This post was written by Jacob Bathanti, an independent writer and consultant, currently residing in Peru. He blogs on open government and global politics at Obscure Suddha.
“Before, even five or 10 years ago, this would have been impossible,” said Vilma Gonzales de Huajardo.
This is what Vilma had to say about a new initiative by the city of Lima, Peru, which in the first week of June invited ordinary citizens to take part in the city’s participatory budget (PB) process for the first time ever. PB initiatives typically engage citizens directly in decisions about how a specified portion of the jurisdiction’s budget will be spent. More than 40 projects were up for funding in Lima’s PB process, and Vilma was out on a chilly fall day to encourage people to vote. Beyond civic duty, Vilma also hoped to promote a particular project: a youth center in her neighborhood of Barranco, a sprawling district that encompasses both Lima’s bohemian neighborhood and marginal zones of urban poverty.
“There’s been a real turn for the better in this neighborhood,” Vilma told me. She thought that the funding for construction and operation of a new center for marginalized youth could help cement the area’s ascent – with the help of the participatory budgeting initiative.
Peru already has one of the most far-reaching participatory budgeting laws in the world. Since 2003, all subnational governments are legally obliged to develop their capital investment budgets with input from civil society. Civil society participants, designated as “participating agents” have seats at the table for developing budgets at the regional, provincial, and municipal levels.
Now, the municipality of Lima has gone further than what the law requires, harnessing information technologies to extend the scope of participation beyond “participating agents” to the general population. City residents were invited to visit an online portal and vote for one project from each of four thematic groups: human development, economic development, the environment, and governance. After voting wrapped up, the results are combined with the other inputs into the process, which include the votes of participating agents and technical evaluations of project feasibility, to decide which projects will receive funding. The results of the vote will be announced at a later time and posted to this blog.
According to Epifanio Baca, the director of one of the International Budget Partnership’s local partners, Grupo Propuesta Ciudadana, the PB process in Lima has moved quickly, given a push by the mayoral administration of seasoned human rights advocate Susana Villarán. Innovative technology is part of the city government’s bid to make up for lost time. The initiative attempts to utilize diverse information technologies, as Internet penetration in Lima is fairly high. And electronic voting modules, deployed by the mayor’s office around the city, provided further opportunities to engage in the PB process.
During the week of the consulta, I visited the roving voting modules at a major plaza and in a shopping mall. The atmosphere was bustling as small lines formed and teams of volunteers actively engaged passersby in conversation. This outreach both represented the most heartening thing about the consulta virtual, and showcased the greatest obstacle to the process: spreading the word.
“The most challenging thing was to promote this new public policy that citizens had not known about before,” said Valeria Zamalloa, communications director for Lima’s Office of Citizen Participation. While municipal workers and citizen volunteers worked valiantly to spread the word about the virtual consultation, a very rough estimate suggests that about 20,000 Lima residents voted. This is progress for a brand new initiative, but it only represents a tiny portion of a population of over 8 million.
Zamalloa told me that her office is already working on addressing these issues. Next year her office will seek more money for publicity, and for more of the electronic voting modules.
“We think that, in the long run, the modules helped increase participation because people didn’t know much about the participatory budget, and much less about the virtual consultation,” she said. “[The modules provided] a place where we can gather people and talk about this… many of the people thanked us for doing this. They were happy because they felt that they could decide how money would be invested.”
For those who learned about their new opportunity to participate, the difficult process of changing mindsets from passivity to participation is already taking place. As dusk fell over the center square of Barranco last week, I spoke with a woman named Maria Elena about the ascendancy of participatory democracy in Peru and beyond. She said that this represented a new way of doing things, a radical change for self-governance by citizens.
“Es una nueva revolucion,” she said. “This is a new revolution.”