Scared of (un)crowded participatory assemblies?


Over the last years, I attended events on Participatory Budgeting a bit all over the world. Portugal, UK, Spain, France, USA, Mozambique were some of the countries I visited. A common concern arose “how do we make participatory assemblies more participated?”.

For first timers, it’s an anxiety generator.

But it’s an alarm for those with mature processes. Some of which even have good participation indicators in later stages, such as voting.

Depending on the process dynamics it’s also a problem related to process legitimacy. Why only a few “usual suspects” citizens are deciding?

So, how can we increase participation in live events such as participatory assemblies?

There are many variables which can be tweaked.

One thing is important to understand. A participatory assembly is like a 100m race. You must run thousands of miles preparing for it. The outcome will be proportional to the effort we put in preparation.

There’s an old saying: “Train hard. Compete easy.“.

And yes…

Sometimes you train/plan hard and simply fail. Most times because you didn’t manage to discover what could ignite your citizen’s engagement.

It’s not an exact science. But as in sports, a plan is better than no plan. It’s something you can always change and fine tune.

Improving awareness

Is your marketing any good? Is it appealing? Can it be better? You don’t even have a brand for citizens to connect visually to participatory budgeting?

Your marketing plan can be lean and simple. But it must exist.

Your brand must exist and not change radically every year. Otherwise, citizens won’t have visual anchors.

If you have a big budget, you can do incredible things. But you’ll be one of the few lucky ones. Organizers tend to forget to allocate budget for the promotion of participatory budgeting.

With a low budget, it’s up to you to come up with innovative ideas on how to reach your citizens. Try local media. Try social media. Try direct approaches to local society groups. Try using local art or communication schools as partners. Try using participants in previous years as champions. Try using local religious communities. Try using school networks, local sports events or cultural events to promote your PB. Try getting support from local well-known people. Try “pinching” local leaders and politicians pride to make sure they help in the mobilization.

If nothing works, try using one of our speakers to shout out loud.

Also, consider awareness as a full-time process.

Don’t do it only at the beginning of the process.

Do it before the process starts to get citizens aware it exists.

As most times there is more than one participatory assembly, you can do it during the process to make sure the next as more participation.

What? You only have ONE participatory assembly? And are expecting your citizens to all be available in that single day/hour? I would recommend you to start rethinking this…

Do it after to make sure citizens know the outcome. And if it’s more than one, you can use the first outcomes to communicate success and ask for more. People like to relate to success.

Is this using social psychology to influence people to attend? Yes! Be a master at it!

Improve hospitality

A citizen is not an alien. And even those like to feel welcome.

Provide a good and comfortable place for the assembly, which suits everyone sitting. But don’t overdue it. If you’re only gathering 30 or 40 people you don’t want a stadium ready.

Receiving the attendants properly is also important. Take small gestures. Greet all on arrival, spread some smiles and have informal conversations before the event starts.  All helps to create a friendlier environment.

Do you like coming into a room where everyone is in their corner with a serious face or even scattered around in small groups of friends? Let me tell you: that’s not a nice feeling. I wouldn’t be in the mood to participate a lot.

Of course, you’re busy as an organizer. But plan to have people there to help you with logistics and free you the time to welcome people.

Between “friends” people relate more. Are more open, participate more and a consensus is easy to meet.

Do you know every of your citizen’s by name? Of course not!

So why not give them a badge with their name?

They will “feel” a part of the community and everyone can call them by their name.

A logistical nightmare? Not if you handwrite the name. Or even himself with the pen you offer him (with your logo) for his time to participate.

Check my post on organizing events for some few extra tips.

One of them is to provide some sort of food, even if it is only coffee, tea, and cookies. As a city deputy told me once “where there is food people will come”. Shelley Carrol from Toronto told me “always have a cake, people like festivity”. And what better thing to celebrate than having your citizens engage each other and participate in the destiny of their budget?

Improve adult-adult relationship

Have you ever liked those to attend those classes where the teacher would talk, talk, talk?

Do you like talking to those people that don’t shut up or think they know everything?

Participatory Budgeting is all about listening, not talking. For the organizer but also for participants. Everyone should have a saying and not only the “usual suspects”.

Create rules that make clear that everyone has a voice, but also has to listen. Interaction is mandatory and passive participation is not encouraged.

Respect everyone and force everyone to respect each other. It doesn’t matter a citizen’s genre, age, skin color, political or religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.

With a well-established adult-adult relationship, citizens will participate more and better.

Does this apply to youth assemblies?

Of course, or aren’t they human beings? No matter their age people don’t like being treated “like kids”. Even if they are. Talk to them openly, listen to them, try to see their points of view.

Prepare citizens for proposal gathering

Ever you ever heard “I don’t have ideas. I vote for them to decide?”

Sometimes they won’t tell this with all the words… but they think it!

My father was born in a very small village and used to help his widow mother in farming. He always told me: “don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant”.

You should that too.

Provide a simple form with questions that induce “what is the problem”, “who does it impact”, “why is that a problem”, “how can it be solved”.

“How much does it cost” is also a good question… but often reveals that citizens don’t have a single clue. Do you want your Participatory Budgeting to be more pedagogical? Then use it, but always try to find a value and explain it to the proponent. Planting trees can be a nice and cheap idea, right? Not if you are in a big city where you need to plant big trees and have a lot of construction works to place them.

Also, provide help to finding solutions to problems. If someone comes only with the problem, help them with the solution. In the end, it should be their solution, not yours.

This can be done with citizens’ volunteer work or city employees. Both will need different training. Both models have advantages and disadvantages.

Adapt your rules to foster participation

If the mountain doesn’t come to us, we can always go to it… or make it come with subtle tweaks to the rules.

Is proposals submission at participatory assemblies? You can “limit” the number of proposals to the number of participants. For example, for each 15 persons present one proposal can go throw final stage of voting. Of course, this works in your advantage. People will soon realize that if they want their proposals to pass they have to mobilize soon in the process.

Is it an online process? You can add a pre-validation phase where proposals must gather a certain amount of votes. Águeda for example only allowed the top 2 ranked proposals from online to go to final voting (adding to the others gathered in person).

Some municipalities also include rules for minimum number of votes to legitimize a proposal. Guimarães has a minimum of 500 votes. Which means that a proponent knows from the start they have to gather at least those.

Online voting usually means more votes. SMS voting usually works that way as well. In Leiria we saw a 10x increase from the online voting previous year.

This means that adding this channels will most probably increase participation.

But is it the participation you are looking for? Is is equitable? Does it represent your community? Does it include those minorities you are targeting?

When trying to reach specific niches sometimes is better to rely on in-person events.

I’ve heard of people going to shopping malls, to church, to BUS stops, to day care centres, to youth community centres, to parks. Basically, you must go where the people you want to target are AND they’ll have 5 minutes to spare. Will subway stations during rush hour be a good place? Probably not… but you can always try and give me your feedback!

Note that all the numbers and suggestions above are mere examples and must be adjusted to your reality. They all have costs (direct and indirect), advantages and disadvantages.

After assemblies make others aware of results

Have I talked about communication? And that it should not stop afterwards?

It’s important to always keep people aware of what’s happening. This will keep them engaged.

How did it work? What were the results (qualitative and quantitative)?

Use social media, video, flyers, organize events to celebrate the results. Your imagination is your limit.

People like to feel part of a community. If they see other people engaging, they will be more opened to engage next time. Awareness is key to make Participatory Budgeting a sustainable process.


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