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Conclusion

As an important facet of sustainable development, this brief discussion of public participation has tried to highlight current practice, theoretical understandings, and how the findings of the Internet-based activities of digital participation apply equally to any method, including activities that involve spatial information. More specifically, the survey of U.K. local government websites showed that there were some leading examples of digital participation at all levels of U.K. local government, but with a great deal of variation. Evaluating participation solely by examining such digital methods or response rates is problematic because it takes no account of the understandings of those involved. As such, the research investigated actors’ views of participation through three case studies, but it should be noted that there is also a need to explore more grassroots activities. Participation is not a unique or shared construct, and the five components of notions, issues, audience, outcomes, and methods offer one approach to investigate meanings further.
Notions of participation are the fundamental democratic ideals and philosophies that actors express when trying to describe or articulate participation in practice, described through political and planning theories. “Power” is often the focus of our understandings of such activities, but it is only one “notion” amongst several components, and other areas could be seen as important by those involved. When notions are examined, they often have relatively practical implications relating to “accessing” the process, who has a voice, and the extent to which activities match their desired outcomes. This can be seen where the cases exhibited what has been seen as partial, or less than optimal, forms of participatory democracy. Variation between these power relations and access can be described through Arnstein’s ladder, but other literature may prove more useful. Christiano’s “conceptions” show some of the reasons why citizens wanted to participate, and possibly why local authorities wanted to initiate exercises [10]. The direct conception is perhaps too simplistic, and people are more likely to participate in an exploratory behavior to find out what they want or to express some particular principle, such as NIMBY-ism. Similarly, more societal activities, related to popular sovereignty and the “incompatibility problem,” are reflected in citizens’ desires for a common voice to be listened to or for governments trying to find a “representative voice.” Holden’s “arguments” offer a means to examine some of these more group-based principles [7]. People participate because it helps to protect their interests, so that participation is not an end in itself but “instrumental.” In contrast, it can be “developmental,” reflecting participation’s ability to educate, either by learning about a new technology, policy-making, or the nature of participation. Participation can also increase legitimacy and provide an obligation to participate, through “communal” arguments, and it can be seen as the “fundamental nexus” between actors under philosophical arguments. ICTs, perhaps, offer this nexus a vehicle, but with variations in “access” competing with the notions of equality and openness. Both “participation” and “access” exist on a spectrum of interaction, where limited access (for both citizens and decision-makers) relates to limited participation, and increased access is felt to be more favorable.



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