Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Question of Participation: Toward Authentic Public Participation in Public Administration

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Question of Participation: Toward Authentic Public Participation in Public Administration

Article excerpt

The appropriate role of the public in public administration has been an active and ongoing area of inquiry, experimentation, revolution, and controversy since the birth of this nation. The contemporary movement to examine the role of the public in the process of administrative decision making has come about in response to problems in the latter half of this century and as a result of concern on the part of citizens, administrators, and politicians over citizen discouragement and apathy (Box, 1996; Putnam, 1995; Timney, 1996; Thomas, 1995). As both citizens and their leaders have noticed, "participation through normal institutional channels has little impact on the substance of government politics" (Crosby, Kelly, and Schaefer, 1986, 172).

Many citizens, administrators, and politicians are interested in increasing public participation in public decisions. Efforts to do so are currently underway across the country. However, there is considerable evidence to suggest that these efforts are not effective (Crosby, Kelly, and Schaefer, 1986; Kathlene and Martin, 1991; Kweit and Kweit, 1981, 1987; Parsons, 1990). Some efforts appear to be ineffective because of poor planning or execution. Other efforts may not work because administrative systems that are based upon expertise and professionalism leave little room for participatory processes (deLeon, 1992; Fisher, 1993; Forester, 1989; White and McSwain, 1993).

The question of how to engender effective and satisfying participation processes is the central issue in this research. Our findings indicate that effective, or authentic, public participation implies more than simply finding the right tools and techniques for increasing public involvement in public decisions. Authentic public participation, that is, participation that works for all parties and stimulates interest and investment in both administrators and citizens, requires rethinking the underlying roles of, and relationships between, administrators and citizens.

In the first section of this article we examine the question of the necessity or desirability of more effective participation by reviewing the literature in U.S. public administration and identifying the relevant contemporary issues for both administrators and citizens. The current model of the participation process is presented and critiqued in the second section, using the concept of authentic participation as a starting point for moving toward more effective participatory processes. We then turn to identifying the barriers to effective participation as seen by our research participants. Strategies for overcoming the barriers are discussed, and implications for the practice of public administration and citizenship are suggested in the last section. Following a grounded theory model (Strauss and Corbin, 1990), this article is organized around the themes that emerged from the literature review, interviews, and focus group discussions (see the Methodology Box).

The Necessity or Desirability of More Effective Participation

The role of participation in public administration has historically been one of ambivalence. Although the political system in the United States is designed to reflect and engender an active citizenry, it is also designed to protect political and administrative processes from a too-active citizenry. It is within this context that participation in the administrative arena has traditionally been framed.

In recent times, interest in public participation in administrative decision making has increased as a result of a number of factors, not the least of which is that a citizenry with diminished trust in government is demanding more accountability from public officials (Parr and Gates, 1989). There is also a growing recognition on the part of administrators that decision making without public participation is ineffective. As Thomas indicates, "the new public involvement has transformed the work of public managers. …

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