Figure 1: Advantages of Citizen Participation in Government Decision-Making

A few days ago, I came across this 2007 article in the International Journal for Public Participation (IJP2) by Renee A. Irvin and John Stansbury: Citizen Participation in Decision-Making: Is it Worth the Effort? (PDF).

In it, the authors list a number of advantages and drawbacks of public participation and weigh the trade-offs between the potential benefits and the “potential social and economic costs of community participation” (page 2).

Summary:

It is widely argued that increased community participation in government decision-making produces many important benefits. Dissent is rare: It is difficult to envision anything but positive outcomes from citizens joining the policy process, collaborating with others, and reaching consensus to bring about positive social and environmental change. This article, motivated by contextual problems encountered in a participatory watershed management initiative, reviews the citizen participation literature and analyzes key considerations in determining whether community participation is an effective policy-making tool. We list conditions under which community participation may be costly and ineffective and when it can thrive and produce the greatest gains in effective citizen governance. From the detritus of an unsuccessful citizen-participation effort, we arrive at a more-informed approach to guide policy makers in choosing a decision-making process that is appropriate for a community’s particular needs.

Advantages to Citizen Participants (page 3):

  • Education (learn from and inform government representatives)
  • Persuade and enlighten government
  • Gain skills for activist citizenship
  • Break gridlock; achieve outcomes
  • Gain some control over policy process
  • Better policy and implementation decisions

Advantages to Government (page 3):

  • Education (learn from and inform citizens)
  • Persuade citizens; build trust and allay anxiety or hostility
  • Build strategic alliances
  • Gain legitimacy of decisions
  • Break gridlock; achieve outcomes
  • Avoid litigation costs
  • Better policy and implementation decisions

Disadvantages to Citizen Participants (page 7):

  • Time consuming (even dull)
  • Pointless if decision is ignored
  • Worse policy decision if heavily influenced by opposing interest groups

Disadvantages to Government (page 7):

  • Time consuming
  • Costly
  • May backfire, creating more hostility toward government
  • Loss of decision-making control
  • Possibility of bad decision that is politically impossible to ignore
  • Less budget for implementation of actual projects

Finally, the article provides “several considerations that may be described as ideal conditions for implementation of enhanced citizen participation in agency decision-making” (page 16) as well as conditions under which “the citizen participation process may be ineffective and wasteful, compared to traditional top-down decision making.”

In conclusion, the authors point to one of the most challenging issues in the field of public participation (page 18):

[…] Evidence for the effectiveness of community participation in environmental management is in short supply, due in part to the inherent problems in measuring the success of environmental policies that may take decades to positively affect the environment. Even more difficult, perhaps, is the prospect of measuring incremental changes in the well-being of the general public as they become more engaged in the policy process.

The search for more robust data to prove the return on investment (ROI) of public participation is something we’ve been following since as early as 2009, and so far there haven’t been any major breakthroughs.

The open data community, which has been facing similar challenges, is slightly ahead of the curve, with Sunlight Foundation last month releasing a new repository of case studies to show open data outputs, outcomes and impacts (A new approach to measuring the impact of open data).

Maybe that’s a good sign that my suggestion from 2012 to create a “common knowledge base” for public participation (a repository of stories, case studies, performance data etc.) will pick up momentum.