Public Participation: Four Common Misconceptions

This is an abbreviated version of an article on the Intellitics blog. Read the full post here: Public Participation: Four Common Misconceptions

Based on my observations listening to the discussions around Open Government, the following four aspects of the term public participation tend to get easily and commonly confused:
1) Public participation applies strictly to decision making or (political) problem solving. Many citizen activities that are being referenced in the context of Open Government such as reporting potholes, building mash-ups using open government data, or helping NASA design better ways to lift small satellites into space are not considered public participation, at least not by this definition.
2) Public doesn’t necessarily mean everybody. Public here refers to a public, not the public. A public will usually be made up of those people affected by and those with an interest in a decision, a more or less carefully defined group that can be very large or fairly small. Furthermore, public participation processes can be applied just as well internally, inside organizations, behind closed doors.
3) Public participation comes with a wide range of expected participant impact. This one may be the most counter-intuitive of the four, but there will always be situations when all a decision maker can commit to is to share information or invite limited feedback at best. That’s why IAP2’s Spectrum of Public Participation (PDF) explicitly includes the public participation goals Inform and Consult, neither of which require the decision maker to incorporate any of the participants’ input. At the Consult level of public impact, for example, the convener only promises to “provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision” (technically, that influence may be minimal or zero).
4) Public participation is top-down, not bottom-up. Its success is critically dependent on a decision maker’s willingness and ability to initiate, lead and support a participation process from beginning to end.
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Let me know what you think.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

I definitely learned something here, Tim…particularly on #1. Can you point to a specific definition – and who sets that definition?

Tim Bonnemann

Here’s a couple of definitions:

For an interesting discussion around terms and definitions, see the comments on the original post:

At least in the US, the term “public participation” has gained broad acceptance among practitioners and academics over the past few decades.

Various other terms are sometimes used (e.g. citizen involvement, civic engagement, community engagement, community problem solving, choice creation etc.) which may or may not always mean the same.

There’s no authority that gets to decide, only traditions and conventions.