Social Control and Participation in Brazil

Author(s): Adrian Gurza Lavalle
Date: 13 October 2023
Country: Brazil
Language(s): English


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The Political Meaning of Social Control

In Brazil, as in other Latin American countries, the term “social control” became more common than “social accountability” or its etymological equivalent “prestação de contas”. It acquired a broader sense, not only of oversight and advocacy in public policies, but also of their co-management and formulation. The trajectory of “social control” in the region links the demands of social movements, popular organizations, and other civil society actors to the experiences of participatory democratic innovation promoted by the governments that, since the first half of the 2000s, have defined the “shift to the left” in the region.

In a political sense, “social control” encompasses programs such as the community monitoring of coca leaf cultivation, promoted by the government of Evo Morales in Bolivia (Farthing and Ledebur 2015; Vélez and Ramos 2022), as well as the creation of a Fourth Power—the “social control of the State”—in the Bolivian Constitution (Zuazo 2017). In addition, it connotes the citizen oversight bodies—defined as a modality for the exercise of “social control” (Gutiérrez Magaña and Cepeda Villarreal 2022)—implemented in Colombia and Ecuador; the implementation by law of participatory budgets in the municipalities of Peru; and the implementation of hundreds of ombudsman offices and tens of thousands of public policy management councils in Brazil (Cunha Filho 2021; Gurza Lavalle and Barone 2015).

It is worth noting that the term emerges from the political action of social actors and curiously inverts the negative senses of domination usually associated with the concept of “social control” in various theoretical traditions of the social sciences. Nor does it correspond satisfactorily to the idea of “social accountability”, although it is often translated as such (Fox 2022: 53–58). In fact, there are those who consider that “the expression ‘social control’, [is] one of the most prevalent expressions in the Brazilian political vocabulary” and note that its “meaning was drastically altered over the last four decades” (Rich 2001: 35). If in the context of State corporativism established by Getulio Vargas (1930–1945 and 1951–1954) the term referred to the control of social actors by the State, today it has an inverse meaning, “of control of the State by civil society” (ibid).

In Brazil, the uses of the term “social control” created two political differences in relation to the idea of accountability and its etymological equivalent prestação de contas. The first was critical, in opposition to its technical use in the New Public Management reforms, understood by social movements and CSOs as restrictive. The second was affirmative, a projection of what was expected with respect to social participation in the new institutional participatory channels in constant growth and diversification after the 1988 Constitution, mainly during the governments of the Workers’ Party (PT).

In the presidential administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) (1995–2002), accountability, then often translated as responsabilization, was at the center of the modernization reforms of public administration (Pinho and Sacramento 2009). It was a results-focused, managerial understanding of accountability and the use of social participation as a mechanism to promote administrative efficiency. The reforms were understood as part of a “neoliberal offensive”, and were therefore opposed by social movements and civil society actors active in the left-wing camp. Thus, a negative charge was added to the more technical nature of the idea of accountability and responsibility, inscribed in an administrative language. This field, whose actors mobilized during the years of the democratic transition, is precisely the one that promoted demands for the expansion of social participation in the administration during the Constituent Assembly process that sealed the transition. Throughout the regulation of the precepts of the 1988 Constitution regarding participation and the creation and implementation of new channels that would eventually be known as “participatory institutions” (PIs), the idea of participation changed and, in relation to the PIs, ended up gaining a new connotation under the idea of social control. In other words, participation in PIs is, or should allow for, social control.

The trajectory of these semantic changes links the demand for social participation to the idea of social control and confers an ambitious content to the latter. This is not a merely semantic association, but a political construction that runs parallel to and expresses processes of broad sectoral reforms and institutionalization of demands of social movements and civil society organizations that marked decades of the country’s history (1988–2014) (Gurza Lavalle 2016; Gurza Lavalle et al. 2018). Thus, social control was part of a sustained process of institutionalization and defined the preponderant understanding of the purpose of institutionalized social participation. Undoubtedly, PIs unevenly and diversely perform social control, not only because their effectiveness varies depending on the composition of the respective policy communities and the strength of civil society in those communities, but also because their functions differ by virtue of the sector and the specific PI modality. However, the idea of “social control” expresses the expectations of what is expected of the PIs: oversight with teeth, co-management, regulation of operational aspects, and influence in the definition of policy guidelines. Not all functions at the same time or by the same PI, but in combination and to a degree that makes them superior to the idea of social participation only with a consultative function.

From Participation to Social Control of Policies

It is possible to outline the trajectory of these semantic changes in three moments. During the dictatorship years, “popular-participation” did not refer to elections or to the institutions of representative government, nor was it liberal. “Participating” meant, in close connection with Liberation Theology [1], betting on the agency of the popular classes or, according to the terms of the time, making the people actors in their own history. Moreover, popular participation was part of a broader perspective, concerned with the construction of a just society, without exploitation. In this context, “social control” is still that exercised by the State and the security organs of the dictatorship over society.

During the National Constituent Assembly, participation, once popular, became civic. “Social participation” embodied the progressive political liberalization and responded to the challenge of incorporating and adapting the participatory ideology inherited from the previous two decades, with a classist tone, to the demands of a public discourse with a universalizing register, suitable for influencing the dispute over the new Constitution. Thus, the actors committed to popular participation reworked their discourse in terms of social participation, and the participatory ideology acquired more abstract features, being consecrated in 1988 as a citizen’s right. Constitutional provisions enshrined this right beyond suffrage and direct democracy mechanisms, ensuring social participation in the formulation, monitoring and evaluation of social and welfare policies. The focus of social participation assumed in the context of the Constituent Assembly the sense of democratization of the State, i.e., of public administration functions.

Finally, the regulation of constitutional precepts on participation created institutional experiences to make social participation in public policies viable. Throughout the second half of the 1990s and the following decade, participation became, increasingly, “participation-in-participatory-spaces” and the democratization of the State acquired the sense of social control over policies through those spaces that years later would receive the name of PIs.

Thus, there were reasons to politically mark the differences in relation to the accountability (or “responsabilization”) of the FHC years. Moreover, etymological equivalents such as “accountability” were too technical and poor to express the expectations of the role that actors were expected to play in the new institutions of participation, which embodied a long trajectory of semantic changes and demands for effectively institutionalized social participation. Social control is, at the same time, an expression of that trajectory and a term to express a demanding understanding of its possibilities from the perspective of the civil society actors who mobilized to build it. Twenty-four years after the promulgation of the Constitution, at the end of the third moment, “social control” was constitutionalized with the approval of Constitutional Amendment No. 71, 2012. [2]

Attacks on Social Control and the Resilience of Participatory Institutions

The PIs that best expresses the meaning and scope of social control are the public policy councils, especially because of their presence in the three levels of government and functions.[3] They are the institutional model most commonly adopted in different policy sectors to institutionalize the principle of social participation in public policies enshrined in the Constitution. As a general rule, they are bipartite bodies with equal representation of government and civil society. They began to spread during the years of Fernando Collor de Mello’s right-wing government (1990–1992), expanded to the vast majority of the country’s municipalities (5570) in social policies during FHC’s centrist administrations, and diversified to more than 40 policy areas during Lula’s two leftist presidential terms (2003–2010) (Gurza Lavalle and Barone 2015). There are currently more than 60,000 municipal councils, hundreds of state councils, and dozens of national councils, which exercise in their respective policy functions of normative definition, oversight, and co-management of policies, as well as self-regulation and regulation of other PIs (Gurza Lavalle et al. 2021).

During his presidential campaign, Jair Bolsonaro declared war on social control—on all PIs— and immediately after his election he took measures aimed at scrapping them. By means of a presidential decree (n° 9.759/2019) he extinguished “all collegiate bodies” with some modality of social participation at the federal public administration level (Bezerra et al. 2022). The Supreme Court of Justice suspended the effects of the decree due to technical flaws: councils created by law cannot be repealed by a decree, an inferior normative act, and decrees must have specific objects and not generic formulations (“all collegiate bodies”). Consequently, throughout the four years of his mandate, Bolsonaro (2019–2022) issued numerous decrees and multiple administrative acts to extinguish specific councils not created by law; and when they were protected by law, to change their rules of composition, convening, periodicity of meetings, and functions.

The final balance of those years is eloquent and shows the resilience of institutionalized social control and its limitations. Thanks to the country’s federalist structure, tens of thousands of municipal councils were beyond the immediate reach of the federal government’s dismantling measures. In the case of the national PIs, the direct target of the offensive, the most exhaustive research produced so far found that there are 103 collegiate councils, of which 34% remained active by the end of this government and had not suffered any alterations; 28% remained active but suffered alterations; 14% were revoked; and 24% remained inactive during those years (Bezerra et al, in press). The inactivity of the latter predates the Bolsonaro administration and evidences something that was already known: social control operates in different ways among the different sectors. Even so, in frankly hostile conditions, some of the councils preserved their functions and the most institutionalized ones even assumed the role of opposition bodies in the face of the disastrous conduct of public policies by the federal government, as in the case of the National Health Council and the measures taken in response to the Covid 19 pandemic (Almeida 2020).

The complete revocation of the decrees that extinguished or limited federal collegiate social control was among the first decisions of the new Lula government (2023–2026), four days after assuming the presidency for his third term in office.



[1] Liberation Theology is a Christian theological current committed to the resolution of social problems, assuming a preferential option for the poor. It had a strong presence in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s. In Brazil, it played an important role in the popular organization during the dictatorship, giving rise to the Basic Ecclesial Communities and pastoral organizations.

[2] The amendment established the National Culture System.

[3] The councils are the experience that best expresses the possibilities of social control in Brazil, but they are the only one, other relevant experiences with wide presence in the country are the national public policy conferences and the watershed committees.



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Adrian Gurza Lavalle is an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), President of the Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning (Cebrap), Vice Director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), and Chief Editor of Brazilian Political Science Review. His work focuses on civil society politics, democratic governance, and participatory institutions.