International Observatory on Participatory Democracy

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Participatory health councils and good governance: healthy democracy in Brazil?

Introduction: The Brazilian Government created Participatory Health Councils (PHCs) to allow citizen participation in the public health policy process. PHCs are advisory bodies that operate at all levels of government and that bring together different societal groups to monitor Brazil’s health system. Today they are present in 98% of Brazilian cities, demonstrating their popularity and thus their potential to help ensure that health policies are in line with citizen preferences. Despite their expansive reach, their real impact on health policies and health outcomes for citizens is uncertain. We thus ask the following question: Do PHCs offer meaningful opportunities for open participation and influence in the public health policy process?

Methods: Thirty-eight semi-structured interviews with health council members were conducted. Data from these interviews were analyzed using a qualitative interpretive content analysis approach. A quantitative analysis of PHC data from the Sistema de Acompanhamento dos Conselhos de Saude (SIACS) database was also conducted to corroborate findings from the interviews.

Results: We learned that PHCs fall short in many of the categories of good governance. Government manipulation of the agenda and leadership of the PHCs, delays in the implementation of PHC decision making, a lack of training of council members on relevant technical issues, the largely narrow interests of council members, the lack of transparency and monitoring guidelines, a lack of government support, and a lack of inclusiveness are a few examples that highlight why PHCs are not as effective as they could be.

Conclusions: Although PHCs are intended to be inclusive and participatory, in practice they seem to have little impact on the health policymaking process in Brazil. PHCs will only be able to fulfil their mandate when we see good governance largely present. This will require a rethinking of their governance structures, processes, membership, and oversight. If change is resisted, the PHCs will remain largely limited to a good idea in theory that is disappointing in practice.