Features: June 30th, 2006

Does Participation work?

By Ben Page

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

Since 1997, government has undertaken a wide range of reforms which seek to ensure more citizen-focused public services and which build accountability. Examples include forcing all local authorities to consult residents much more than previously (for example via obligatory surveys of users such as the BVPI, compulsory regular surveys of user and citizen opinion), and encouragement of user involvement and local area governance of all types. In regeneration, the SRB and NDC initiatives have consciously sought to empower and involve local communities. And area governance initiatives, for example ward subcommittees, local area forums and so on, have been promoted widely by and for local government.

So does it work? The evidence is mixed. Satisfaction with local government fell in between 1997 and 2003 as this raft of reform was introduced, although on closer examination this fall was not due to more engagement (most of the population did not notice) but, rather, higher council taxes and worsening street scene services.

Those who aspire to greater public involvement need to be mindful that they are running in the face of some very strong currents flowing in the opposite direction, including a deep-rooted decline in participation in many aspects of civic and political involvement. While some forms of civic action have increased, such as action around individual issues, participation in the main structures of British democracy has declined. Fewer people have voted in elections this decade (61% in 2005, compared with over 70% throughout the past five decades), and traditional networks and organizations through which citizens pro-actively engage with the political system have also declined, such as trade unions, political parties and town council meetings (Smith, 2005).

Why is it that some area-based initiatives or services aiming to boost engagement continue to face recruitment and retention problems and have failed to widen participation beyond traditional ‘activists’ who are often existing community leaders or political activists (University of Bradford, 2004)? Many fail to give real power to local people. For example, in the health sector, PPI forums have failed to attract a representative membership, or to have made much real impact on decision-making, and the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health established in 2003 to support these has now been abolished. In addition, in regeneration, it has been found that while policy is very much underpinned by an emphasis on community involvement, in practise local partnership boards have tended to attract those who are already active locally. Citizen representatives have often found themselves marginalized in the decision-making process due to the domination of the existing institutional stakeholders on the board, and unable to set the agenda (Smith, 2005).

In essence, the problem seems fourfold:

• Elected representatives and managers sometimes only pay lip service to service user engagement.

•The problem of scalability—most known examples of successful user engagement involve only a tiny percentage of users or the public.

•The paradox that the public wants to be listened to but is generally less willing to become ‘empowered’ in the full sense, partly due to perceptions of a lack of efficacy of many existing modes of engagement, but also because what is offered is not seen as particularly relevant.

•The fact that because of these challenges, the easiest way to get people to become engaged in service delivery is for negative reasons—not positive ones.

Letting Go of Power

A key challenge is that elected representatives and managers find it difficult to let go of influence, as this challenges the traditional top-down model of officer professionalism and of the legitimacy of elected representatives. For it to be meaningful to the public, new models of empowerment have to involve them not just in having a voice, and being allowed a say, but in something happening as a result. In contrast, in consultation over the new CPA for example, local government chief executives are already confident that they have been successful in involving users (86%—2004 MORI/LGA survey).

Capture by the ‘Usual Suspects’

Some local authority chief executives now feel that the focus on involving users has already gone too far, and that it will be difficult to empower everyone, rather than just the few who wish to get involved. There are concerns that real empowerment carries the risk of activists, who are themselves unrepresentative of the community, exerting as much or more influence than elected councillors. Notwithstanding the fact that in most councils, only a very small minority of the population actually voted for the ruling party, these perceptions are common place among managers and members in local government.

Scaling Achievements Up

Even where there is political and managerial will for change, there is the problem of how one can systematize and scale the types of involvement that are working. Existing initiatives designed to empower communities as a whole often struggle to involve more than a few tens or hundreds, out of a population of hundreds of thousands. Even major initiatives, like Birmingham’s devolution of service delivery to much smaller ‘district’ councils, have passed most of the city’s residents by—only around one in five have heard of it, and very few know much about it. And awareness of area forums is often much lower—for example in September 2005, awareness of Hammersmith’s Area Committees was at 7% of the public.

For empowerment mechanisms to work, even those that seek only to give the public more voice, it seems highly likely that services will need to invest much more resource in marketing and advertising channels by which people can have a say (and raising expectations in the process). They then need to make the process effective; this means, for the public, doing things like sending minutes and action points to all participants, with a clear statement of what is happening next, how to find out more and so on. Without this, even where there is initial enthusiasm for new methods, it often rapidly drains away. In one London borough, a structure for empowering tenants via regular meetings started with hundreds at the first meeting, tens and the second, and now involves the same 13 people.

Lack of Public Interest

Looking at the problem from the public’s perspective, we are faced with a paradox: the public feels it ought to be listened to more, but many are not interested in putting in the time and energy that might be needed for them to be ‘fully’ empowered.

Those who are willing to get involved are often demographically unrepresentative. Some of this general lack of willingness to be involved is due to a perceived lack of efficacy and perceived relevance, but not all of it. Even when mechanisms are in place for the public to get fully involved, many will not take it. The public berate local government for not listening—it is one of its strongest image characteristics for the public. But despite wanting to be heard, the public mostly do not vote in local elections—and numerous efforts to boost even the one-off act of voting have had relatively little impact. MORI’s work for the Electoral Commission has highlighted the reason—it is not so much the methodology of voting that is the problem, but rather its perceived efficacy as a means of changing things. So while postal voting encourages some who are more or less interested in local politics to participate, it does nothing for those who simply see it as irrelevant.

Although there are some good examples, many efforts to involve the public fail at the first hurdle. They fail the public’s yardstick of efficacy. The public, unlike some policy-makers, does not see—or realize— that involvement may be a ‘good’ in its own right, leading to more fulfilled lives and so on (there is evidence that those who take part in collective activity of all types live longer, are happier and healthier, even that volunteering improves one’s sex life!).

Typical responses when we have looked at why people might decide not to participate in a particular forum include: ‘Oh yes, they have those things at the church hall every month…but hardly anyone goes’; and ‘What’s the point? Nothing ever happened. They always say they don’t have enough money’.

As well as the question of efficacy, there is also a problem of relevance. Even if people believe that getting involved might make a difference, they have to care enough to do so. For example, MORI worked with Westminster City Council in 2003, to look at empowering local communities to manage their local library service. The intention was that rather than just involve ‘friends’ groups—a traditional model for parks, libraries, and various other local government services—there would be library boards for each library, not just of those interested enough to get involved, but of a cross-section of local people, recruited carefully at random from the population, paid an allowance for attending one to two hour meetings that would decide policy on which books to stock, and have the power to affect opening hours and so on. This failed after the first few meetings when it became apparent that, despite incentives, a representative cross-section of the community, despite all professing an interest in the service, were themselves unable or unwilling to meet regularly—only mostly older white people— unrepresentative of some of the more diverse parts of Westminster—were willing to keep attending, despite being paid to do so.

This highlights the key challenge: even when engagement or empowerment is offered, not everyone will want to take it.

The Paradox of ‘Negative’ Empowerment

A key issue is that poor services, or major quality of life problems or ‘threats’, do most to generate involvement. Offering to build a paedophile hostel in an area will excite much more ‘empowerment’ and ‘engagement’ than consulting over the book stock policy of local libraries.

There is an inverse correlation between satisfaction with the authority and one’s desire for greater involvement. A good example of this is Hackney. It is no longer the worst authority in Britain. As it has improved, so the proportion of its residents who wish to be more involved with local services has fallen dramatically.

What To Do

There is plenty of evidence that more user involvement is a good thing, but expectations that everyone will want to be involved are wildly optimistic. Public services need to be much more realistic about how effective their involvement programmes are in reaching the mass of local residents, and remember that for many, good communications will be as or more important. Similarly, thinking of the future, making local councillors more effective by giving them proper administrative support to act as community advocates might help as much as simply adding in more poorly-funded local ‘community structures’.


Smith, G. (2005), Beyond the Ballot, 57 Democratic Innovations from Around the World (The Power Inquiry).

University of Bradford/Active Partners Unit of the Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Forum November (2004), Usual Suspects or Community Leaders— What’s the Difference? (On-line discussion paper

Ben Page is Managing Director, Public Affairs and Chairman, Social Research Institute Ipsos – MORI. http://www.mori.com