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Notions of participation

As notions of participation explain why people participate, and much about the nature of participation itself, they take a dominant role in the literature. Daniels et al. divide this material into four categories (theoretical perspectives, strategic objectives, inventories or explanations of techniques, and evaluations of agency implementation [4]), but few have looked specifically at the contribution and role of methods, particularly for digital participation or PAUGI. Such categories also demonstrate that “participation” has both theoretical and practical components that can be readily examined and evaluated. Similarly, several roles for participation have been identified where participation can, for example, “further democratic values, ... educate the public [and] enable social or personal change” [5]. Although these competing goals are relevant to the top-down focus of the cases, less theoretical comment is offered about grassroots activities, and there is limited opportunity to discuss them here. An issue then arises about participation and “power relations,” where citizens’ say can be limited by decision-makers [6].
Holden sees participation in terms of “deciding on ideas” and “choosing among options” [7], with Pateman suggesting that if a process is used to gain the acceptance of ideas, other than the citizens’ own, then this is only “pseudo-participation” [8]. For Pateman, “genuine consultation” must occur before agenda-setting, and if final decisions are made by those outside the “rank-and-file,” then this is merely “partial participation.” For all the cases mentioned above, the public was choosing among options, because the authorities controlled most of the activity by initiating consultations, selecting certain methods, and supplying particular information. The authorities also expected responses to be formed in certain ways that were formal, structured, and often written (except for the call center). This influenced (or actively selected) which citizens would participate and how they could contribute, simultaneously impacting on their ability to access the process. As such, the examples cited exhibit partial participation but variation occurs between the cases. It could be argued that Edinburgh’s approach was too strict and that there was no opportunity for potential participants to contribute to the draft consultation document as partners in the community planning process. In contrast, although Rushcliffe wanted to hear residents’ concerns about a narrow issue, these participants had more opportunity to express varied opinions, and in Lewisham, genuine discussion was promoted and supported by the facilitator.
Such variation can be theorized through Arnstein’s ladder, but it should be noted that this model has a number of flaws. Least of all is its structure: that by being a ladder it is a continuum; that one is forced to ascend it; and that (once climbed) one reaches the pinnacle of “citizen power,” something that may not be appropriate in all settings involving governments. Secondly, although it provides a useful starting point, Arnstein’s ladder was developed for a specific context of the U.S. civil rights movement in the late 1960s, and some have started to question relying on it to describe participatory activities [9], with other theories offering useful avenues that explore some of the concepts built into the ladder.

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