The past decade has seen rapid change and upheaval. Democracy feels under threat from many sides: populism, technocracy, (algorithmic) capitalism, with many interrelated crises unfolding: climate change, inequality, poverty, public health, wars. Representative institutions are struggling to address these crises, as they suffer from a decline in trust and legitimacy. As a reaction, we’re seeing more interest in various forms of participation. I use the term participatory governance to refer to processes that allow citizens to engage directly in policymaking.
In a recent report, my co-authors and I carried out a scoping review and nine expert interviews with civil society organisations, activists, academics and policymakers to gain a better understanding of recent developments in participatory governance. We were interested in the degree of empowerment and inclusivity of a range of recent participatory processes.
So, what did we find?
Do recent participatory spaces empower participants to have meaningful impact? Participatory governance too often continues to be ancillary and ad hoc. The most recent practice is experimenting with long-term spaces and a more systemic approach. There are efforts to create a participatory infrastructure linking different arenas of digital and in-person participation with representative institutions and referendums. But institutionalisation does not necessarily translate into more say and power for citizens. Participatory institutions can be designed to tame or bypass grassroots and civil society-led participatory practice, or to constrain genuine impact on policymaking. Participatory mechanisms seem to mostly have impact when they concern more trivial policy issues. Some of our findings even suggest that the more institutionalised participation is, the less empowered it tends to be, precisely because it is generally used for less “hot” decisions (e.g., cultural activities).
Path-dependence and a history of participation are more important than political support. Experience of, and capacity for, participation within the local bureaucracy, but also a culture of participation embedded in the community and popular support for citizen participation are more important factors than political champions. Research places much emphasis on innovative institutional designs to embed participation within spaces of political decision-making, but we need to pay more attention to public administration and to civil society.
The role played by grassroots action in driving social innovation is crucial for deepening democracy, because it fosters knowledge-sharing and mutual capacity-building. Digitalisation provides new avenues for grassroots innovation. The literature on digital participation raises important concerns: not only the digital divide but also the gap between users and producers of technology, with women and minorities most affected by poor digital literacy. Issues of data ownership and a lack of citizen oversight on algorithms that control how we access information and that can exacerbate profiling of certain groups are also crucial. However, we found a growing body of literature describing how digital technologies are fostering greater collective intelligence and complex problem-solving when guided by the ethical principles of technopolitics and civic tech.
There is a need for greater understanding of the role played by grassroots and civil society-led democracy, how it can be nourished and whether it can be brought into a more positive and productive relationship with the state and mainstream politics, or whether its function is primarily a disruptive one.
How inclusive are recent forms of participatory governance? We know that socio-economic factors will influence a person’s capacity to participate. but this is not always accounted for in participatory designs. It is difficult to foresee genuinely inclusive participation without addressing socio-economic inequality. Participatory governance cannot be decoupled from the political economy, but successive waves of democratic innovations have precisely done that.
Intersectional exclusions from participatory spaces often occur at the planning stage, as a result of adult-centric, heteronormative and ableist assumptions, as well as a lack of awareness of specific traditions or cultural idiosyncrasies that can affect participation. Methods of inclusion that rely on random selection and remuneration of participants (e.g. mini-publics such as citizen juries or citizen assemblies) in practice do little to address deeper issues of self-confidence or distrust towards government. Many of our interviewees remarked that historically marginalised communities are likely to chuck a letter of invitation to a citizen assembly in the bin. The self-selection bias in these mini-publics remains huge. Greater awareness and familiarity with these processes might slowly change things, but they need to be better grounded in communities to become inclusive.
We found several cases of public engagement professionals developing innovative approaches to connect with, and anchor participation in, the community. Local organisations and community leaders can act as gatekeepers. A new generation of public officials is also embracing a more participatory culture and promoting more collaborative ways of working with citizens and communities.
Towards a participatory society: three lessons for future research and practice
Lesson 1: The literature on, and practice of, participatory governance focuses too much on spaces of decision-making and too little on civil society and grassroots groups. If we’re genuinely interested in participation that is empowered and inclusive, we need civil society and popular support for participatory processes to act as a counterpower. Community organisations can function as anchors that facilitate partnerships and provide a countervailing challenge.
Lesson 2: To make participatory governance genuinely inclusive, we need to move away from top-down designs led by academics and policymakers, which don’t sufficiently respond to the needs of participants and gloss over different constraints to participation. This means embracing coproduction, not just of policies but of the very engagement process.
Lesson 3: The political economy question cannot be decoupled from participatory governance. This means acknowledging how socio-economic inequalities constrain people’s capacity to participate. Crucially, it also means understanding how participatory governance can create political space to challenge the neoliberal status quo. As it stands, state-led participatory governance processes have been comfortably incorporated into the neoliberal rhetoric of open government and transparency and fall short of seriously questioning the tenets of a political economy that continues to widen inequalities.
The report includes inspiring new cases and ideas that help reconnect the field to its original ambitions to engender fairer, more equal societies. Let us know what you think!
Sonia Bussu is senior lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her main research interests are participatory governance and participatory action research. Over the years, she has led research and published on participatory and deliberative processes, community engagement and coproduction of public services.