Participative Democracy and Public Participation

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From theories of democracy…

The origins of "democracy", wherein the power ("kratos") is exerted by the people ("demos"), may be traced back to ancient Greece. Since Plato and Aristotle, many prominentthinkers have added to an array of theories of democracy, such as Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Dewey, Pateman, Habermas and Dryzek. Democracy has become the internationally predominant system of governance, a "universal value", according to Sen (1999). He argues that democracy has a plurality of virtues, including: i) the "intrinsic" meaning of political participation and freedom to achieve human wellbeing, ii) the "instrumental" importance of assuring governments' responsibility and accountability, and iii) the "constructive" role in value formation and understanding the needs, rights and duties of citizens. Varied forms of political government have been advocated, from "direct democracy", where the citizens exert the decisions directly, to the widespread system of "representative democracy", where elected representatives act in the interest of the people. Many scholars call for extensive participation and a more meaningful engagement of the public in modern nation-states, to avoid narrowing the practice of representative democracy to voting in elections (NRC, 2008). In this context, "participatory democracy" has emerged as a catchphrase for more genuine, popular or progressive forms of democratization. Aragonès and Sánchez-Pagés (2009) define it as a process of collective decision-making where citizens have the power to decide on policy proposals and politicians assume the role of policy implementation. Participatory democracy provides opportunities to overcome the shortcomings of representative democracy by combining it with elements of direct democracy. In this system, citizens lead by making a policy proposal, which the elected representatives may subsequently decide to implement. The notion of a reduced scale of government is an integral element of the definition of participatory democracy, which taps into the notion of subsidiarity. The theory of democracy has recently taken a "deliberative turn", whereby democratic legitimacy increasingly rests on authentic deliberation rather than on voting or interest aggregation. "Deliberative democracy" has supporters and detractors. According to the former, deliberation induces individuals to reflect upon their interests and preferences, becoming amenable to changinging them and reach a workable agreement that follows a certain decision rule (e.g. consensus, unanimity, or majority). Critics however, argue that deliberative democracy favours conditions for strategic behaviour and fosters chaotic and arbitrary outcomes.

…To theories of participation

Public participation is intrinsic to democratic governance. Hence, theories of democracy have in turn led to theories of public participation (NRC, 2008). Renn and Schweizer (2009) reviewed these theories, proposing six broad theoretical concepts categorizing the processes that channel public input into public policy making: - Functionalist, where participation aims to improve quality of decision output, and follows a rationale that argues for representation of all knowledge carriers, integrating systematic, experiential and local knowledge; - Neo-liberal, which aims to represent all values and preferences in proportion to their share in the affected population, thus focusing primarily in the collection and representation of (well-informed) public preferences; - Deliberative, where competition between participants‘ arguments is promoted with respect to criteria of truth and normative validity, reaching consensus through argumentation; - Anthropological, which is based on the belief that common sense is the best judge in reconciling competing knowledge and value claims, thus promoting the inclusion of non-interested laypersons representing social categories such as gender, income and locality; - Emancipatory, where the goal is to empower less privileged groups and individuals, by strengthening the resources of those who are more negatively affected and challenging traditional power structures in society; - Post-modern, whereby participation aims to demonstrate variability, plurality and legitimacy of dissent, thus leaning towards acknowledgement of plural rationalities. Within this concept, mutually acceptable arrangements are sufficient and there is no need to reach a final product or joint statement (i.e. reaching closure).

The justifications for active public involvement in decision-making processes can be aggregated into three categories: i) normative reasons – both society and individual citizens are enriched through the encouragement of social and individual learning, ii) substantive reasons – accommodating multiple views improves understanding of the issues and subsequently the selection of more appropriate solutions; iii) instrumental reasons – success of policy implementation is promoted through the encouragement of collaborative relationships.

Forms of public participation

In democratic societies, people participate through different ways, such as voting, expressing opinions on public issues and governmental actions, forming interest groups, influencing decisions by demonstrating or lobbying, filing lawsuits to contest actions, establishing partnerships with government agencies or mobilizing attention to issues through artistic expression (NRC, 2008). All these forms fall under a broad definition of ‗public participation‘, whereby public concerns are integrated, to a lesser or greater extent, into governmental or corporate decision-making. In the context of environmental assessment and decision-making, ‗public participation‘ usually refers to a narrower conception describing any ―organized process adopted by elected officials, government agencies, or other public or private – sector organizations to engage the public in environmental assessment, planning, decision-making, management, monitoring, and evaluation. These processes supplement the traditional modes of public participation…(such as those in electoral and legislative processes)‖ (NRC, 2008). There are multiple and sometimes conflicting interpretations of 'who' is involved in 'public participation' and 'stakeholder participation'. The former term often refers to individual citizens or relatively unorganized groups of individuals, while the latter usually involves organized groups with a vested interest in a decision. However, some authors prefer to merely use the label 'public participation', applying it to the full range of interested and affected parties: - General public, all individuals who are not directly affected by the issue, although they may be part of public opinion on it; - Observing public, which includes the media, cultural elites and opinion leaders who may comment on the issue; - Directly affected public, including individuals and unorganized groups that experience direct, positive or negative, effects from the policy outcome; - Stakeholders, the organized groups which are or will be affected by or that have a strong interest in the outcome of a decision. Therefore, the key message is to employ a clear terminology and distinguish between the different types of target 'publics' to involve in a participatory process.

Practical issues in the design and implementation of participatory processes

Taking stock of a growing body of literature on public participation in environmental assessment and decision-making, several authors (e.g. Antunes et al., 2009; NRC, 2008) have proposed a set of critical issues to be considered in the setup, design and management of participatory processes. At an inception stage, government agencies should cater for (NRC, 2008): i) clarity of purpose, ii) a commitment to use results in decision-making, iii) appropriacy of funding and staff, iv) appropriate timing of participation in relation to decisions, and v) a commitment to self-assessment and learning. One of the critical decisions to be made during process setup concerns selecting the desired level of intensity and influence of public input on decisions. The options are often represented along a 'spectrum of participation impact', ranging from information and consultation, to involvement, collaboration and empowerment (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Spectrum of public participation impact (Source: IAP2, 2007)

In designing the process, close attention should be paid to the relationship between the level of participation impact and the participatory methods deployed. There are no clear-cut solutions, although certain tools and techniques fit particularly well to specific contexts, purpose and desired level of participation impact, as suggested by Figure 1. The options for the implementation of a participatory process include a variety of methods and tools, thoroughly reviewed in several studies. Furthermore, process design should be guided by the principles of inclusiveness, collaborative problem formulation, transparency and good-faith communication (NRC, 2008). Finally, the management of scientific inputs and multiple information sources in a participatory process is another issue of utmost importance and considerable debate. This resonates with the Post-Normal Science framework, according to which knowledge needs to be increasingly "democratized" in complex decision processes, paying attention to the multiple legitimate perspectives of 'expert' and 'lay' constituencies, and considering both facts and values. As argued by Vatn (2009) participatory methods and deliberation represent rule structures that facilitate the articulation of participants' values. Management of information and quality assurance are then critical features of participatory processes, guided by principles of inclusiveness, socially robustness of knowledge, and transparency.

Participatory democracy in practice...

Illustrations of various forms of participatory and deliberative democracy in action may be found in the experiences of 'participatory budgeting' in Porto Alegre, Brazil (Aragonès and Sánchez-Pagés, 2009), in the reform of public education systems in Chicago, USA, and in the governance of local villages in India (see the CEECEC case study on Hiware Bazaar). With the emergence of alternative ways of conceiving the so-called 'progressive' forms of democracy, the opportunities for public participation will continue to expand in increasingly decentralized, interdependent and networked democratic societies (NRC, 2008).


  • Antunes, P., Kallis, G., Videira, N., Santos, R., 2009. Participation and evaluation for sustainable river basin governance. Ecological Economics, 68, 931–939.
  • Aragonès, E., Sánchez-Pagés, S., 2009. A theory of participatory democracy based on the real case of Porto Alegre. European Economic Review, 53, 56-72.
  • Dewey, J., 1927. The Public and its Problems. Holt: New York.
  • Dryzek, J., 2000. Deliberative democracy and beyond: liberals, critics, contestations. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
  • Habermas, J., 1984. The Theory of Communicative Action. Beacon Press: Boston, USA.
  • Locke, J., 1960. An essay concerning human understanding. Available from
  • Mill, J., 1861. Utilitarianism. Available from
  • NRC – National Research Council of the National Academies, 2008. Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making. Panel on Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making, Thomas Dietz and Paul C. Stern, eds. Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, The National Academies Press: Washington DC, USA.
  • Pateman, C., 1970. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.
  • Reed, M., 2008. Stakeholder participation for environmental management: A literature review, Biological Conservation, 141, 2417–2431.
  • Renn, O., Scheizer, P.J., 2009. Inclusive Risk Governance: Concepts and Application to Environmental Policy Making. Environmental Policy and Governance, 19, 174–185.
  • Rousseau, J., 1762. The Social Contract Or Principles Of Political Right. Available from
  • Sen, A., 1999. Democracy as a Universal Value. Journal of Democracy, 10, 3, 3-17.

Vatn, A., 2009. An institutional analysis of methods for environmental appraisal, Ecological Economics, 68, 2207–2215.

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