Steven Clift just alerted me to a new report from the IBM Center for The Business of Government: A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation (PDF), authored by Tina Nabatchi, Syracuse University.

I admit I haven’t fully read it yet, but a couple of issues jumped out that I wanted to point out really quick.

1) Terminology

First off, I like this explanation of the term “citizen participation” (page 6):

What is Citizen Participation?

Citizen participation can be broadly defined as the processes by which public concerns, needs, and values are incorporated into decision-making. Citizen participation happens in many places (e.g., civil society, electoral, legislative, and administrative arenas) and can take many forms (e.g., methods may range from information exchanges to democratic decision-making). […]

Citizen participation may be indirect or direct:

  • Indirect participation, such as voting or supporting advocacy groups, occurs when citizens select or work through representatives who make decisions for them .
  • Direct participation occurs when citizens are personally and actively engaged in decisionmaking

It appears that the term “citizen participation” as applied here is more narrow than civic engagement but considerably broader than public participation.

That’s why I don’t quite agree with the statement that “many of the assumptions behind the IAP2 and other organizing principles for citizen participation do not always hold” (page 7), as the side-by-side comparison of “Assumptions and Realities about Citizen Participation” (page 8) seems to slightly confuse the terminology.

For example, the table lists as an assumption that “[p]articipation is focused on decisionmaking and helps direct government allocation of resources” and  contrasts this with the reality that “[p]articipation can be done for reasons other than decisionmaking. Even when focused on decision-making, participation might not (and often need not) address resource allocation issues.”

It’s true that “citizen participation” (as defined above) may not always focus on directly engaging citizens in decision making. “Public participation” as defined by IAP2, on the other hand, is always about decision making and the various levels the public can be directly involved. Furthermore, IAP2’s framework is not limited to resource allocation issues.

For more on this, see our previous posts on terminology (here, here) or browse the dictionary.

2) Mapping tools to IAp2 Spectrum impact levels

On pages 10-12, the report provides a number of examples of online and offline tools as they map to certain levels on the IAP2 Spectrum. This is something I’d love to work on in more detail at some point, especially to help categorize the many online tools out there. It’s been tried several times before but I haven’t quite seen it work.

The challenge, as I see it, is that most group processes or tools don’t map neatly to one level on the Spectrum or another. For example, Deliberative Polling and AmericaSpeaks 21st Century TownMeeting can fall on the Involve or Collaborate part of the Spectrum but only if the decision maker is on board. If, on the other hand, the process is used without a clear link to a decision making process then the Spectrum does not apply.

Both the 2007 CaliforniaSpeaks project (21st Century TownMeeting) and the 2011 What’s Next California project (Deliberative Polling) are examples where either process has been applied for opinion research and advocacy purposes but where the outcomes did not have any concrete impact in terms of decision making.

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At any rate, the main focus of the report is on evaluation and metrics and looks quite useful. Hope to dig in later tonight.