Citizen Participation Research Paper

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‘Citizen participation’ refers generally to citizen involvement in public decision making. In planning and related fields, the term also has a specialized meaning, designating efforts to facilitate participation of citizens who would normally be unable or disinclined to take part.

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1. The Emergence Of An Ambiguous Definition

Alexis de Tocqueville, the chronicler of American habits in the mid-nineteenth century, remarked on widespread popular participation in the country’s civic life. Americans seemed ready to form groups to address any problem. When mass immigration swelled cities at century’s end, citizen activists spearheaded wide-ranging progressive reforms in sanitation, land use, and government organization. American city planning was a direct outgrowth of this citizen movement. Planning commissions were one means of institutionalizing public influence over decisions.

Nevertheless, the 1960s heard an explosion of talk about ‘citizen participation’ in planning, Community Action and the War on Poverty, and Model Cities. Part of the explanation is that citizens turned away from public life in the quiescent 1950s, but the primary reason is that the Johnson administration policy agenda focused on citizens who had never participated much in public decision making: the poor and blacks. Community Action would involve them in unprecedented ways.

The traditional approach to citizen participation in planning was represented by the federal Housing Act of 1954, which called for citizen advisory committees in urban renewal and other local projects. A 1966 Department of Housing and Urban Development Program Guide suggested categories to be represented, including business groups, civic clubs, churches, schools, government agencies, social service organizations, the mass media, neighborhood organizations, and ‘ethnic or racial groups.’ The examples and custom made it likely that, with the possible exceptions of neighborhood and racial representatives, most advisory committee members would come from an educational and economic elite.

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the hallmark of the War on Poverty, declared a new approach: ‘The term ‘community action program’ means a program … which is developed, conducted, and administered with the maximum feasible participation of residents of the areas and members of the groups served.’ Two years later, Model Cities began with a consonant call for ‘widespread citizen participation.’ One sign of a new departure was the Office of Economic Opportunity’s investment in community organizing as part of Community Action and its technical assistance to community organizations in Model Cities. The War on Poverty aimed to activate the urban poor, particularly blacks.

‘Citizen’ participation and ‘community’ action or participation differ in an important way. A citizen is an individual, whereas a community is a collectivity. Citizens are members of the state, with certain rights, but they do not necessarily have intervening attachments. Communities are groups with membership norms (ranging from residence in a territory to conformity to rules of behavior), social relations, and loyalties. Participation of individual citizens is a quantitative matter: it can be counted, and more is arguably better than less.

In contrast, participation of communities is a qualitative matter. Communities do not take action en masse, but, rather, individuals act in the name of communities. This situation introduces questions of representation: What is a community, who are its members, and to what degree do participants represent members’ interests? Partly a matter of calculation, this is largely a matter of judgment, which community members can render and about which many have strong convictions. Thus federal and local officials who encouraged or coped with citizen participation faced community activists who challenged them and forced consideration of what would be representative participation of citizens who are community members.

In addition, community activists, stimulated by the language of the War on Poverty, raised issues of power: could participation of residents in developing, conducting, and administering programs mean anything other than community control? And, if so, what should residents have control over, and how much control was significant? Answers to these questions were complicated by ambiguities in definitions of community and representation: who would have to exercise power over what in order for a community to be represented in making decisions?

In the early 1970s, the Nixon Administration narrowed the meaning of citizen participation in two respects. ‘Citizens’ became individuals again, rather than community members. ‘Participation’ less often meant activism or power than opportunities to speak at formal hearings conducted by others, who would make decisions. Over the years, federal planning, housing, community development, and environmental legislation has come to include provisions for citizen participation, and local practice has followed suit. In general, the balance of these practices has taken the narrower view of citizen participation.

Planning in Europe and Australia has adopted language of citizen participation, with variations in practice similar to those in the United States. United Nations and World Bank policies speak of ‘community participation’ in aid projects. In this context ‘community’ refers to the locus or target of intervention more than an expectation that an entire community participate in planning and implementation. Practice encounters similar issues about representation and power to American and European planning.

2. What ‘Citizen Participation’ Could Include But Often Does Not; A Broader Definition

Because ‘citizen participation’ originally referred to involving people in government-initiated programs, common usage often does not include autonomous citizen activities, even though they are acts of involvement in the society and may aim to influence government. This broader ‘citizen participation’ includes three types of activity commonly associated with ‘community organization.’

‘Locality development,’ or ‘community development,’ involves the organization of residents of an area to create the capacity to improve their situation. Projects may address various needs, such as health, housing, education, and infrastructure. Activities may include popular education to understand local conditions.

‘Social planning’ involves citizens in working with technical data to solve substantive problems. These activities aim to prepare plans for programs to address needs, which may be in many areas. Participants might focus on a single issue, or a community might develop a multifaceted plan.

‘Social action’ involves the organization of a population to press actors in the larger society, usually institutions and often government, to change policies or practices, redistribute economic or social resources, or yield power over these things. Disadvantaged populations may favor this approach, but many issue-oriented groups (such as the environmental movement and consumer groups) may choose it. Activities include mass mobilization and advocacy.

It is reasonable to consider these activities part of a broad definition of ‘citizen participation’ as efforts by citizens (including, but not only, the poor and minorities) to influence the policies and practices of government, basic social institutions, or their own neighborhood or community. However, in this context the conventional emphasis on efforts to involve citizens in government-initiated activity produces theoretical ambiguity. In addition, those who hold the narrower view may find conflicts in practice when encountering citizens or communities who hold the broader view.

3. Arguments For Citizen Participation; Practical Benefits

Different views of citizen participation are associated with different arguments for it and claims regarding its benefits. A basic distinction can be drawn between a focus on the benefits to government and other service providers and a focus on the benefits to citizens and communities. The first view emphasizes the ways citizens contribute knowledge and, especially, authority, such that program operators can be more confident citizens will use and benefit from services. The second view emphasizes the ways citizens get more power and economic and social resources that promote their development. The first view is more likely to be associated with the narrower view of citizen participation, and the second with the broader view, but the two may overlap and the correspondence is imprecise. Four types of benefits can be identified. The first emphasizes individual development. Citizen participation has been seen as therapy for the alienated and powerless; involvement in political activity may contribute to self-esteem, a sense of potency, and growth. Inherently, participation in public life makes someone a citizen. Collaboration helps individuals become part of networks that provide social supports. Instrumentally, participation can bring power, knowledge, the ability to solve problems, and improvements in living conditions, including services.

The latter benefits involve sharing in outcomes of collective action, in community development. When members of a community articulate and promote their interests with one another, they can resolve conflicts and discover shared community interests. They will develop relationships they can use in acting together on behalf of those interests. As a result, they may gain knowledge, power, resources, and relationships that enable them to influence institutions and other actors and make decisions that change conditions and solve problems. This may mean having more power over societal resources, becoming more self-sufficient, or both. In general, a community whose members deliberate and make decisions together is likely to have a sense of vitality and potency and attract members’ loyalty.

Organizational development is a third benefit of citizen participation. When citizens contribute knowledge about their needs, service providers are more likely to design and deliver services that meet those needs, solve problems, and are used. When citizens participate in planning programs, they are more likely to develop relationships with organizations, consider programs legitimate, and use or accept them. In general, voluntary organizations, including community associations, need participation because citizens provide three resources essential to organizational operation and development: work, money, and legitimacy.

Finally, citizen participation contributes to societal development. Active citizenship in a democratic framework can be considered inherently good for society. When activists openly discuss their interests, they can resolve conflicts among private interests and discover common, public interests. They can build relationships and learn together about shared conditions. As in communities, citizen participation offers society the possibility of articulating and solving problems knowledgeably and legitimately, with the result that collective actions, including programs, serve more people well.

Some proponents of citizen participation portray it as a means to various ends, whereas others, particularly those concerned with societal development, present it as an end in itself. It can be both, and the delineation of means and ends varies with focus on individuals, communities, organizations, or society.

4. Specific Purposes Of Participation Activities; The Issue Of Power

The discussion of benefits from citizen participation identifies many possible purposes for activities in which citizens participate in public life. These can be classified as follows:

 (a) Communicating information (including perceptions, beliefs, opinions, hopes, expectations, and intentions);

(b) Developing relationships (creating new ones and strengthening existing ones);

(c) Developing the capacity to act and organizing action (including organizing coalitions, planning, strategizing, and creating and exercising power);

(d) Preserving or changing selves and or others (including policies, practices, conditions, and relationships).

These categories may be seen hierarchically, in that communicating information builds relationships, which in turn develop a capacity to act, which may effect change in some or all parties. However, in practice and in the abstract, the categories overlap: for example, communication may contribute to developing relationships, the creation of which is change and which have the capacity to bring about other change, such as further communication.

In short, citizen participation can enable citizens and others who participate with them to learn and can empower them to act together in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. However, when citizens or those they interact with believe they have conflicting interests, they may participate with other purposes. They may seek to prevent the communication of information, the development of relationships, action by others, and any change in their own practices. Under these conditions, when government officials or funders, for example, organize citizen participation, they may involve citizens but limit their influence.

Sherry Arnstein (1969) analyzed this central question of citizens’ power in terms of ‘a ladder of citizen participation,’ ranging from low to high power:


(a) Manipulation: placing citizens on powerless advisory committees for the purpose of ‘educating’ them or gaining their support for others’ positions;

(b) Therapy: trying to change citizens’ beliefs, attitudes, or values as a diversion from analyzing and changing social conditions;

Degrees of tokenism

(c) Informing: giving information to citizens but not requesting or listening to their points-of-view;

(d) Consultation: asking citizens’ opinions but not making a commitment to act on them;

(e) Placation: placing a few citizens on committees or boards that have limited influence over policies and practices;

Degrees of citizen power

(f ) Partnership: sharing decision making power with citizens;

(g) Delegated power: delegating some decision making power to citizens;

(h) Citizen control: citizens have considerable in- dependent power over decisions.

This hierarchy focuses on power over overt decisions, such as policies or programs that address problems. This is the most familiar of three ‘levels’ of power. Beneath it are decisions about the issues or problems that go onto the agenda for action. It is possible for citizens to have considerable power in selecting from among alternatives on the table without having influence in determining the array of possibilities. Still one level lower are decisions, frequently tacit, about which social conditions are defined as issues or problems and even considered for the agenda. Citizens may have influence in choosing among recognized issues for a group or organization’s agenda but have little power to draw public attention to certain conditions that trouble them greatly. The purposes of citizen participation may pertain to each of these levels of power.

5. Means Of Citizen Participation

The means of citizen participation are related to its purposes. Some means serve single purposes, but most may serve several purposes. Means can be grouped in five general categories.

Groups, Organizations, Committees, Boards, Councils, and Other Institutions are entities that offer arenas where members and others can deliberate, make decisions, and otherwise act. Examples are community organizations and planning councils, agencies that deliver services or administer programs, planning commissions and other boards that guide or regulate public action, citizen review boards, and task forces. All are concerned about and intervene in public life. They vary in the degree to which they involve citizens in activities characterized by purposes high on Arnstein’s ladder.

These entities conduct meetings where participants can communicate information, develop relationships, develop the capacity to act, and act in ways that preserve or change people or things. Meetings may be formal or informal, regularly scheduled or ad hoc, generally oriented toward organizational affairs or focused on specific issues or problems. Meetings may have single or multiple purposes, such as discussion, planning, or decision making. Some organizations restrict citizens to discussion, whereas others may involve them in planning or decision making as well. These entities can sponsor inquiries, events, or services for one-directional communication of information. Information centers allow citizens to ask for information. Activities in which citizens provide information include public hearings, surveys, focus groups, various structured group activities, referenda, and elections. Organizations vary in their interest in giving information to citizens or receiving it from them.

These entities can sponsor such other action as organizing people and developing and implementing interventions. Examples include place-or issue-based organizing, housing development, school reform, and health care provision. Line departments in state and local government, community organizations, and community development corporations typically sponsor these activities. They vary in the extent to which they require or can accommodate lay citizens, rather than experts. Organizations vary in efforts to involve citizens in these activities.

These entities or others can sponsor technical assistance to increase citizens’ ability to join the entities, participate in meetings, make effective inquiries, and take part in action. Technical assistance includes classes or workshops, as well as ad hoc or ongoing consultation or mentoring. ‘Advocate planners’ work with or represent citizen groups in planning. Topics for assistance include means of participating in organizations such as using parliamentary procedure, engaging in public discussion, making decisions, and exercising leadership; technical and analytic tasks such as budgeting, scheduling, and grant-writing; managerial tasks such as running and organization and planning; and knowledge about substantive fields.

6. Participation And Representation

6.1 Meanings Of Representation

When ‘citizen participation’ refers to individual citizens, each person can be said to represent him or herself, and participation and representation are equivalent. Both can be measured quantitatively, in terms of how many people or what percentage of members of some unit, such as a geographic neighborhood, participate.

In contrast, when ‘citizen participation’ refers to a collectivity, such as a community or a racial or cultural group, representation is more complicated and, while related to participation, separate from it. Representation might be measured as a ratio of participants to total members, but to do so would not take into account the characteristics that define the identity of the group, distinguish subgroups from one another, and demarcate various interests. One common shortcut is to identify certain demographic characteristics of the whole—such as race, sex, income, and age—and seek participants who resemble the overall population in these respects. However, this approach assumes that all blacks, women, poor people, or elderly are similar and that what matters about and to them is a simple product of their race, sex, income, and or age.

There is no single correct way to define or measure representation. Rather, it is useful to consider in a particular instance what aspects of the people involved matter and how they might be represented. For example, in a neighborhood with bad housing, groups may form around distinct positions on improving conditions; their views may be unrelated to race or income, and associated mainly with whether house- holds own or rent and whether they have children. Representation could be defined primarily in terms of positions on issues and secondarily in terms of housing tenure and family composition. Determination of what interests, positions, or characteristics should be represented is consequential because it affects not only which individuals participate, but also which positions are given voice.

6.2 Differences In Ability To Participate

Nevertheless, even if there is agreement about how many and which participants might represent an overall population, some groups can much more easily participate than others. Citizen participation depends on motive, opportunity, and means. The three are related.

A common motive, particularly with regard to participation in activities sponsored by government or other large institutions, is the possibility of influencing conditions, for the benefit of a private or a public interest. A strong motive, that often leads citizens to create or activate an organization, is the desire to resist an action seen as a threat, such as urban renewal, highway construction, or massive development.

When participation opportunities arise, individuals may take part for the pleasure of interacting with others—either specific persons or a group in general. At the same time, they may assess whether these are opportunities to exercise power or accomplish meaningful ends. Government activities, for example, may be linked to formal power but lie beyond local citizens’ influence; a community organization may offer individuals considerable opportunity for neighborhood influence but have little control over important outside forces.

Citizens vary in their ability to take advantage of these opportunities. Time is a basic resource and constraint. Those who work full time, parents, and, in particular, single parents have little time for meetings. Middle-class citizens, especially those who have a flexible schedule, do not work full-time, or are supported by a spouse, and particularly those without children at home, are most likely to have time to participate in public life.

Thus citizens’ motivations rest on a calculation of the returns on an investment of time. Different citizens are likely to figure the possibilities for influence differently, based on their experience, relationships, skills, and confidence. The means at their disposal affect their ability to take advantage of opportunities. Participation is aided by a cognitive style that allows seeing how the particulars of a moment fit into a big picture—geographically, socially, and temporally. Planning depends on imagining a medium to long-term future and having confidence in one’s ability to affect it. Substantive knowledge matters, both for making informed decisions and for having the confidence to take part. Procedural expertise is crucial, including knowing how to organize people, run a productive meeting, resolve conflicts, and direct discussion toward agreement. Social relations are an important source of work, influence, and knowledge—about issues and participation opportunities.

The conditions of middle-class life are particularly likely to give citizens these means and motivate them to see and take advantage of opportunities for participation. Extended formal education, professional work, intricate social networks, and general success in influencing the world prepare middle-class citizens to participate in ways that elude many who are poorer.

These conditions encouraged the creation of remedial ‘citizen participation’ activities. Extensive, effective participation of low-income citizens depends on overcoming these obstacles. Time is a difficult constraint to change, but linking civic events with activities in which people already participate is important, as is child care. Training and experience can give people skills and confidence to organize and take an active part in public affairs. Crucially, low-income citizens, as any citizens, are more likely to participate when they see real opportunities for power.

7. Evaluating Citizen Participation Activities

Does citizen participation work? Do some kinds of citizen participation work better than others? How does narrowly defined ‘citizen participation’ compare with the rest of broadly defined citizen participation? Is citizen participation worth the effort—for citizens, for the government, for anyone else?

These are good, crucial questions. Yet they are difficult to answer. First, terms must be defined. Second, little of the relevant empirical evidence is collected in writing. Hence available data offer only specimens of answers from a larger undetermined universe of possibilities. Third, in any case, the most precise answers are contingent: it depends.

7.1 Defining The Questions

Whether citizen participation ‘works’ depends on expectations. Most generally, citizen participation is a strategy for solving a problem. Commonly, problems are defined substantively: for example, the poor are unemployed, low-income city residents lack affordable food shopping, or public health programs do not reach low-income children. Alternatively, some problems may be defined procedurally, and many substantive problems, in fact, have procedural roots: for example, the city health department, local hospitals, the state Medicaid division, and low-income health advocates cannot agree on an approach for taking care of indigent children.

One might ask whether citizen participation in planning for such problems contributed to better solutions than would have been likely otherwise. However, because there cannot be a contrasting case where everything was the same except for citizen participation, it is impossible to answer that question. Moreover, the purpose, or at least the effect, of citizen participation may be to redefine the problem. In particular, in the case of procedural problems defined by the exclusion of citizens, citizen involvement in itself may provide a solution. Hence it is reasonable simply to study events to assess the influence of particular actions by specific people.

Still, citizens may participate in activities that solve problems without themselves having influence over the results. Tensions between the narrow and broad notions of ‘citizen participation,’ as well as conflicts over substantive and procedural issues, will lead others to try to limit the power of certain citizens. To evaluate the effects of citizen participation, it is necessary to examine the roles and influence of particular groups of citizens at each level of power.

Finally, citizens may participate powerfully in solving problems, but those who take part may not represent a larger group in whose name they speak. An elite may deliberately try to corner power for themselves. Alternatively, a small group of activists who have the skills, time, and connections to participate in wide-ranging activities may, with the most generous of intentions, take leadership, work closely together, succeed in advancing projects, develop proprietary feelings for them, and continue along the easy path of standing for a larger group. They may succeed in solving problems for members of their larger community, who can be said to be represented by the outcomes, but not in the process.

Thus the question of whether citizen participation works, complexly combines issues of effectiveness in solving problems, power, and representation. Still, answers to the question do not affect the normative position that citizen participation in public affairs is a democratic right.

7.2 The Haphazardly Collected Empirical Data

Few citizens record their participatory experiences, probably because few have both the interest and time. Perhaps those who consider themselves successful are most likely to document their activities or draw the attention of observers who will do so. For these reasons there is no way of knowing what universe reported cases represent.

Moreover, it is unclear what should be considered a sufficient account of a case. While many case studies focus on specific ‘citizen participation’ activities, their context shapes their effects. Hence it would be informative to see the entirety of influences on citizen participation in a case, but it may be uncertain at what distance from the ‘main action’ to draw boundaries around the case. Within those boundaries there is the question of what the unit of analysis should be—what should be taken as the unit of citizen participation that is to be measured for its effects. It might be an incident, an individual or collective actor, a relationship, a strategy, a tactic, another action, or a combination of these things. Further, it is unclear what characteristics of these elements might matter. For example, when might citizens’ age, education, family composition, housing tenure, income, length of residence, occupation, place of residence, race, religion, or sex, be pertinent to their participation in public affairs and the effects of their activities? And how would the context of the case affect the influence of the unit of citizen participation?

These questions are conceptual but also empirical, dependent on data collection and analysis. Little available material is robust enough to address all these questions, and, as a result, it is difficult to compare the effects of citizen participation in different contexts. These questions should direct the recording of cases. For now, the available data should be interpreted as complexly as possible. They offer specimens— examples of what citizen participation may accomplish—which could become the basis for generalizations.

One can find examples of success and failure. There are instances where organized citizens planned and developed programs. There are instances where organized citizens stopped projects they opposed. In these cases, citizens have benefited from such resources as organization, money, effort, skill, knowledge, planning, strategy, alliances, time, and commitment. These findings are consistent with political science research.


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