News and Comment

Can Participatory Democracy be ‘Designed’?

Thursday 3 April 2014

Last week I joined in a webinar by Tim Hughes from Involve on how citizen engagement can contribute to realising the open government agenda. I have recently completed doctoral studies in political science focusing on the relationship between participatory processes and policy making in representative institutions, so the topic was very relevant to me.

The basic premise of the webinar (which is based upon a recent report on open government in practice) is a sound one: that citizen engagement is vital to the successful development of open government because it links transparency and accountability. That is to say, the government can release all the information it wants, but if too few are interested in reading it, too many lack the capacity to interpret it, or processes are not in place to help citizens engage with it, then it is not much use in opening government.

The webinar explored a number of techniques, pulled from a ‘how-to’ guide for policy makers who are looking to achieve specific goals through participation. The crux of the discussion about citizen engagement processes is adapting the design to the context. For example, when seeking to understand public views on a matter to inform policy development, consultative techniques such as deliberative polling are appropriate. When assessing the possible risks of implementing a certain policy, participatory risk assessments are preferable.

But, reflecting the dynamics revealed by Cohen, March and Olsen in their ‘garbage can’ model of organisational decision making, Tim suggested that the reverse is often the case, with administrators looking for problems and issues to apply their ‘pet’ processes to. The main point of the webinar was to present a report that would help public administrators and policy makers ensure that the participatory processes they design fit contexts.

Such guides can be really helpful in giving good practice examples and useful method descriptions, including, importantly, the situations in which different processes are best deployed.  However, putting my political science hat on,  sometimes guidance tends to present a view of public engagement as a non-politicised managerial tool, to be ‘designed’ and implemented in rational fashion by actors involved in making policy.

But public administrators and policy makers are not actors making rational management decisions. They are also influenced by personal and collective interests as well as prevailing ideas and discourses. This influences their understandings of why participation should occur, how it should occur and what role it plays in policy making. It is in no small part because of these issues that participatory processes have in practice often been found to fall short of the transformative rhetoric that accompanies their initiation (e.g. Hoppe 2011).

Issue, purpose and context are, of course, crucial for designing and delivering a meaningful engagement process. It is important to understand different engagement techniques and the problems they can solve. But the analysis of power relations and institutional change will be important parts of understanding why participation exercises are taken up, as well as why they achieve what they achieve, why they work, fail, survive or perish. For example, international comparative case study literature suggests that successful participation exercises arise from the ‘bottom-up’, as a result of demands by social movements to open up policy processes, rather than from the ‘top-down’, as when state officials ‘design’ participation. This is because the power generated by social movements can counteract the bureaucratic practices and norms that have often been shown to ‘colonise’ participatory processes they design.

There is a continuing, and lively, academic debate as to whether government actors can design participatory processes and institutions without ‘colonising’ these (for different positions see Blaug 2002 and Fung 2003). Finding out whether and how this could be achieved will help reveal the potential and limitations of ‘designing’ citizen engagement, as well as the prospects of making open government a reality through participatory techniques.