Digital Connections in the Favelas of Brazil

Participatory Budgeting Mobile Voting Station. Photo from Tiago Peixoto.

So you wanna reach hundreds of thousands of people in the favelas of Brazil to join in a public process. to determine budget priorities.  How to do it?

We’re talking about folks who may not have touched a data-connected mobile device nor a computer. You’d probably say that an internet-only strategy of capturing input would be doomed to failure and would disenfranchise the poor. Well, at least I would have.

The town of Belo Horizonte and the state of Rio Grande do Sul, both in Brazil, proved me wrong.

In NDI’s second Tech4Democracy brown-bag discussion, Tiago Peixoto of the ICT4Gov Program of the World Bank shared the tale of these communities and other participatory budgeting case studies. (For more information on the concept, check out an introductory blog post from Tiago.) During an engaging hour-long presentation, Tiago spun the story.

In Belo Horizonte, a city of 2,400,000 citizens,  $11 million was to be distributed via an entirely web-based participatory budgeting process. Those behind the program embarked on an aggressive outreach plan to maximize participation. Internet access was provided by supporters in their homes and in 178 places like schools with computers and net access. To reach deep into communities organizers built mobile voting trucks that provided convenient voting with computers on board. Participants were encouraged to share with their friends and get others involved. Taking part was quick and easy, as long as you could get online; people were able to get informed, make their choices and then get out..

The results were excellent. Over a 42 day period, over 10% of voters participated. Most impressively to me, the participation rates were highest in the poorest neighborhoods with arguably the lowest levels of connectivity. It didn’t just happen, though; they had an aggressive real-world advertising campaign and outreach to give people information about the process and encourage them to take part. As with any crowdsourcing project, there are a lot of obstacles to participation, but Belo Horizonte did a beautiful job of overcoming them. By comparison, traditional meetings in the real-world only got participation rates of 1.2% with a pot of $43 million.

About a month ago the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul (inhab. 11 million) invited its citizens to vote on the allocation of over US $100 million. Through the use of an individual identifier – the electoral ID number – citizens could vote either online or offline, via smarpthones or via SMS on the prioritization of different public investments pre-selected during face-to-face public meetings held across the state. These projects include, for instance, building a hospital or buying new police cars. The projects most voted for were to be executed by the government.

“Participatory budgeting” (PB) leverages the knowledge dispersed in society for a better allocation of public resources. When properly implemented, PB is associated with desirable outcomes such as reduction of tax delinquency, increased transparency and better and innovative delivery of public services.

In Rio Grande do Sul, the number of participants is jaw-dropping when compared to most participation initiatives that we have heard of. In a voting period of 16 hours (8 a.m. to midnight) over 1.25 million citizens participated in the process. The overall participation rate was 11% of the population and 18% of the electors in the state: citizens over 16 years old registered on the electoral roll and every citizen over 18 years old. The average voting rate was a staggering 1,268 votes per minute.

Rio Grande do Sul’s numbers are even more impressive if one considers the size of its population (11million). This is due to a factor that those working in participatory democracy are very familiar with: All other things equal, turnout rates are consistently higher in small polities and they decrease as the size of the population grows. 

The lesson for me: Even in places with relatively poor technology infrastructure, a virtual information collection system can be a success - as long as it’s coupled with a smart, comprehensive, funded outreach strategy solidly grounded in the real world.

Take the time to watch Tiago’s entire excellent presentation. It’s fascinating. We’ve got the slides as well. You can also follow Tiago on Twitter at @participatory.