Decision Making in PA: Citizen Participation
|Decision Making in Public Administration: Citizen Participation
A reoccurring theme in the field of public administration is that of allowing citizens to have a role in the process of decision making. Irvin and Stansbury (2004) wrote on whether this was worth the effort, noting that most scholars see only positive outcomes in community involvement, but that negative features of this idea must also be explored. They also quoted King, Feltey, and Susel (1998) who wrote that having an engaged community is better than having a passive community because actions will be geared more towards what is best for the population and issues pertaining to what they would like to address. Irvin and Stansbury (2004) wrote; however, that this comes with a cost.
The authors first look at the advantages of citizen involvement in decision making, which includes education, political suasion, empowerment, avoiding litigation costs, environmental management, and breaking gridlock (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004). To analyze these benefits, the authors use a tool that encompasses both the benefits (that include the processes and outcomes) and the beneficiaries (to include government and citizens) (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004).
The Advantages of Citizen Participation
Education benefits include well-informed citizens. Irvin and Stansbury wrote that “it is assumed that more participants with a more sophisticated level of technical and social understanding will yield better policy decisions, and thus better social and environmental outcomes” (p 56). In a case study pertaining to citizen involvement in budget processing, authors Ebdon and Franklin wrote that citizen participation is a way to reduce distrust in the government and is a great way to inform the community about government issues and actions (Ebdon & Franklin, 2004).
Irvin and Stansbury’s idea of political suasion involves the notion of the government not having a sincere desire to make for a better informed public, but instead a desire to have a more accomodating and cooperative public. On the same note, this plan can backfire to an extent, because citizen participation allows the public to voice its opinions in a nonconfrontational environment, which can lead to a nonconforming environment (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004).
In the Department of Economic and Social Affair’s citizen participation source by the United Nations, Wampler and Avritzer are quoted writing that some argue that connecting people directly to decision-making processes in the state allows for a conduit to assess citizen concerns and needs (United Nations, 2005). Thus, Irvin and Stansbury quote Reich (1990) who wrote that, “in such cases, a participatory initiative can vastly improve social outcomes, as balanced input from citizen participants allows factions to compromise and find solutions to previously intractable problems” (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004, p 57).
Public participation can be essentially cost-effective in that it may reduce litigation, and environmentally friendly in that environmental policy formation can allow citizens to inform regulators of possible public backlash (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004). Apart from the advantages of public participation, the methods used to allow for such participation come with advantages and disadvantages as well.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Participation Mechanisms
Ebdon and Franklin wrote that each method of public participation has its own strengths and weaknesses. Citizen surveys have been used to assess needs and satisfaction levels of the population and has been shown to pinpoint trends over time. However, aside from being somewhat costly, this tool cannot fully measure the intensity of an opinion and questions may be written in a way that can manipulate the respondent. Further, the public may not be well-informed enough to answer the questions in the first place (Ebdon & Franklin, 2004).
Public meetings have also been conducted to allow for communication on an issue, but again, disadvantages follow with this participation mechanism as well. Attendance is often low, the needs of the community as a whole cannot fully be addressed, and participants may not be well-enough informed (Ebdon & Franklin, 2004).
Lastly, the authors write that “citizen advisory committees allow members to develop expertise in an area, but can require more time and effort by city administrators and participants, and may not be representative of the community” (Ebdon & Franklin, 2004, p 34).
The Disadvantages of Citizen Participation
Irvin and Stansbury then looked at the disadvantages of citizen involvement in decision making, which includes cost, the difficulty of diffusing citizen goodwill, complacency, representation, lack of authority, the power of wrong decisions, and persistant selfishness (Irvin and Stansbury, 2004). The United Nations’ source also notes that there can be legal issues and unanswered questions as well (United Nations, 2005). Again, Irvin and Stansbury use a tool that encompasses both the benefits (that include the processes and outcomes) and the beneficiaries (to include government and citizens) (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004).
In reference to cost, the authors wrote that “the low end of the per-decision cost of citizen-participation groups is arguably more expensive than the decision making of a single agency administrator, even if the citizen participants’ time costs are ignored” (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004, p 58). Time is also an issue, as most decisions take long enough on their own as it is. Trying to convince a public forum to adopt a policy or make changes to it will only forlong the process (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004).
Irvin and Stansbury also noted that public participation may only be effective in encompassing the views of an entire community in a smaller rural area. When given a larger city, however, it is difficult and perhaps naïve to think that the small group of public participants can be representative of the community’s thinking as a whole (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004). Further, even if members of the community intend to participate, the actual number of those that show or respond to surveys is very low.
The demographic of those that are willling to participate must also be examined then, since it is such a low percent of the population. Irvin and Stansbury wrote that “because citizen participants are not paid for their time, committees may be dominated by strongly partisan participants whose livelihood or values are strongly affected by the decisions being made, or by those who live comfortably enough to allow them to participate regularly” (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004, p 59). This further illustrates how the views of the actual community may not fully be addressed or represented accurately.
Resentment may also be a consequence of public participation, even if it is hoped to have the opposite effect. If opinions are heard and are ignored or not implemented, this feeling may arise in those that have volunteered their time to striving for a cause. On the flipside, if policies are implemented, they may be due to the influence of extremists, who may be the only participants who care enough to show for a debate. Likewise, participants may have self-interests at heart and incentives may not be directly connected with the actual needs of the community (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004).
Citizen Participation – A Do or a Don’t?
After conducting their research in a case study in Wichita and Topeka, authors Ebdon and Franklin wrote that they did not find citizen participation to be effective in the cities. According to citizen participation literature, the authors wrote that the following criterion should be met:
“Input is representative of the community;
Opportunity is available for large numbers of citizens to participate;
Input occurs early in the process;
Sincere preference/willingness to pay is revealed;
Participation includes two-way communication between public and city officials;
and input is considered in decisions” (Ebdon & Franklin, 2004, p 45).
In their discussion, they wrote that if public participation is to occur, it should be early in the process and should include a two-way dialogue. The greatest benefit they saw was the education results that the community benefited from. None of the participation methods listed in the previous section met all of the criterion listed above (Ebdon & Franklin, 2004).
Authors Irvin and Stansbury listed ideal conditions for citizen participation, which include low-cost indicators, like citizens readily volunteering for projects that benefit their community, and high-benefit indicators, like the group facilitator having high credibility among all representatives (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004).
The authors also listed non-ideal conditions for citizen participation, which include high-cost indicators, like the public not recognizing the issue at hand as a problem, and low-benefit indicators, like the decisions of the group likely being the same as decisions produced by the government entity (Irvin & Stansbury, 2004).
After examining both the advantages and disadvantages of citizen participation in public admistration decision making, I feel as if there should be an outlet for citizen opinions, but also feel like most of the representative population of the community does not care enough to be fully involved in the process.
When looking at the non-ideal conditions for citizen participation, it seems as if it would only be a waste to employ community members in the process and would take too much time and effort to only achieve the same results as if there was no participation. At the same time; however, I do feel that educating the public would be of value and issues would be more geared towards the general benefits of the public.
Thus, I believe that citizens should not be directly involved in decision making, but that administrators should base their decisions on the needs and wants of the community – through whatever outlet is chosen for citizens to participate. I think that the most effective mechanism of citizen participation is one that allows for face-to-face conversations and debates.
Ebdon, C., Franklin, A. (2004). Searcing for a Role for Citizens in the Budget Process. Public
Budgeting & Finance, 32-48.
Irvin, R., Stansbury, J. (2004). Citizen Participation in Decision Making: Is it Worth the Effort?
Public Administration Review, 64(1), 55-65.
United Nations (2005). Citizen Participation and Pro-poor Budgeting. Department of Economic
and Social Affairs, 3-10.