Participatory democracy in social assistance policy in Brazil: the role of the CNAS
National Council of Social Assistance

A. Problem Analysis

 1. What was the problem before the implementation of the initiative?
During the political opening that followed more than 20 years of authoritarian regime in Brazil, democratic inspiration managed to inscribe into the Federal Constitution of 1988 not only prescriptions for periodical direct elections, but also guidelines compelling elected governments to keep an open dialogue with civil society regarding public policies management. Due to activism of social movements and organizations, Social Assistance became recognized, under the so-called “Citizen Constitution”, as both a State function and a right to those in need, regardless of previous contribution, composing the field of Social Security, alongside the public policies of healthcare and social insurance. Even ten years after the Constitution was enacted, Social Assistance in Brazil still was implemented through taxes exemptions in favor of religious and private organizations that provided basic services to vulnerable people, supporting hospitals, orphanages or nursing homes. Those organizations, along with public institutions that relied on feminine and voluntary workforce, offered a modality of philanthropy based on a sometimes intermittent support to those who were not able to provide the subsistence of its own families. This historical assistencialist model was based on charity and beneficence and forced the attended population into submission, holding them responsible for their own situation of social frailty. Breaking this paradigm, it had already been inscribed into the Constitution the Continuous Cash Benefit (BPC), defined as an individual, non-perennial, and untransferable benefit equivalent to one minimum wage to the elderly or handicapped that lives in a family with less than one quarter of national minimum wage of income per capita. However, the diverse set of benefits, services, programs and projects collectively known as Social Assistance, aimed to promote access to rights and social inclusiveness in favor of the weakest and more vulnerable share of the population, would only become effective when assured through incremental changes on its public policies. Demands and commitments held in spaces of participatory democracy would result in constant adjustments to the needs of various social actors and contexts. Foreseeing that, the 1988 Constitution established public participation and political-managerial decentralization as guidelines to the implementation of Social Assistance policies, holding federal government responsible for coordination and general normative functions, while member states, municipalities and beneficent organizations would be in charge of the implementation of the related programs. Noteworthy, all the federal levels are autonomous and the responsibility for implementation is focused on the municipalities. Those who struggle in the field of Social Assistance since that time faced a twofold challenge: transforming the Social Assistance policies from assistencialist practices into a social right, surrounded by a complex federative arrangement with diverse social actors; and, simultaneously, build mechanisms to put in motion the participation of population and organized civil society during the formulation of that policies; controlling governmental action in all federative levels.

B. Strategic Approach

 2. What was the solution?
The pathway to face that challenge was set by the Organic Law of Social Assistance, LOAS (Law n. 8.742/1993, further amended by Law n. 12.435/2011), that established the National Social Assistance Council (CNAS) and state, district and municipal councils, as deliberative instances of the participative and decentralized system and permanent bodies equally composed by government and civil society representatives. The responsibilities of the councils set them as fundamental players of the Social Assistance policies, allowing public participation during the formulation and control of those policies. The protagonism of the CNAS as a guide and supporter of the structuring and functioning of local councils – as well as its leadership during the National Conferences – has been a key factor to strengthen that public participation and, consequently, to contribute to increasingly qualify the Social Assistance national policies as a social right.

 3. How did the initiative solve the problem and improve people’s lives?
Directly, spaces and opportunities for social participation have been created and supported, in the Social Assistance field. These spaces are comprised of the councils (fulfilling its permanent roles) and the National Conferences. The councils are the competent bodies for calling the conferences on federal, state, district and municipal levels. Conferences are broad and democratic spaces for collective debate and articulation, that foster assessments over what has been done and discussions over what should be taken as priority for the years to come. An emblematic case was the 4th National Conference of Social Assistance in 2003, that deliberated in favor of the implementation of the Unified Social Assistance System (SUAS), under the principles of decentralization, regionalization, hierarchy and territoriality. In the following year, CNAS considered the results of that conference, along with the outcomes of Broad Decentralized Meeting that it promoted and the proposal presented by the Ministry responsible for the Social Assistance policies by then, and approved its Resolution n. 145, containing the National Social Assistance Policy (PNAS) and management guidelines towards the Unified Social Assistance System (SUAS). In the everyday roles of the councils, there are multiple opportunities for participation. The councils take part on the building of Social Assistance policies in the Executive Branch and are fully responsible for its approval, deciding considering norms, plans and commitments, on one hand, and regional specificities, on the other. Another evidently important role is the formal requirement of manifestation from the councils for the financial resources to flow through the respective federative level. In Brazilian model, actions of Social Assistance are co-sponsored and managed collaboratively by federal, state, district and municipal levels. Transfers of federal resources for co-sponsoring only occur following the approval of the budgetary proposal for the Social Assistance and its Annual Management Report by the Council. Furthermore, in order to the private organizations that offer Social Assistance services receive part of these resources, they need to be actively linked to SUAS, which depends on previous deliberations of the respective council in favor of either their register or their update as a complementary provider. Related to those roles is the responsibility for the fiscalization (social control) over the implementation of Social Assistance actions. The council must monitor if actions are happening and delivering the expected outcomes. That encompasses, on a broader perspective, checking whether the Social Assistance network provides the services it was supposed to, under the normative standards. Facing any unconformity, the council is expected to establish a dialogue with the managers in order to promote the necessary measures, and/or ponder the possibility of denounce the situation to the Public Attorney, in defense of its legal prerogatives. The processes of fiscalization (social control) are a unique opportunity to bring government and civil society closer to issues of social demands and financial and managerial restrictions. Moreover, it is an opportunity to find common ways of enhancing the quality of life of people, inducing protagonism in building social inclusiveness and development.

C. Execution and Implementation

 4. In which ways is the initiative creative and innovative?
The characteristics of the social participation in Brazilian Social Assistance policies justify this initiative as innovative. Firstly, the deliberative nature, the scale and the formal responsibilities of those spaces are revolutionary. The number of 68,615 active Social Assistance counselors in Brazil (regulars and substitutes), according to the current database of the SUAS, is impressive. Besides quantity, the diversity of actors representing civil society in those councils welcomes representatives of Social Assistance organizations, workers and users. Other key factors are the leadership of CNAS over the National Conferences and the regularity under which they occur. The call issued by CNAS induces municipal, district and state councils to mobilize, prepare and call their respective conferences, starting a massive nation-wide democratic process. The 10th and most recent edition of the National Conference occurred in 2015, engaging 1,280 delegates (representatives) and 335 guests only on its national stage. Preceding that, the same year state conferences had been organized in all 26 States and the Federal District, just after 97% of Brazilian municipalities (5,393 cities) had done the same. Considering the whole process and all the federative levels, it means that just in 2015 a total of 5,411 Social Assistance conferences have been realized.

 5. Who implemented the initiative and what is the size of the population affected by this initiative?
CNAS exerts its protagonism over the social control strategy through norms and guidelines aimed at the effective functioning of local councils. Brazil currently has 36 national councilors, 704 state councilors in 26 states and Federal District, and 67,875 municipal councilors, according to SUAS 2015 Census. The Census is a monitoring process of the Social Assistance policy that since 2007 electronically collects data from all state and municipal managers and councils. The special report for Social Assistance in the survey of basic municipal information from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) evidenced that in 2013 there was a share of 99% of municipalities with Social Assistance councils (over a total of 5,570 municipalities). Nowadays this number equals 100% of municipalities, according to SUAS 2016 Census. The Social Assistance policy manager is responsible for vesting the councilors in their positions, in the respective federative level. Governmental councilors are appointed by the managers and the civil society ones are elected in specific forums. Councils approve their own internal regiments and, inspired by CNAS, usually alternate governmental and civil society representatives as their presidents. Regarding the conferential process, CNAS is the body in charge of its calling and coordination, acting together with state, district and municipal councils. In order to manage the conferences, an Organizing Commission is assembled, along with a Report Team, responsible for developing the main theme of the conference and of its thematic axis, producing summaries, support texts and debate instruments, and setting the rules for defining the proposals from state, district and municipal conferences that will make their way to the national arena, to be vocalized and discussed by elected delegates. In 2017 the 11th National Conference is happening. Documents referring to all the concluded or undergoing conferences can be found at: Population involved in the social participation practices, including the conferences, includes potentially all the managers, workers and users of the Brazilian Social Assistance public policy. Some data help to clarify the size of this policy. In December, 2016, Brazil had 4,399,186 beneficiaries of BPC ( and 13,560,232 families beneficiaries of Family Grant Program ( HYPERLINK ""& HYPERLINK ""p_frequencia=1#tabela_link) – direct income transfer program with conditionalities for families in poverty (up to R$170 monthly income per capita) and extreme poverty (up to R$85 monthly income per capita). Prioritary targets of the Social Assistance services are these beneficiaries of cash transfers programs, but also other families living under conditions of social risk and vulnerability. In order to support them, there currently are roughly 600 thousands professionals in the SUAS, working on 16,911 facilities from the public Social Assistance network (SUAS 2017 Census) and 18,955 private ones (National Database for Social Assistance Organizations – CNEAS, 2017).
 6. How was the strategy implemented and what resources were mobilized?
The managers of Social Assistance policy are responsible for providing resources for the regular maintenance of councils. Also, they are committed to deliver all the relevant information in order to allow effective social control, as well as the necessary infrastructure. Besides that, there is a federal financial support specifically directed to the enhancement of management quality in SUAS. To allow that, the capacities of Social Assistance policies are quantified by the SUAS Development Index, an instrument of measurement of quality of decentralized management of services, programs, projects, assistance benefits, and intersectoral articulation. At least 3% of that federal financial support must be invested, by state and municipalities, in technical and operational support to the council, forbidden any use of these resources to payment of personnel or any kind of salary bonus to public servants. Knowledge and guiding are others fundamental resources to the functioning of councils and conferences. Turnover rate of councilors is expressive, although the complexity of this policy and the responsibilities of councils demand permanent action from them. The coordination of the Commission for the Monitoring of Councils, a branch of CNAS, and other departments from the federal manager ministry collaborate to produce information materials and learning opportunities to be offered presentially or remotely. It is not enough to remark that the participation in conferential processes is also a broad opportunity of learning and updating for the councilors. Regarding specifically the resources mobilized to the national conferences, the year before the start of these participatory process the CNAS organizes the planning and allocation of budgetary resources drawn from a specific budgetary source (Action 8249 – Maintenance of Social Assistance Councils). This share of the federal budget is sufficient to cover all the expenses related to the National Conference of Social Assistance, including the meetings of the Organizing Commission and Report Team and travel of national councilors to take part in state, district and municipal conferences. Currently, for the 11th National Conference there is a budgetary provision of R$ 4.5 million (3.5 million for contracting a specialized events firm and 1 million to other expenses). Likewise, CNAS advices state and district councils to organize budgetary planning and provision to cover their expenses, and asks them to similarly guide their municipalities in doing the same, setting the needed conditions for the conferences to be hold in all federative levels. Once a National Conference is called, usually at the beginning of every two years, CNAS opens a permanent channel of communication with states and municipalities in order to guide them step-by-step through the processes of organizing their own conferences. Guiding Resolutions, bulletins and support texts are issued and sent to local councils, while fully available at CNAS website to the general public. The national stage of the conference concludes all the process, commonly scheduled to the month of December of that year. After all the conferential process, CNAS defines its bi-annual strategic planning considering the approved proposals from the National Conference.

 7. Who were the stakeholders involved in the design of the initiative and in its implementation?
The activities of public engagement on the social control of Social Assistance policies, including councils and conferences, are performed by many and diverse actors. Conferential processes are directly joined by Social Assistance councils which, on their turn, are 50% composed by civil society representatives, comprising assistance organizations, workers and users of SUAS. Other social policies areas, partners in management and control of SUAS, also take part in the critical and propositive debate of the conferences. Frequently, National Conferences of Social Assistance are joined by managers and activists from the fields of health, education and defense and promotion of human rights, including children and adolescents, people with disabilities and elderly, as well as representatives from the Legislature and Judiciary Branches.

 8. What were the most successful outputs and why was the initiative effective?
The effectiveness of the social participation in the Social Assistance policies, through councils and conferences, can be evidenced by its ability to influence the decisions in the Executive and Legislature Branch, and in civil society. The emblematic case of influence from the social control over the Legislature was the enacting of the Law n. 12.435/2011, also called the "SUAS Law", that revised the Organic Law of Social Assistance (LOAS). Thus, SUAS directives were incorporated into the LOAS, formally recognizing rules such as competences and duties for each one of the federative levels on management and financing; structure of the regular transfers between their funds; levels and standards of basic social protection (PSB) and special social protection (PSE), among others. Until then, these guidelines, based upon the directives approved by National Conferences, had been constructed through low-level norms, like governmental decrees, CNAS and Triple Intermanagers Commission (CIT) resolutions, and normative instructions from the ministry. This was a truly collective construction from government and civil society, eventually recognized by the Legislature. Influence over Executive Branch is no smaller, and has been sufficiently described. However, it is important to remark the case of the Resolution n. 109/2009, from CNAS. This norm establishes the National Typology of Social Assistance Services, an instrument that qualifies the services that face poverty, hunger and social vulnerability in SUAS. The Typology is the reference for nationwide standardization of basic and special protection services, as it defines their essential contents, target beneficiaries, purpose and expected results. Finally, influence from the councils and conferences over civil society can be evaluated by the shown capacity to manage and enhance the processes of participatory democracy. By offering open spaces of political participation and critic evaluation of Social Assistance services, the social control mechanisms help to build a more pacific and inclusive society. The rising of new forums and its articulations – also between them and the councils – is a result of this political maturity. Since the 7th National Conference, whose theme was "Social Participation and Control in the Unified Social Assistance System", there was increasing participation and mobilization of the users, resulting in the creation of many state and municipal forums of users of social assistance services. Nowadays, the National Forum of Workers of SUAS (FNTSUAS) and the National Forum of Users of SUAS (FNUSUAS) are an important part of that political scenario.

 9. What were the main obstacles encountered and how were they overcome?
The main challenges involve assuring parity (50% for government and civil society) and proportionality (equal number of representatives from private organizations, workers and users) in the composition of local councils, as well as providing information and knowledge needed for them to exert their functions. One of the factors that strengthen these challenges is the turnover of actors on that field. This turnover is evidenced, regarding governmental actors, by their replacement in the councils right after each state or municipal election. As these elections happen alternately each two years (four-year mandate each), it is difficult to meet the same combination of state and municipal managers in the conferences twice in a row (as conferences are bi-annual). On civil society, turnover can also be seen in the segment of workers, considering the weakening of professional relationships, despite all the efforts to enhance workforce management in SUAS. In the segment of organizations, the challenge reflects their major concentration in the South and Southeast Regions in Brazil, and their low adherence to SUAS network in the other regions. Finally, engagement of users of Social Assistance services is a permanent challenge, that has been addressed in many conferences and remains an issue for a effective social control strategy. Regarding the need of information and knowledge, CNAS has been suggesting to local governments the organization of previous events to mobilize and prepare civil society for their conferences. The program of national stage of the conferences tries to balance information sharing, assessing and proposing activities. So, the event includes panels, that help to put the theme in perspective; thematic workshops, that allow a deeper understanding of Social Assistance actions; and work groups, to discuss and evaluate proposals received from state conferences, eventually submitted to the approval of a final plenary composed of delegates from all the country.

D. Impact and Sustainability

 10. What were the key benefits resulting from this initiative?
The direct result of the spaces of participatory democracy, as councils and conferences, is the enhancement of the policies and the strengthening of social rights. This is actually translated as the insertion of vulnerable individuals and families into Social Assistance programs, projects, cash transfers and services. Core instruments to the enhancement of these policies are the Decennial Plan of Social Assistance, collectively built. The 9th National Conference assessed the SUAS management and funding, vis-à-vis the goals of the 1st Decennial Plan 2005-2015. It has observed that in 2015 there were 10 thousand Reference Centers (humanized facilities that house Social Assistance services), basic or specialized, already installed in Brazil. Besides those state facilities, 18.5 thousand Social Assistance organizations were registered in municipal councils. The 2nd Decennial Plan 2016-2016, already approved by the Resolution n. 7/2016 from CNAS, will be the main subject of discussion during the 11th National Conference. Under the motto "assuring rights in SUAS strengthening", this participatory process provides a new opportunity of reassessing the plan under the current context and defining priorities to be pursued by the SUAS. The BPC is another actual example of realization of right following social mobilization. It was inscribed into the Constitution as consequence of pressure from social movements there were recent enhancements coming from social participation and control. The 4.3 million beneficiaries and their families demanded not only the certainty of survival that comes from the benefit, but also real opportunities for inclusion and development, from more coordinated Social Assistance services and benefits. Facing that challenge, exhaustively debated in councils and conferences, government structured the program "BPC at School", that aims to assure access and permanence at school for children and adolescents with disabilities assisted by BPC; and the program "BPC Work", to strengthen autonomy, access to Social Assistance network, professional qualification and inclusion in the work market. Finally, it is important to remember that the social control of the largest cash transfer program in the world – Family Allowance Program (Law n. 10.836/2004) assisting 13.5 million families – is performed by Social Assistance councils. The Resolution n. 15/2014 from CNAS directs the Social Assistance councils to structure themselves to become instances of social participation and control of this program. Democratic participation spaces stimulate a relationship of co-responsibility between State and society, granting at the same time more legitimacy to governmental decisions and actions. The direct outcome of social control in Social Assistance programs, projects, services, benefits and cash transfers evidences, at the same time, political dimensions – in the sense of mobilizing society to influence governmental agenda and to indicate priorities; technical dimensions, through the social actions to overwatch resources management and to evaluate governmental work; and ethical dimensions, allowing the strengthening of new values and references, based on ideals of solidarity, sovereignty and social justice.

 11. Did the initiative improve integrity and/or accountability in public service? (If applicable)
The Organic Law of Social Assistance, in its 30th article, defines the effective installation and maintenance of Social Assistance council, fund and plan and the specific reservation of budgetary resources for this policy, as requirements to the transfer of federal financial resources to states, municipalities and Federal District. These requirements set up the framework to the development of the participative and decentralized system of Social Assistance, making its management more transparent and permeable to social control. Social Assistance councils are legally responsible for discussing budgetary goals and priorities to all the instruments that compose the Brazilian budgetary cycle: Multi-Year Plan (PPA); Budgetary Guidelines Law (LDO); and Annual Budgetary Law (LOA). Councils also have the competence to exert control and fiscalization of Social Assistance governmental funds, through: approval of budgetary proposal; monitoring of budgetary and financial execution, according to the periodicity prescribed in the law that created the fund, its regulation decree and the calendar scheduled by the council; analysis and decision about the rendition of accounts. These roles related to budgetadry control were specially streghened after the institution of SUAS, once they are also responsible to decide about any expansion of social assistance services based on technical criteria, fixing the amount that the federal, the state and the municipal level are expected to assure and considering the demand and the expected coverage of the service. When the councils call the population to take part in the conferences, what has been done in a regular basis, they retro-feed the medium- and long-term planning of Social Assistance. Thus, the interaction between State and society in conferential processes broadens the communication channels between government and citizens, contributing to raising the levels of responsivity and accountability in decision-making processes for Social Assistance policies. According to SUAS Census, there has been an increase in the number of municipal council that effectively deliberate either about Social Assistance plans or annual budget proposal of Executive Branch. In 2015, these percentages have been, respectively, 87% and 63%, what also points to some challenges yet to be faced.

 12. Were special measures put in place to ensure that the initiative benefits women and girls and improves the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable? (If applicable)
The social control performed from the council and conferences majorly involves women, as the other formal channels of political participation use to be less permeable to then. A survey from 2010 (AVRITZER, 2011) indicates that the typical participant of Brazilian conferences is a woman (51.2%) with four years of literacy (26.9%) and a monthly income equal to 1 to 4 minimum wages (52.2%). In Social Assistance field particularly, it can be estimated a 70% share of participation of women in councils and conferences. They are the majority of users of services in the Reference Centers and, as for legal directives of the Family Allowance Program, the magnetic card that gives access to the benefit account is preferentially entitled to the woman. Their participation in these policies not only qualifies the SUAS, but also builds and enhances their political consciousness. The poor and vulnerable people are the direct subjects of Social Assistance policies, that aim to improve their quality of life through the delivering of specific types of social safeties: Welcoming (reception, qualified professional hearing, forwarding); Income (access to benefits and cash transfers); Fellowship and Familiar, Communitarian and Social Coexistence; and Autonomy Development (development of capabilities and abilities to exert protagonism).

Contact Information

Institution Name:   National Council of Social Assistance
Institution Type:   Government Department  
Contact Person:   Fabio Bruni
Title:   President  
Telephone/ Fax:   +556120302411
Institution's / Project's Website:  
Address:   Esplanada dos Ministérios - Anexo do Bloco F - ala A - sala 115
Postal Code:   70059-900
City:   Brasíia
State/Province:   DF

          Go Back

Print friendly Page