Panel Paper: Explaining the redistributive dimensions of participatory governance: Views from the participants in the city of Seoul participatory budgeting

Saturday, November 4, 2017
Atlanta (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Won No, Arizona State University

Participatory government decision-making processes in practice are often criticized because well-managing public participation is not an easy task for public managers. First, inclusiveness of the process is often questioned – whether the community members are well represented. It is widely known that the most active participants are usually White, in middle or high socio-economic status, and well-educated. Many groups of people are sometimes difficult to reach out without additional efforts because some people could have a higher opportunity cost for spending time in going to a community meeting, or others might have lower political capacity which leads to non-participating. Second, even if a process is well designed to balance representation of the constituents, whether the decisions reflects well the constituents’ needs is a different matter. Public managers or elected leaders could merely consult with the constituents and still make decisions in favor of what the officials have already planned or they desire. In addition, although public participation is considered normatively desirable without a doubt, there has been still a little empirical evidence on whether participation also worth the effort in terms of enhancing the problem-solving capacity of governance systems.

This paper tries to explain the redistributive dimensions of participatory governance using the case of participatory budgeting (PB) in Seoul, South Korea. PB, which allows community members to participate in local budget decision-making process, is a good example of direct democratic governance practice. A preliminary analysis done by the author shows that the resources have been distributed toward the poor through the PB processes in the last 4 years (2012-2016) in Seoul. This study looks into the reasons why the PB processes could become redistributive by examining the interview data that are conducted with the PB committee members who participated in the Seoul PB cycle in 2015 and 2016.

The findings suggest that even the city organized the PB committee by balancing age, gender, and region, PB became a good opportunity particularly for those people living in comparatively poor neighborhood to participate in the government decision-making process. In average, the attendance rate of the participants from the poor neighborhoods was higher than that of those from the rich neighborhoods. In addition, when scoring proposals, the participants highly valued “necessity” and “urgency” as the most important criteria to consider. As a result, PB could redistribute resources toward the poor, which can be considered that the decisions made through this participatory process well reflect the needs of the residents. This study suggests that well-designed participatory process could promote equity and social justice through redistribution by allowing people actually “decide” rather than just providing inputs.