Democracy From Above?
The Unfulfilled Promise of Nationally Mandated Participatory Reforms
Stephanie L. McNulty




CAN NATIONALLY ELECTED officials effectively improve democracy by mandating citizen participation in subnational governments? Citizens in almost every country on the globe are dissatisfied with their parliaments and political parties, and many people feel disconnected from the political process (Cameron, Hershberg, and Sharpe 2012; Desilver 2013; Norris 2011; Seligson, Smith, and Zechmeister 2012). This democratic deficit has delegitimized many governments around the world. As a result, citizens are supporting populist outsiders who promise to fix the system in increasingly larger numbers. This phenomenon exists in countries as diverse as Guatemala, where citizens elected a comedian with no previous political experience to the presidency in 2015, and the United States, where Donald Trump—a reality TV star and businessman who had never held an elected position—rose to the presidency in 2017.

To attack this deficit, some national elected officials have passed reforms that mandate participatory institutions in subnational governments through constitutional reforms and legislative packages.1 In countries as diverse as India, Chile, the Philippines, Uganda, and Venezuela, national elected officials have designed institutions to bring together citizens to make decisions regarding local budgets and governmental services and to oversee their elected officials. These officials purport to provide new venues for average citizens to become part of and oversee government decisions about their well-being. Advocates of these reforms argue that they may pave the way for an effective revival of democracy in this age of discontent (de Sousa Santos 2005; Polletta 2013).

For example, in 2002, Guatemala’s Congress passed a law empowering community development councils to engage neighborhood activists in decision making about development policies. This law allows eight campesinos in a semi-urban district called San Miguel de Escobar to meet weekly to discuss the infrastructure projects they need in their community. After a deadly flood in 2010, they began to advocate for a better drainage system and a health clinic. They regularly approached the mayor with a list of projects that needed funding, but he rejected the activists’ requests because they were not from his political party. Even so, they continued to advocate for improved living conditions during the electoral period by meeting mayoral candidates and making them pledge their support.

There is a certain promise implicit in these reforms. National government officials such as Guatemala’s congressmen and -women embrace these reforms as a way to overcome the growing deficits of democracy. Reformers in places like Peru and Bolivia argue that these institutions can engage citizens more effectively and lead to more responsive elected officials, improved accountability, and more effective governments. Other reformers, like those in Rwanda and Uganda, are less interested in promoting democracy; instead, they want to engage citizens in decisions about their government to improve government effectiveness and efficiency.

This particular kind of reform—that is, participatory reforms that are mandated from above—is still undertheorized. As of this writing, no global cross-national studies that evaluate their origin, nature, and impact exist. Because in many countries it is difficult to pass any major reform, this book begins from the premise that when national-level governmental officials give average citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs) power to make decisions about local government priorities, something important is taking place. A better grasp of the nature and impact of these efforts is vital to our understanding of democracy around the world. Documenting the effects of these institutions gives us insight into whether or not the democratic deficit can be addressed through these legislative initiatives.

To contribute to our understanding of the potential of nationally mandated participatory reforms in the developing world, this book analyzes the following questions:

1. When and where have elected officials passed nationally mandated participatory reforms?

2. What are the most typical design features?

3. Why do country reformers adopt them?

4. Have the reforms changed aspects of democracy and governance in the developing world? Why or why not?

The most important question for advocates of participatory governance is the last one: Do these efforts meet their goals of improving democracy and governance? In other words, are the promises underlying the reform efforts being met? To fully understand this issue we must first identify and specify the existing population of cases of this particular reform effort.

This book examines these reforms by exploring the macro (global) and meso (state) levels of analysis.2 This higher-order analysis represents the first step toward pushing ahead our understanding of these reforms and their effects. The analysis of the macro and meso levels of these institutional reforms leads to several findings. National officials in seventeen countries in the developing world enacted and implemented nationally mandated participatory reforms between 1985 and 2015. The majority were passed by governments in Latin America, which has clearly emerged as the epicenter of participatory reforms (Fung 2011; Mayka 2019; Peruzzotti 2012; Pogrebinschi 2017). A variety of designs have emerged, but the most prevalent is citizen or civil society councils institutionalized in subnational governments within a particular country.

Why do elected officials adopt nationally mandated participatory reforms? Hegemonic discourse during a period of time when democracy and neoliberal reforms prevailed led to a consensus around the idea that participatory reforms would strengthen nascent democratic systems and improve government effectiveness in the developing world. Later, in Latin America, the “pink tide” (e.g., the revival of leftist national leaders throughout the region) increased these efforts as the leaders promised to engage citizens more directly in governments. Each of these global trends provided important opportunities (and constraints) that ultimately help explain the varied outcomes that emerged. Of course, these international trends alone do not explain the emergence of specific nationally mandated participatory reforms in the particular countries under study. Domestic factors enabled and shaped the reform process. The three case studies in part 2 demonstrate that national leaders’ strategic interests often combined with ideological preferences and institutional strategies to propel these reform efforts.


Have these reforms changed aspects of democracy and governance over time? The short answer is not yet. Problems with the design and implementation of these institutions, documented in part 2 of this book, mean that they are unlikely to resolve the democratic deficit facing so many countries. However, nuances in the data also suggest that the longer answer is more complicated than a simple no. The analysis indicates that citizens and CSOs are certainly more engaged in decisions about subnational public policy as a result of these reforms. When national governments mandate that subnational governments open their doors and allow citizens and CSOs to get involved in politics in more direct and sustained ways, these citizens will enter. Further, under certain circumstances, detailed in later chapters, nationally mandated participatory reforms can improve government effectiveness and responsiveness.

However, the forums do not successfully engage historically marginalized actors, such as women or citizens of indigenous descent. Nor do these public policy decision-making processes reduce corruption. Thus, the evidence clearly suggests that a nationally mandated participatory reform is by itself not able to overcome the deep-rooted structural problems of corruption, elitism, discrimination, and patriarchy. Like their representative institutional counterparts, nationally mandated participatory reforms set up new institutional outlets for hierarchical, corrupt, and authoritarian tendencies that persist in many developing countries.

Why are the outcomes so limited? The systematic cross-national comparison that unfolds in part 2 provides the depth of analysis that helps us understand this puzzle. During the design phase, domestic critical junctures define the very nature of the reform, which then can shape and influence the eventual outcomes. Once the design is complete, as subnational governments implement the process, several factors intervene in the process to either improve or reduce changes in aspects of democracy and governance over time: (1) elected officials’ support for the reform effort, often demonstrated through provision of tangible resources for training and technical assistance; (2) a relatively organized civil society sector; and (3) an institutionalized political party system that can curtail clientelism.

Contrary to reformers’ promises and expectations, these reforms have not effectively improved the myriad and deep-rooted problems with democracy and governance in developing countries. This does not mean that the reforms are not useful or that the efforts should be scrapped. In fact, given what we know about the durability of institutions, it is extremely unlikely that these reforms will go away. Rather, the evidence demonstrates that reformers need to understand the factors that are limiting more robust outcomes. Only then can they mitigate the severity of these very real challenges and achieve the original goals and objectives more effectively.


The emergence of nationally mandated participatory reforms is best understood in light of the emerging global importance of participatory governance more broadly.3 Participatory governance refers to state-sanctioned institutional processes that allow citizens to exercise voice and vote, which then result in the implementation of public policies that produce some sort of changes in citizens’ lives (see McNulty and Wampler 2015). Participatory institutions represent the formal and codified versions of these processes. Thus, new and innovative institutions meant to channel citizens’ or civil society’s preferences and interests provide multiple opportunities for participation in a particular set of decisions. Institutions of participatory governance are not meant to replace existing representative channels; rather, they complement them by expanding the venues for participation for the average citizen (Wampler 2012a).

The increased prevalence of participatory governance reforms is inherently interconnected with the waves of democratization and decentralization reforms that have taken place over the past three decades, discussed in more detail in chapter 3.4 As it became clear that the representative democratic institutions—now commonplace in most countries—did not meet citizens’ expectations, national reformers around the world stepped in to mandate participatory institutions in newly empowered subnational governments. These officials set lofty goals. For example, Bolivia’s Law of Popular Participation states in its first article: “This law . . . ​strengthens the political and economic instruments needed to perfect representative democracy, facilitating citizen participation and guaranteeing equal opportunities for women and men.”5 Peru’s General Decentralization Law (Law 27,783), passed after amending the constitution, states that the reform “is democratic: It is a form of democratically organizing the state through political, social, economic, cultural, administrative, and financial planning. It promotes equal opportunity to access the highest levels of human development in each area and state-society relations based on participation and consensus-building in government administration.” 6 Interviewees, many of them closely involved with the reform efforts, told me that they hoped to hold mayors and governors more accountable while also improving the nature of citizen engagement in these countries.

In some countries reformers sought to improve public administration and strengthen governance as part of their decentralization efforts, meaning that some reforms have been passed under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes, such as those in Rwanda and Uganda. For example, Rwanda’s government introduced a nationally mandated participatory reform explicitly to improve government effectiveness and service delivery as part of their phased decentralization reform after their horrific genocide (Commonwealth Local Government Forum 2013; Fujii 2009; Straus and Waldorf 2011). Thus, governance concerns (and not democratic deepening) are driving the reform agenda.

Of course, ideas surrounding citizen engagement and participatory practices are not new. The concept of participatory governance harks back to theoretical debates about the nature of democracy that took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill argued that direct forms of participation were needed in the modern political sphere. However, throughout the first half of the nineteenth century dominant theories of democracy and democratization stressed participation through electoral means (e.g., Dahl 1956; Huntington 1991; Shumpeter 1942). In the 1960s and 1970s, as social movements demanded entry into the political system, democratic theorists such as Carol Pateman (1970) and Jane Mansbridge (1983) argued for more participatory forms of democracy. Slowly, more voices spoke to the need for democratic systems that engage their citizens beyond the voting booth (Barber 1984; de Sousa Santos 2005; Elster 1998; Fischer 2003; Fishkin 1993; Habermas 1996; Pateman 2012).

As efforts to democratize swept the globe, especially in the late twentieth century, participation and participatory planning also became much more ingrained in the international development lexicon. Donors and nongovernmental organizations began promoting direct participation in decision making in almost every policy arena and forum. For example, in the early 1990s, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched its Participation Initiative, and the World Bank began experimenting with Participatory Poverty Assessments, which included stakeholders’ voices in country background papers (Corneille and Shiffman 2004; Salmen 1995). USAID’s Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance strategy embraces participation and inclusion as a desired outcome for all programs (United States Agency for International Development 2013). Participatory practices have become firmly entrenched in almost all aspects of international development.7 Participatory governance reforms represent one particular kind of approach.

Importantly, the current trend to advocate for participatory governance, embraced by scholars, international donors, nonprofit organizations, and local activists, has been taking place in the context of what Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza call the “new spirit of government” (2017, 20). This “spirit” has roots in the emergence of the new public management movement in the Global North during the 1970s and 1980s that slowly spread around the world through structural adjustment programs, promising to bring more efficient states closer to the people. As state apparatuses around the world contracted, subnational governments increasingly relied on citizen engagement mechanisms to solve policy problems (Baiocchi and Ganuza 2017; Lee, McQuarrie, and Walker 2015; Polletta 2014). This spirit gave rise to a new conceptualization of governments that are both smaller and citizen-centric at the same time (Baiocchi and Ganuza 2017). This context is important to keep in mind when exploring the boom in participatory governance reforms around the world.

Nationally Mandated vs. Locally Driven

Scholars typically distinguish between two kinds of participatory reforms: (1) nationally mandated (also called top-down or induced) and (2) locally driven (also called bottom-up or organic). Nationally mandated reforms, codified by national executives and parliaments, set up participatory institutions in subnational governments around a given country. This kind of reform is the subject of this book. Locally driven processes are generated primarily by grassroots efforts, often (but not always) exist in relative isolation, and have no national law mandating their implementation in additional localities. CSOs may work with local government officials to design participatory institutions that engage more citizens. There is an extensive literature about the adoption and effects of these bottom-up institutions around the world;8 however, this book is not about them. Instead, this book focuses on seventeen cases of nationally mandated participatory reforms that emerged in the developing world from 1985 to 2015.

This distinction, while analytically useful, is blurred in practice. Brazil’s participatory budgeting process, one of the most emblematic bottom-up participatory governance experiences, emerged as part of a series of constitutional reforms passed in 1988 (Avritzer 2009). And former mayors who had implemented locally driven processes in Congress promoted Peru’s top-down participatory budgeting law, the subject of chapter 6 (McNulty 2011). While the lines are not clear, it is helpful to distinguish processes that have been codified at the national level and implemented in all subnational governments, therefore earning the term “nationally mandated.” Doing so permits the identification of factors that explain the nature of and outcomes associated with these wide-reaching and nationally codified institutions.

There is an interesting tension at work in nationally mandated participatory reforms. On the one hand, nationally mandated participatory institutions represent the push for more participatory practices at the local levels of politics. For some scholars, participatory practices represent exciting ways to engage people who are normally left out of political decision making (e.g., Barber 1984; Escobar 1995; Pateman 1970). On the other hand, the top-down nature of the reform goes against the ideas espoused by some of these same scholars about the importance of locally driven, context-specific, innovative, and flexible policies. This book explores the possibilities for mixing these two seemingly contradictory concepts: nationally mandated and participatory.

Decades after these efforts have become mainstream in public policy, previous works have not determined whether these reforms have been able to effectively alter aspects of democracy and governance in the developing world. This book systematically analyzes the nature, origin, and impact of the reforms with data from seventeen countries. Before delving into the analysis, however, it is useful to review the findings from existing scholarship that explores these questions.


1. Participatory institutions are ongoing, sustainable, and formal public venues that allow political actors to enjoy voice and vote in public policy decisions (adapted from Wampler 2007c, 1). The term “subnational” refers to all governments that are not part of the national or federal government structure, such as municipal, city, district, provincial, and regional governments.

2. Data shortcomings do not allow the systematic exploration of these reforms at the micro level (i.e., individual institutions in every subnational government); however, future research may undertake that challenge.

3. I am grateful to Lindsay Mayka for assistance with theorizing this particular population of reforms.

For more on participatory governance and participatory institutions, see Avritzer 2002; Baiocchi 2003a; Baiocchi and Ganuza 2017; Blair 2000; Fung and Wright 2003; Geissel and Newton 2012; Mayka 2019; G. Smith 2009; and Wright 2010.

4. An extensive literature explores the trend to decentralize governments around the world. For just a sample, see Campbell 2003; Connerley, Eaton, and Smoke 2010; Crook and Manor 1998; Dickovick 2011; Eaton 2004; Falleti 2010; Grindle 2000; Montero and Samuels 2004; Oxhorn, Tulchin, and Selee 2004; and Willis, Garman, and Haggard 1999.

5. All translations in this book are the author’s. For a copy of the law, see

6. See chapter 2 of the law, which can be accessed at /B24C5FDB311A9EAF05257B8300648EAF/$FILE/27783.pdf.

7. The website centralizes information about these varied experiments around the world.

8. For just a few examples, see Abers 2000; Baiocchi 2005; Schönwälder 2002; and Selee 2009.