real needs, rather than the self-interest of departments.

Building on the sustainable and integrated approach

The sustainable development of a city involves four fundamental axes: environmental, social, economic and cultural.
In the social axis, participation emerges as a need for people’s interaction in strengthening democracy. PB emerged in the 80s in Brazil as a way to bring poor and excluded citizens into prioritizing their problems and finding solutions.
Our strategy has 5 axes:
• Territory with quality of urban life;
• Territory of creativity, knowledge and innovation;
• Territory of environmental values;
• Coherent and inclusive territory;
• Territory of active citizenship: promoting proximity and active citizenship through participatory democracy, thus fostering a spirit of community and promoting voluntarism and social responsibility.
In 2011, a new team was born in the municipality, and the PB was based on Local Agenda (A21). A Letter of Principles was prepared for PB promoting informed participation to bring citizens closer to decision-makers and contribute to administrative modernisation and the fostering of a dynamic civil society.
These objectives structured a deliberative PB in which participants could submit proposals and decide projects within a stipulated budget. In 2013, the Division of Citizenship and Participation was created, which included A21, volunteering, cultural associations, residents’ associations and the PB. With this division, local government was committed to promote governance, to increase the participation of the citizens in the management of the territory.

Based on a participatory approach

Compared to other municipalities, Cascais stands out for its representativeness. Our PB highlights are: high voter rate, amount of investment, participants number in public sessions, voting model, follow-up work by the first dimension is the one in which are more indicators. The number of votes is only one of them. PB is deliberative and emerges as a decision-making power based on and by people so citizens have a continuous interaction in the whole process, which is the key element of our participation concept:
• Communication (bms)
• Public Sessions
• Technical analysis
• Voting
• Implementation of the projects
On the financial side, Cascais had the highest percentage of budget invested in PB (18% in 2015). In the last dimension, Cascais has the highest implementation rate in the country with total transparency during the process, due to high-quality technical analysis and multitask team. Cascais PB is innovative in establishing new interactions between citizens, public administration and politics, projects’ proponents, work executed percentage, and an exclusive PB team. There are three dimensions of analysis: participatory, financial and implementation that compose a diverse set of quantitative and qualitative indicators.

What difference has it made?

The Cascais PB in its six editions had a strong impact on the territory.
This impact was in participation:
Total votes (6 years) 219,307;
Sum of participants in public sessions 4,389.
Transparency impact: people can control and monitor what is happening with their projects/works at
Administrative modernisation impact: multitask teams were created, a dedicated team, available directly via mail, phone and face to face and ongoing bottom up evaluation;
Most participated session 210;
Total proposals (9 sessions x 6 years) 975;
Total proposals in plenary (9 sessions x 6 years) 628;
Total proposals/ technical analysis (9 sessions x 6 years) 289;
Total projects submitted to voting (6 years) 196;
Total works (after voting) 88.
The implementation rate had the following impacts:
The sum of investment in works during six years was 15.8 million euros.
The 88 projects had the following results:
PB 2011: 12 projects/ 12 fulfilled;
PB 2012: 15 projects/ 14 fulfilled;
PB 2013: 6 projects/ 5 fulfilled;
PB 2014: 9 projects/ 8 fulfilled;
PB 2015: 21 projects/ 6 fulfilled;
PB 2016: 24 projects/ 0 fulfilled.
Many of the projects had an impact in education (25). The others concerned urban rehabilitation (12 projects), green spaces (11), sport (10), the public road network (10), security and civil protection (7), culture (6), social action (5), environmental protection and energy (1) and innovation and knowledge (1).

Why should other European cities use it?

Our PB has been recognised as an example of good practice and has been used by other cities on the national and international levels. Many other cities have reproduced our PB model, including in Portugal: Alenquer, Águeda, Caminha, Funchal (Madeira Island) Lagoa, Lousã, Mafra, Torres Vedras, Penacova, Penafiel, Portimão, Ponta Delgada (S. Miguel island, Azores). Many cities in Europe have sent representatives to study our PB practice: Brussels, Stockholm, Dubrovnik, Ríčany (Czech Republic). Worldwide: Maputo, Quelimane and Nampula (Mozambique), Manágua (Nicaragua) and New York City (USA).
In order to promote a bigger interaction, several municipalities and Cascais created a national participative network called RAP (Rede de Autarquias Participativas).
Lex Paulson, an organiser of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, visited our PB and said: “What impressed us most in Cascais was that they used Participatory Budgeting to build trust and participation, not just for a year, but for many years. There are many participatory budget processes that fluctuate and do not last for more than two or three years. What Cascais has done over the past five years has been to show that we can always improve and create more and more confidence by showing the impact and the results, so that the citizens are more and more committed, dedicated and motivated.”