What Constitutes Effective Citizen Participation in Local Government? Views from City Stakeholders

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Citizen participation in local government has been advocated as a way to enhance communication between government and citizens, build public support for local government goals, and develop public trust in government (Wang, 2001). However, research has shown increased citizen input can alternatively lead to a variety of perceived negative consequences such as increased staff work load, additional resource allocation, increased levels of public scrutiny, negative media coverage and increased levels of apathy or distrust of government (Callahan, 2002). Thus not all participation efforts are equal in terms of their impact or outcomes. In considering the nature and scope of citizen participation, it is imperative to have some basis for understanding what constitutes effectiveness.

Arguments in favor of citizen participation are rooted in normative theory, and as a result, discussions of what constitutes "effective" participation are likewise normatively-based. Yet we should be equally (if not more) concerned with how the stakeholders of participation--practitioners, elected officials, and citizens--understand effective citizen participation. This article advances our understanding of citizen participation efforts in local government by offering a multi-dimensional conceptualization of effective citizen participation as articulated by those most directly involved in the process: elected officials, local government staff, and citizens. Perceptions of citizen participation in the local government budget process were captured through a series of forty telephone interviews in four cities across North Carolina. In addition to asking what key stakeholder groups mean by "effective" citizen participation, we also explore where these understandings converge and diverge. In other words, we examine to what extent expectations among the groups are different or similar.

FRAMING CITIZEN PARTICIPATION

Citizen participation in government is fundamental, as is the dispute over the extent and means participation. Daniel P. Monyihan (1969) argued that the maximum feasible participation goals of early anti-poverty efforts had actually resulted in maximum feasible misunderstanding. The experience of Community Action Programs in the 1960s and the controversy over how to define and implement the idea of participation by social program recipients led to a series of influential articles debating the basis for participation, which was widely interpreted at the time as a way to provide empowerment for low-income or minority populations (see, for example, Strange, 1972; Krause, 1968; Van Til & Van Til, 1970).

Current debates are no longer focused on class and power discussions prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, there seems to be widespread agreement in the field of public administration, as well as popular support for, the idea of creating more avenues to develop and foster citizen participation in local government (King, Feltey, & Susel, 1998; Bingham, Nabatchi, & O'Leary, 2005). There are now a multitude of resources available for designing citizen participation processes. (1) There is also a substantial amount written on civic attitudes toward government decisionmaking, rife with assumptions that participatory processes have the power to change these attitudes (Gastil and Levine, 2005).

Of course the idea of public participation is appealing, but perhaps more complicated than we imagine. Skelcher (2007) suggests we argue for democratic processes often without understanding if they actually improve public service performance. However, to understand if democratic processes actually improve public service performance, we need to define what we mean by improving performance; we need a definition of effectiveness. We find that a number of researchers are trying to define effectiveness, but none take their cue from stakeholders within the process itself.

Sherry Arnstein's classic ladder of citizen participation (1969) shapes much of discussion of participatory processes. …