Trouble is that this has not been a particularly successful partnership, at least not in terms of participation actually influencing local policies and decisions in any meaningful way. Despite more than 40 years of experimenting with participatory initiatives in the UK such as citizens' panels, area forums and focus groups, there has been very little evidence to suggest that there has been any real policy impact.
The interesting question for me is why this relationship hasn’t worked out as many have hoped. If we knew why then maybe we could fix it, or, if it can’t be fixed, we could do something more productive with our time (that's probably a pretty fair summary of my PhD).
This is a question that has been neglected in my opinion. Partly this is because the ‘participation’ literature has tended to be more interested in the process of getting people to participate in the initiatives or the operations of the initiatives themselves. Partly because explanations are not in one place - you have to go out and look for them. Aside from the local government and participation literatures you need to look in a number of places such as democratic theory, state theory and institutional theory for example.
I want to make the business of explaining the relationship between local government and public participation more manageable. To do this I have proposed four conjectures which are intended to cover the major possibilities. All four are plausible, in my opinion, although they can’t all be right.
Here then are the four conjectures (I have borrowed the ‘conjectures approach’ from Klijn and Skelcher who set it out in a paper that you can find here):
Local government is in transition between a purely representative form of local democracy and a new hybrid version enhanced by participative initiatives. This transition is evidenced by the good practice that exists in many local councils and the proliferation in participatory initiatives sponsored by local government over recent years. The failure to influence the policy process is simply a question of poor institutional design – we simply don’t have the right mechanisms yet with which to connect up initiatives with the policy process. This will come in time – we should just keep on experimenting.
Only elected, representative local government is appropriate for our large scale and complex nature; modern democracy is necessarily elitist. This conjecture draws on elite democratic theory and highlights the practical problems associated with any attempt to construct a hybrid form of democracy. Despite the good intentions of the officials that support them, the outcomes from initiatives can only be given a low value by local politicians who will see them as little more than symbolic. Either we need to radically redesign our local democracy or we should lower our expectations significantly.
This conjecture draws on Marxist theory to describe the way in which local government uses participatory initiatives cynically as a means of managing the urban population. It starts from the position that local government is an institution which administers economic and social policies on behalf of the central state. Participatory initiatives are used as pro-active management tools used to gather information and to deal with protest. While the prospects for achieving outcomes are nonexistent it may still be possible to use initiatives as a platform for protest.
The word ‘resistivity’ is borrowed from physical science where it refers to the extent to which a material opposes the flow of an electrical current. It draws on institutional theory and focuses on the way in which the behaviours of people in local government are shaped by entrenched (formal and informal) rules and norms. These ‘old rules’ may work against the new ways of thinking and working that come with participatory initiatives – they tend to ensure that outcomes are resisted. These ‘old rules’ are not fixed, however, and can be changed by individuals acting in the right way. This is no easy task, however, and it may be better instead to work through external or new organisations, more open to new ways of doing things.
As I said these are all plausible theories – there is evidence to support each. It is of course important to know which is (most) right - particularly if you want to see participatory initiatives influencing policy and decision making and if you have responsibility for making them work.
The detailed version of these conjectures can be found in my article: UK Local Government and Public Participation: Using Conjectures to Explain the Relationship – Public Administration, 2011
Update! Thanks to the good people at Wiley Politics, the full article is FREE to download until the end of July 2012. Thanks guys!
photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wolfriver/416847745/