A novel political endeavor took place earlier last month in Lima, as just over 17,000 citizens participated in the city’s first consulta ciudadana virtual (virtual citizen consultation) as part of the municipality’s participatory budgeting (PB) process. Across the city, residents used a new online system to vote in the consulta. Although those who participated represent a tiny proportion of the sprawling capital’s population, the consulta is still an impressive innovation with the potential to strengthen public accountability.
Last month’s exercise also highlights the progress achieved by the administration of center-left Mayor Susana Villarán as well as the patchy state of public participation across the country.
Peru has an extensive legal framework for participatory budgeting. The country saw a wave of decentralization reforms enacted in 2002 and 2003, including a mandate that all subnational governments develop their capital investment budget in consultation with civil society. Representatives of NGOs and civic associations are invited to take part in planning meetings as “participating agents” to propose and vote on capital investment projects of social interest.
By inviting individual citizens to vote, Lima’s consulta virtual represents a bold step toward expanding participation beyond the relatively closed sphere of participating agents. The process encourages even greater participation than the legal mandate specifies, leveraging information technologies to reach individual “vecinos desorganizados,” and considering their votes (along with technical evaluations and the votes of participating agents) in determining which projects to fund.
“Lima is much more advanced than anywhere else in the country,” said Stephanie McNulty, a political scientist who has studied participatory reforms in Peru. “The mayor’s office has really embraced this process.”
Outside the capital, however, PB is not moving forward so swiftly. Low administrative capacity at the subnational level means that many proposals approved by the PB process have yet to be executed. If this gap between participatory process and concrete accomplishments persists, it will significantly undercut participatory budgeting. Already, policy analysts in Lima are already warning of “participation fatigue.”
While President Ollanta Humala’s administration has publicly committed to advancing decentralization and increasing citizen participation, its record is mixed. The government has joined the Open Government Partnership, which aims to encourage government transparency, and inter alia informed public participation. But the government has been silent on more substantive steps to strengthen existing participatory institutions.
“In his discourse he’s been pro-[public participation and participatory budgeting], but in terms of action he’s been neutral,” said McNulty about President Ollanta Humala. “In general, he’s been much more conservative than people had thought initially.”
Is Humala’s rightward drift inimical to expansion of direct popular participation in the policy process? It is clear that some political actors distrust innovative mechanisms for public participation, arguing that these initiatives will only slow the implementation of government programs and the pace of development. The turmoil within the Humala administration in May over adjustments to (and indeed, the radical restriction of) another participatory institution, consulta previa, makes this quite plain, as does the failure cited above to take up issues of citizen participation at the national level.
The participatory institutional landscape across Peru is characterized, then, by considerable variation across geography and policy areas, as diverse sets of political actors attempt to push forward or to obstruct public participation in their relative spheres.
“With Lima doing this, there’s at least the prospect to re-energize the process,” said McNulty. Lower Internet penetration outside Lima means that the capital’s tech-driven experiment will be difficult to replicate elsewhere. But Villarán’s example may still serve as a model for other municipalities.
“One thing that would help is being able to expand the amount of money under consideration beyond just capital investment projects and to involve citizens in longer-term planning,” McNulty added. “But for that you need political will.”
For all the good it might do, that political will is absent in Peru at the national level. In Lima, on the other hand, officials at the mayor’s office are excited about institutionalizing and expanding their experiment and are already planning next year’s publicity campaign to get more people to vote.
“We think that this is very good for the first time that we’re doing it, but we feel that we need to do more, so this process will be really participative,” said Valeria Zamalloa, communications director for the Office of Citizen Participation. Among her colleagues, enthusiasm for continuing to engage and empower citizens is palpable.
With the Humala administration unlikely to move this agenda forward, Peruvian civil society must seek out allies at the local level. As in Lima, municipalities are critical to regaining momentum for Peru’s embattled participatory institutions, and even deepening them in local laboratories of democracy. Whether this is likely in a national context that appears deeply ambivalent toward public participation, however, is not at all clear.