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Participation & Sustainable Development in Europe

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Participation stirs things up – let's allow that

Andrea Breitfuss works as an urban and regional planner and sociologist. She runs Kon-text, an engineering consultancy for spatial planning in Vienna. Kon-text offers consultancy and research in the areas of urban redevelopment/urban management, local agenda 21, socially acceptable project development, analysis of the social environment, community intervention, mediation and as organisational development for cities and communities.

Contact: andrea.breitfuss(at), Website:

Everyone's talking about participation

There has been a steady increase in the number of participation processes in recent decades. We come across best-practice examples of citizen involvement in all sorts of urban, rural and regional contexts, and policymakers regard it as good form to laud participation in their speeches.

Participation frustrates

In conversation with people concerned with participation processes in their profession one frequently detects an element of frustration and scepticism. Among representatives of authorities there are still misgivings that participation processes take too long, that it's the vociferous people who get their way, that the outcome might be inferior to planning by experts, and finally experts or policymakers may have a secret fear that they themselves will no longer have much to decide. Another common fear is that a participation process may cause unrest: it could mean work or friction, that one would otherwise have been spared.

Among those commissioned to carry out such processes there is talk of possible half-heartedness that may be behind the placing of a contract for a participation process: the suspicion that it may be meant as a token gesture, purely to confirm what someone has already made their mind up about, or as a red herring to occupy critical individuals, or simply because “that's how these things are done nowadays”. But shilly-shallying during the process, whether because responsibilities are altered, agents are swapped around, perspectives or circumstances change, or “top brass” repeatedly interfere, can also mess the process up.

Talking to insiders reveals that participation processes are nothing like as well-established as one might assume. Why is that so?

Participation is troublesome

In connexion with participation processes many representatives of authorities assume that participation is something to be outsourced – their idea is that inside their organization everything can stay just as it is, with a participation process “stuck on at the end of the pipe“, I.e. on the fringe of things. Unfortunately that's not how it works: participation processes cannot but alter the path leading to a decision. To understand how that is, it helps a great deal to look at the account of participative and non-participative decision-making procedures given by Klaus Selle, a specialist in planning theory.

The process of traditional hierarchical decision-making, which Selle labels a “dead model”, is still widespread in large firms and administrations. Here decisions are prepared behind the scenes, taken internally and only then announced to those affected. If the result is then debated or criticized, those involved in reaching the decision have only one option: they must defend the decision as reached (which has in many cases involved plenty of hard work, and possibly complicated internal negotiations), since criticism of any kind would lead to delays and loss of face.

Attempts to incorporate more participation into procedures of this kind without changing the path to a decision, say by adding on a participation process after the decision has been reached, are bound to cause frustration, since there is really nothing left to decide. If this is not even explained to the general public, ordinary people and their efforts are not being taken seriously. An alternative would be to insert the participation process after the internal consultation phase, and to take a decision in the light of the outcome of the process. However, this will work only if the internal “decision box” is opened up, and both the route to be taken and the scope available for decision are communicated clearly.

Selle contrasts the “dead model” with an (idealized) cooperative model of reaching decisions with the following features. A wide range of participants are involved first in jointly gathering data on and analysing the existing situation, and then in collective consultation and in putting the decision into practice. Who actually takes the decision is not fixed a priori: it may be a collective decision, or it may be delegated to a particular department or individual. The important thing is that reasons are given both for this arrangement and for the content of the decision, and that the decision builds on the first two steps, gathering jointly and consulting collectively.

This approach lessens the burden of responsibility on decision makers, and is suitable for carrying out complex processes of negotiation in large groups.

Participation alters procedures

Comparing the two models, we see that participation cannot just be hitched to existing procedures as a kind of trailer. That is the central challenge to representatives of authorities: participation changes things!

For participation to work well, the timing must be right: the right steps must be taken at the right time and in the right order. As a rule, though, the steps in a participation process impinge on long-established administrative procedures that involve explicit and implicit rules which those involved have got thoroughly used to. Such procedures are extremely resistant to change; people regard them as unalterable – which obstructs or restricts the opportunities provided by a participation process. If taken seriously, participation alters the internal procedures in administrations or firms.

Participation changes company culture

In large organizations it is not the actual decision makers who take care of participation processes throughout, but co-workers lower down in the hierarchy, who have less scope for action and decision and who need to avoid risk as far as possible. Steep hierarchy structures thus make participation more difficult.

Participation stirs things up – let's allow that!

A proper participation process cannot simply be hitched to existing procedures and decision-making chains, while everything else is handled in the good old way; participation alters both the path to reaching a decision and the way people interact in the firm or administration concerned. Participation “outside” requires more participation within the administration / the company, and is thus a force for change as regards internal company culture! To manage such change successfully, reliable partners are needed on both sides (contractors and authorities), as are the courage to change things, trust and commitment, clear rules and an active communication strategy.
Changing company culture takes time, and is ultimately a step toward more democracy. So patience is needed, as is plenty of open debate.

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