This is the third part of a series of discussion starters on contextual aspects of e-participation (part 1 dealt with Institutional Backing, part 2 with Advocacy and Leadership). Contributed by our student intern, they are inspired by his master thesis on e-participation.

Establishing mechanisms for collaborative governance, such as e-participation processes (or public participation processes in general) requires changes in how public administrations view themselves and how they cooperate with the constituents they are paid to serve (also known as customers or citizens).

Because of the consequences for routines, procedures and hierarchies, bureaucratic change is very hard. Involving the public means an increase in openness, which will shift power from the institution to any group of stakeholders in a transformative process, at the end of which there might be new modes of two-way governance, something entirely incompatible with elitist bureaucratic cultures of contemporary organizations. Making governance more participatory will not work without the willingness and capacity to include and process feedback constructively and openly. Especially because bureaucracies often view public participation in terms of increased workload, it is therefore important to establish efficient management processes around e-participation projects which will expedite and automate workflow, just as it is important to preemptively talk about wrong perceptions within the bureaucracy. E-participation will remain a facade unless institutions open themselves up. That means the release of relevant information to the public and the provision of easily understandable documents relevant to the projects. Institutions need to establish an atmosphere of collaboration, solving problems in conjunction with the public and establishing mechanisms for stakeholders to dock into public value creation processes.

Proper expectation management on the convener’s side can facilitate bureaucratic change by setting realistic goals, communicating them to all involved parties and planning carefully. Knowing exactly what policy makers are expecting from a process helps tailoring it toward meeting these expectations. This sort of clarity may prevent blame games and help avoid failure when it comes to implementation and expectation management toward the public. Because it is at that moment where success is threatened by a lack of political will or institutional contingency plans. Token participation and misuses for ex-post legitimization, or the illusion of public involvement are the worst case scenarios.

What we need to keep reminding ourselves of is that e-participation is not just another policy tool that can be used with the stroke of a pen. Participation changes governance, it makes it collaborative, and that sort of change causes friction. Underlying change of the bureaucracies and their self-understanding is therefore paramount. My question is how that can be achieved? Are these merely legal questions? Leadership issues? Do we need “new” new public management?