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Citizen participation and its challenges based on the Literature Review on public service reform models

Co-VAL > Blog > News > Citizen participation and its challenges based on the Literature Review on public service reform models

Participation comes in many guises, being captured by a multitude of terms including involvement, engagement, empowerment, co-production, and more recently co-creation – each of which has its own distinct nuances.  It can be broadly defined as the process by which citizens can share power with public officials in taking substantive decisions or actions related to the community (Roberts, 2004). This post is based on the Literature review on public service reform models by Dr Kirsty Strokosch (University of Edinburgh) and focuses on the design and the delivery of public services and the participation of citizens within these processes.

Participation can take two forms, the individual form, which focuses on personal gains, and the collective form, which is related with groups of individuals having values of shared interest (Roberts, 2004). At both levels, participation is strongly associated with the concept of citizenship.

Despite the general agreement that participation, in its various forms, is a normatively ‘good thing’ or instrumentally ‘smart thing’, the literature reveals that in practice it faces seven barriers.

First, is the significant challenge of power dynamics (Cuthill and Fien 2005). Participation is typically advocated as a means of empowerment (Wistow and Barnes, 1993), which suggests that power is transferred to service users and/or citizens from those in power. However, because traditional power holders (e.g. professionals) control the dispersal of power, they ultimately control the extent to which outside stakeholders might influence decision-making processes. Ultimately then, the “language of empowerment can provide a cloak under which powerful actors obscure their continuing exercise of power.” (Callaghan and Wistow, 2006, p. 596).

Second is the incompatibility of public sector decision-making structures and processes with participation as they tend to favor those with the necessary resources and organizational skills (Fung and Wright 2001).

Third, influence over decision-making typically comes at the expense of width, in the form of a plethora of voices (Papadopoulos, 2003). It can be easier to work with a smaller, if unrepresentative, group of citizens than with a broader group, where heterogeneity makes reaching a consensus challenging.

The fourth barrier is the ambivalence of public service staff towards participation, based on the assumption that citizens are either disengaged or unqualified ‘lay people’ and therefore either unwilling or unable to engage in complex decision-making processes (Fischer, 2006; Wagenaar, 2007; Anton et al, 2007; Meijer, 2014).

Participation may as a result be considered an uninformed intrusion on formal decision making (Kweit and Kweit, 2004; Bryer and Cooper, 2012). Symbolic or tokenistic participation can then sometimes result, which forms the fifth barrier, as it can result in citizen dis-interest (Bryer and Cooper, 2012; Mayer et al, 2005) and can potentially be more damaging than no participation at all (King and Strivers, 1998b).

Sixth, those who are motivated and frequently participate, sometimes described as ‘natural joiners’ or ‘the usual suspects’, may be bypassed by efforts to increase participation among disadvantaged groups (Box, 1999; Millward, 2005).

The final barrier is that in times of fiscal stress participation may be considered wasteful and scarce, time-consuming and adding unnecessary complexity to the decision-making or implementation processes (Lowndes, et al, 2001; Irvin and Stansbury, 2004; Boswell et al, 2015).

The preceding background discussion of participation in the design and delivery of public services highlights that the concept has been used in several ways to explain the way in which power may be shared both individually and collectively, within citizens or service users. The literature argues for participation from both normative and instrumental justifications, but also identifies as analyzed above, various challenges to its practice that should be carefully considered.


Read the whole report here


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