IURD Reprint Series
Reframing Public Participation: Strategies for the 21st Century
Innes, Judith E.
Booher, David E.
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University of California
Reframing Public Participation:
Strategies for the 21st Century
Judith E. Innes and David E. Booher
Institute of Urban and Regional Development
University of California at Berkeley
This article originally appeared in:
Planning Theory & Practice
Volume 5, No. 4, pp. 419â€“436
Â© 2004 Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, Ltd.
Reprinted by permission.
Planning Theory & Practice, Vol. 5, No. 4, 419â€“436, December 2004
Reframing Public Participation:
Strategies for the 21st Century
JUDITH E. INNES & DAVID E. BOOHER
ABSTRACT This article makes the case that legally required participation methods in the US not
only do not meet most basic goals for public participation, but they are also counterproductive,
causing anger and mistrust. Both theory and practice are dominated by ambivalence about the
idea of participation itself. Both struggle with dilemmas that make the problems seem insoluble,
such as the conflict between the individual and collective interest or between the ideal of
democracy and the reality that many voices are never heard. Cases are used to draw on an
emerging set of practices of collaborative public engagement from around the world to demonstrate how alternative methods can better meet public participation goals and how they make moot
most of the dilemmas of more conventional practice. Research shows that collaborative participation can solve complex, contentious problems such as budget decision making and create an
improved climate for future action when bitter disputes divide a community. Authentic dialogue,
networks and institutional capacity are the key elements. The authors propose that participation
should be understood as a multi-way set of interactions among citizens and other players who
together produce outcomes. Next steps involve developing an alternative practice framework,
creating forums and arenas, adapting agency decision processes, and providing training and
Introduction: Failures of Public Participation
It is time to face facts we know, but prefer to ignore. Legally required methods of public
participation in government decision making in the USâ€”public hearings, review and
comment procedures in particularâ€”do not work. They do not achieve genuine participation in planning or other decisions; they do not satisfy members of the public that they
are being heard; they seldom can be said to improve the decisions that agencies and
public officials make; and they do not incorporate a broad spectrum of the public. Worse
yet, these methods often antagonize the members of the public who do try to work with
them. The methods often pit citizens against each other, as they feel compelled to speak
of the issues in polarizing terms to get their points across. This pattern makes it even
more difficult for decision makers to sort through what they hear, much less to make a
choice using public input. Most often these methods discourage busy and thoughtful
individuals from wasting their time going through what appear to be nothing more than
rituals designed to satisfy legal requirements. They also increase the ambivalence of
planners and other public officials about hearing from the public at all. Nonetheless,
these methods have an almost sacred quality to them, and they stay in place despite all
that everyone knows is wrong with them.
Judith E. Innes, Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley, USA. Email: jinnes
@berkeley.edu. David E. Booher, FAICP, Center for Collaborative Policy, California State University Sacramento, USA
1464-9357 Print/1470-000X On-line/04/040419-18 Â© 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd
420 J. E. Innes & D. E. Booher
Pickles by Brian Crane
Figure 1 Â© 2002, The Washington Post Writers Group. Reprinted with permission.
In the meantime participation in the form of voting declines with each election in the
US, as voters are increasingly alienated from formal government. The public, as many
polls have shown, typically believes that government is unresponsive to their concerns
or, even more to the point, is responsive to special interests that fund increasingly
expensive campaigns (Nye et al., 1997). Formal, legally required participation methods
have not remedied the situation and may have aggravated it. Dissatisfaction with
government and public involvement is mirrored in the popular press as comic strips
poke fun at the participatory process. For example, the character in Figure 1 believes
voting on his favourite comic strip has more effect on his quality of life than voting in
Ambivalence in the Literature
A recent review article demonstrates that citizen participation in planning is a fundamentally contested concept in the literature (Day, 1997). Another says that the role of
participation has historically been ambivalent in public administration (King et al., 1998).
In US planning literature perhaps the most referenced article (Arnstein, 1969) contends
that the problem is that the public does not have enough power and measures the value
of participation in terms of a ladder of citizen power. Davidoffâ€™s much cited article
(Davidoff, 1965) articulates a role for advocacy planningâ€”essentially providing professional assistance to the disadvantaged groupsâ€”and, speaking in the language of
community organizing, also aims to increase the relative power of citizens. Much of the
other planning scholarship on participation in the US since then has been devoted to
discussing its problems (Baum, 1998; Hibbard & Lurie, 2000), how to improve it through
better techniques (Crosby et al., 1986; Denhardt & Denhardt, 2000; Kakabadse et al., 2003;
Rosener, 1982; Thomas, 1995; Watson et al., 1991) or through being more culturally
sensitive (Umemoto, 2001). However, even critics of participatory efforts (Tauxe, 1995)
stop short of directly challenging the public hearing or review and comment process as
methods. Most planning literature seems to assume the problem is just that we are not
using the methods correctly.
In contrast, in political science some theorists (Dahl, 1989) have argued that representative government by elites is appropriate and that direct (as opposed to indirect
through voting) participation is unworkable in the modern bureaucratic state. Others in
political science seem to have more respect for citizen capabilities and are working on
developing theories about deliberative democracy (Benhabib, 1996; Bohman, 1996, 1998;
Reframing Public Participation Strategies 421
Bohman & Rehg 1997; Dryzek, 1996; Gutman & Thompson, 1996). Their approach argues
for the value to democracy of public deliberation, but for the most part they leave open
the question of how such deliberation can function within existing democratic institutions at a sufficient scale to be a practical alternative.1 This literature largely ignores the
public hearing or indeed any of the methods that public agencies use for getting public
Public administration scholars fall somewhere between political science and planning
with some arguing for indirect participation, but with many agreeing that additional
direct participation is needed (Roberts, 1997). Most recently with the advent of the â€˜new
managerialismâ€™, which emphasizes running government like a business, relying heavily
on the principles of â€˜reinventing governmentâ€™ (Osborne & Gaebler, 1992), a debate has
emerged on whether to consider citizens to be customers or owners of government. The
former implies that the citizen is a passive recipient of services, and the job of the
manager is to provide for needs and wants efficiently. The latter is more like a
stockholder model where citizens set some direction, although not necessarily in a
hands-on way. Public administrators and scholars are at best ambivalent about participation, with many finding it problematic (Kettering Foundation, 1989).
Dilemmas of Practice
The literature on participation in the US is dominated by dilemmas, paradoxes and
ambivalence and the scare transferred to practitioners. Should citizens look after their
self-interest or after the collective interest? In theory they represent the community, but
de facto they speak for themselves. Should the planner or administrator apply collective
interest criteria or be swayed by vocal special interests? Citizens vote for representatives
of their interests so why do they need to keep being involved? The citizen as owner still
begs the question of whether the citizen role should be active and engaged or not. The
citizen as customer begs the question of citizen rights. Anyone can participate, but in
reality the powerful and the organized drown out other voices and succeed in private
deal-making processes. Planners and public officials may believe in democracy, but be
sceptical about participation (Gruber, 1987; Schumpeter, 1942). The more open the
process the more polarized an issue can become. Participation is the right thing to do,
but it causes delays, and if citizens are listened to, it may result in bad decisions.
Planners and administrators can be out of touch with communities and local knowledge,
but citizens can be out of touch with political and economic realities and long-term
considerations for a community or resource. Ultimately, Olsonâ€™s argument that the broad
but shallow interests represented by citizens will always be trumped by the narrow and
deep interests represented by organized groups suggests that this whole approach to
participation is doomed (Olson, 1965).
Purpose of the Article
When dilemmas dominate, it is time to reframe (Laws & Rein, 2003; Schon & Rein, 1994).
This article proposes to reframe the issue of participation based on what has been
learned from emerging practices around the world. These practices, this article argues,
make moot many of the dilemmas and have the potential to provide satisfaction to all
parties, even to serve the collective interest. Today we are trapped in seeing public
participation as involving citizens on the one hand and government on the other. This
simplistic duality underlies the debates and encourages adversarial participation. It also
means that we do not unpack the black box of â€˜citizensâ€™ or of â€˜governmentâ€™ nor integrate
422 J. E. Innes & D. E. Booher
other actors into the model. The dualist frame ignores the pluralist system, which
remains alive and well as â€˜special interestsâ€™ influence elected officials using their power,
money and access. Pluralism has a long tradition in US thought and practice, and is not
about to disappear no matter how much is done to strengthen these highly ritualized
participation procedures. The pluralist and participation models coexist uneasily in
theory and practice. The first lacks legitimacy with citizens, but is often effective, and the
second is seldom effective, but has considerably more legitimacy.
After detailing some of the pathologies of legally required participation methods in
the US, the article will draw on practices that are emerging, not only in the US but also
around the world, to propose a new way of conceptualizing participation and engaging
the public in planning. This model is built on collaboration in many forms. In the
contemporary context of growing complexity and rapid change, civic leaders, interest
groups, citizens and even government itself are creating new venues for dialogue and
pulling together stakeholders to address difficult problems (Bryson & Crosby, 1993;
Hajer, 2004; Innes & Booher, 2003). While collaborative participation remains the
exception rather than the rule in the US, there is enough experience, theory and
documentation from both the US and elsewhere to provide insight into an alternative
The proposal here is that participation must be collaborative and it should incorporate
not only citizens, but also organized interests, profit-making and non-profit organizations, planners and public administrators in a common framework where all are
interacting and influencing one another and all are acting independently in the world as
well. This is not one-way communication from citizens to government or government to
citizens. It is a multi-dimensional model where communication, learning and action are
joined together and where the polity, interests and citizenry co-evolve.
The central contention is that effective participatory methods involve collaboration,
dialogue and interaction. They are inclusive. They are not reactive, but focused on
anticipating and defining future actions. They are self-organizing both in content and
membership. They challenge the status quo and ask hard questions about things
otherwise taken for granted. They seek agreement or at least build shared knowledge
and heuristics for collaborative action (Innes & Booher, 2003). This framework is not
based on the mechanistic imagery of citizens pushing on government, but on the
complex systems imagery of a fluid network of interacting agents, gathering information
from each other and the environment and acting autonomously based on their needs,
understandings, and shared heuristics (Axelrod & Cohen, 1999; Kelly, 1997). This system
can be adaptive instead of stalemated. It can build societal capacity and produce
innovative responses to seemingly intractable problems. It can move us beyond the
current dilemmas of practice and scholarship.
Purposes for Participation
Five purposes can be identified that encompass most of the claims usually made to
justify participation. One is for decision makers to find out what the publicâ€™s preferences
are so these can play a part in their decisions. A second is to improve decisions by
incorporating citizensâ€™ local knowledge into the calculus. Both purposes are increasingly
important as government gets larger and more distant from its constituencies. Public
participation has a third purpose of advancing fairness and justice. There are systematic
reasons why the needs and preferences of many groups, particularly the least advantaged, are not recognized through the normal information sources and analytic proce-
Reframing Public Participation Strategies 423
dures. These needs may only come onto the radar screen during an open participation
process. A fourth purpose is that public participation is about getting legitimacy for
public decisions. If a planner can say â€œWe held a dozen public hearings and reviewed
hundreds of comments and everyone who wanted to had a chance to say his pieceâ€, then
whatever is decided is, at least in theory, democratic and legitimate. Last, but not least,
participation is something planners and public officials do because the law requires it.
This article contends that most of these purposes, other than the last one, are not being
met with the legally required methods that are pervasive across the US. Collaborative
practices appear to better address many of these purposes. Experience with these
emerging methods suggests that a sixth and seventh purpose for participation can be to
build civil society and to create an adaptive, self-organizing polity capable of addressing
wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973) in an informed and effective way.
Participation in the US
Several techniques are nearly ubiquitous in the US, most of which are enshrined in law
as required â€˜stepsâ€™ in a public decision process. These include public hearings, written
public comments on proposed projects, as in environmental review, and the use of
citizen-based commissions, such as planning and zoning commissions, and boards of
directors for public agencies with quasi judicial, and/or quasi legislative power along
with advisory committees and task forces, The hearing and public comment processes
tend to be formalistic, one-way communication from members of the public to the
agency or elected officials. The ordinary citizen is most likely to participate in public
hearings in local arenas, where their interests are most clearly affected and where they
are most knowledgeable. Typically these procedures are used after plans or decisions
have been proposed, often in some detail. The citizen role is to react.
Citizen bodies do permit multi-way communication to some degree among their
members prior to any plan or decision being made. The bodies that have quasi-legislative or judicial power typically use Robertâ€™s Rules of Order (1990) to frame and limit their
own discussion to a series of motions and formal debate over these rather than a more
free flowing dialogue. They usually hold public hearings, where they get citizen
reactions to their proposals. Task forces and advisory committees can be informal and
allow for more dialogue, at least among themselves. The biggest problem from the
perspective here is that all of these bodies are, more often than not, made up of elites,
and not representative of a range of interests and voices. Although these groups can
provide valuable citizen input to public decisions, all too often the appointment of a task
force is regarded by the public as a way of burying an issue. Unfortunately, there has
been little or no systematic recent research on how these bodies work as ways of
involving citizens in government. Thus most of the discussion here will be devoted to
the more formal procedural requirements.
In many states so-called â€˜open meetingâ€™ requirements have become integral to participation. In California the 1953 Brown Act for local bodies and the 1967 Bagley Keene Act
for state bodies and in the US the 1972 Federal Advisory Council Act (FACA) created
rules essentially making it illegal for public officials to meet privately to discuss public
issues. All these bodies must publish agendas days ahead of time and follow them in the
meeting. These â€˜sunshine lawsâ€™ are designed to assure transparency in government and
give citizens the chance to be informed and aware so they can comment appropriately.
It is not clear whether these laws have had the intended effect of getting rid of backroom
deal-making, but it is clear that they constrain officials from engaging in timely and
424 J. E. Innes & D. E. Booher
detailed deliberation around complex issues (Bohman, 1996; Boxer-Macomber, 2003) or
in using self-organizing collaborative dialogue.
In practice these formal procedures work in perverse ways. Public hearings typically are
attended primarily, if not uniquely, by avid proponents and opponents of a measure
affecting them personally, by representatives of organized interest groups, and by a
handful of diehard board watchers. Two- or three-minute time limits are often placed on
speakers, with equal time for the highly informed or the person whose livelihood is at
issue as for the rambling fellow who has little knowledge but enjoys the sound of his
own voice. Citizens have to stand below the stage where board/commission members
sit. They can speak only on the topic defined in the agenda. The programme typically
does not allow for interchange, although occasionally a board member may ask a
question. Citizens have no entitlement to answers to their questions. It is not surprising
that citizens normally speak at public hearings only when much is at stake for them or
when they have a passionate belief about an issue.
The board members, for their part, may make it abundantly clear that they are not
paying attention, talking among themselves, reading materials or even leaving the room
during the public comment period. While this behaviour can be criticized as defeating
the purpose of public involvement, it is a rational reaction to the situation where public
comments are likely to be sound bites, extreme statements or the same refrain over and
over. If the preponderance of public comments is on one side or another of an issue, this
may sway the board members, despite their recognition that it may not represent a
cross-section of the community, because they see that the group is capable of organizing
and pressuring decision makers. If the comments go in opposite directions, the board
has no way to learn the reasons nor resolve the differences.
Observers of public hearings have documented some of the perverse patterns of
discussion that occur in these settings. Thompson (1997) contends that a public hearing
is itself a â€˜frameâ€™ for a structure of expectations of behaviour and of interpretation of
what is said. The distribution of power is evident in the physical layout and the rules
for speaking. These differ from ordinary conversation, where speakers have equal
entitlements to bring up topics or to get responses. Citizens want to be listened to and
may express anger to get an audience riled up or make extreme statements. They often
speak in terms of war metaphors referring to â€˜battlesâ€™ and â€˜coming out in forceâ€™. They
cannot afford polite speech, which could be misinterpreted. They are engaged in
one-way communication with no opportunity to clarify.
Campbell & Marshall (2000) confirm Thompsonâ€™s findings, noting on the basis of their
interviews and observations of public hearings in Berkeley and Oakland California â€œin
all the meetings observed, there was a palpable sense of individuals feeling they were
engaged in a battleâ€. A local consultant told them that â€œIf you stay passive you become
a victimâ€ and a planning commissioner said â€œthere was no sense of â€˜â€¦ everyone
working together on the same problem â€¦ itâ€™s â€˜usâ€™ and â€˜youâ€™ â€. They found that planners
had concerns about the representativeness of the players and a sense that home owners
were able to define themselves as the community to the exclusion of tenants. Respondents believed that interests were working behind the scenes. A consultant working with
the poorest groups said, â€œWhoever is most persistentâ€”they will get the outcome they
desire â€¦ but thatâ€™s not whatâ€™s best. Money, relationships and deals, thatâ€™s what winsâ€.
Their respondents contended that large sections of society were disempowered by this
Reframing Public Participation Strategies 425
process. They also noted that planners were subject to a great deal of hostility as
â€˜bureaucratsâ€™ and that those working with disadvantaged groups felt planners were not
skilled in participation methods (pp. 329â€“333).
A study of public hearings on an environmental review of a proposal to build a waste
transfer station in Brooklyn New York researchers (Anonymous paper submitted to
Environment and Planning A, 2002) illustrates additional participation pathologies that
come from the inequality of power and information of citizens and public agencies.
Disadvantaged groups said they had not been notified and were unequally represented.
The lawyer from a real estate firm got a 10-minute response to his question whereas the
environmental group was referred to documents. The authors found that a dialogue
with other non-designated speakers was not permitted, even if their questions were
pertinent. Citizens could get no information about rejected alternatives and were
allowed only to react to the proposed site. They were told â€œThe proposal represents the
best design for the siteâ€. The focus was on technical data, and citizens who wanted to
speak of fairness and justice were ruled out of order. Officials would not change the
agenda in response to citizen requests to address the environmental impacts they
already suffered in their neighbourhood. The authors note that this situation was one of
â€œdistorted communicative actionâ€ due to the inequalities in treatment of speakers, lack
of muliti-way dialogue, and control of the agenda.
Review and Comment Procedures
Procedures for review and comment are common in the US. The federal government
issues regulations which do not become law until after a period of comment. In
environmental review potential impacts of a project are documented in a detailed
technical report. There are public hearings on the report, and comments are made in
writing by agencies, stakeholder groups and citizens and eventually published with
responses. If these reports use faulty data or assumptions, they may have to be revised.
Some comments may force project modifications. If a sponsoring agency balks at making
changes a lawsuit may force them to do so. Comments may come from all directions, but
there is no dialogue, and the procedures allow no way to resolve differences other than
the judgment of the sponsoring agency. Even though agency staff have to respond to
comments, they can be unresponsive or dismissive. They may declare comments off
point, just as in public hearings. The citizen does not know who wrote the responses,
much less have the opportunity to confront the individual or have an interchange on the
topic. On the other hand, well-funded interest groups are capable of making comments
that get responses because they know the law and they are capable of bringing lawsuits.
Comment processes are difficult to learn about and not readily accessible to the ordinary
citizen. Commentors do not have an opportunity to discuss or resolve issues among
The Consequences of Flawed Participation
Experiences with flawed participation can lead to lawsuits, wars at the ballot box and
stalemates. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, a social movement of environmentalists and transit users formed to challenge the Metropolitan Transportation Commissionâ€™s (MTC) planning. They packed public hearings, held media events and
pressured the agency. They held up federal certification of MTCâ€™s planning process
(Innes & Gruber, 2001, pp. 325â€“335) for more than a year. Environmental groups rely
426 J. E. Innes & D. E. Booher
heavily on the opportunity to file lawsuits as a way to cause unacceptable delays to
developers or to hold up public projects they deem environmentally unfriendly. For
example, widening of Interstate 80 in the Bay Area was held up for years by a lawsuit
contending that MTC was not meeting requirements of the Clean Air Act. No dialogue
or problem solving took place while the freeway congestion just worsened. Farming
interests in Californiaâ€™s Central Valley have held up water management and habitat
conservation planning through lawsuits because they felt their voices had not been
heard in earlier processes.
In response to the failures of participation, public agencies increasingly employ
techniques of education and outreach. For example, MTC sends out newsletters and
holds workshops with presentations on what the agency has been doing about transportation problems. Staff appear on TV and radio and employ professionals to conduct
public information campaigns (Innes & Gruber, forthcoming). These are one-way processes from the agency to the community, designed to say â€˜We are doing a great jobâ€™
rather than actual participation though many agencies list such techniques as participation. While education of the public is essential it is not participation if it does not
include the education of the agency.
Many of the new participation models have been created in response to the anger of
citizens (Susskind & Field, 1996), to deadlock over issues (Susskind & Cruikshank, 1987)
or to leadersâ€™ initiatives (Bryson & Crosby, 1992; Chrislip & Larson, 1994). These
approaches differ from legal participation requirements in the US in that they are
inclusive of stakeholders and that dialogue is at their core. These seek to address the
interests of all, allowing time for these to be explored. Participantsâ€”public agencies,
powerful private interests, and disadvantaged citizensâ€”are treated equally within the
discussions. In these processes learning takes place, and sometimes conflicts are resolved
and innovations emerge (Connick & Innes, 2003; Healey, 1993, 1997). The process is one
of give and take and joint problem solving (Straus, 2002) so long as best practices are
followed (Lowry et al., 1997; Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, 1997;
Susskind et al., 1999).
For example, administrative rule making for the environment in the US has been
highly contentious, with agencies proposing rules and industries or environmental
groups challenging them in court or Congress. Creating a rule could take decades, and
it might not produce the desired outcomes. Instead of proposing regulations and waiting
for comments, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to pull together
stakeholders, including representatives of the regulated industry, of the consumers and
of the larger public to jointly recommend regulations (Susskind & MacMahon, 1985). The
EPA discovered such collaborative dialogues could often work out a rule satisfactory to
all (Ryan, 2001; Weber & Khademian, 1997).
One of the biggest issues in participation is information, who controls it and whether
it is trustworthy (Hanna, 2000). In collaborative participation joint fact finding is
conducted in which the parties can question data (Ozawa, 1991) and present their own.
Citizens and stakeholders have information that can improve the quality of decisions
(Fischer, 1993, 2002). For example, in a water planning process in Sacramento, California
(Connick & Innes, 2003), stakeholders uncovered a massive error in a federal agencyâ€™s
calculation of available water and forced much more accurate modelling. Fisheries
Reframing Public Participation Strategies 427
scientists have discovered that the fishersâ€™ knowledge is crucial to an effective management process (Wilson, unknown date).
Budgeting is increasingly a focus for collaborative dialogues. In conventional budgeting citizens and interests make demands, but are not accountable for where the money
will come from. Dialogues enable them to see what the trade-offs are and work through
the choices (Yankelovich, 1991). In processes in Eugene, Oregon and Sacramento,
California, citizens were engaged through workshops and community surveys in making choices for spending and revenue producing (Weeks, 2000). These led to agreements
that were otherwise politically impossible. Davis, California faced a multimillion-dollar
budget deficit after voters rejected a tax increase. Some proposed targeted budget cuts,
others across-the-board cuts, while others pushed for a modified tax increase. In
response, the City Council appointed a Citizen Budget Commission composed of
proponents of cuts and of taxes.2 The Commission engaged leaders from city departments, along with representatives of seniors, youth, conservationists, recreational interests, taxpayers, unions and business. They all interacted in a joint learning process about
the cityâ€™s budget, programmes, practices and services. Unanimous agreement was
reached on a proposal crafted by the Commission and participants and ratified by the
Collaborative participation has defused racial tensions and built social capital. For
example, in 2001 riots broke out in Cincinnatiâ€™s Over the Rhine neighbourhood after a
black man was killed by a policeman. A year-long set of facilitated dialogues involving
all the stakeholders, including the police, city agencies and hundreds of citizens, resulted
in a historic agreement for how to proceed. This process has so changed the climate and
practices that when a similar incident took place in 2003, the Mayor immediately
released a videotape of the incident and called together stakeholders. Trust had been
built and channels of communication were open so that no riots or protests took place.
Various forms of collaboration are recommended for community problem solving (de
Sousa Briggs, 2003; Potapchuk & Polk, 1992) because they help to build social and
More than 20 Collaborative Regional Initiatives (CRI) (http://www.calregions.org/)
in California have been working for the last few years to build civic capacity. These
clusters of linked stakeholders have focused on improving the economy and the
environment in their regions through collaboration on projects filling in vacuums where
government is not acting. For example, the Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Communities has spent six years in dialogues among economic, environmental and equity
stakeholders over how to have smart and equitable growth. They have agreed on a set
of principles and practices and are working with civic leadership to change opinions
about what makes for good growth patterns. Dozens, if not hundreds, of cases of
collaborative processes have been documented on topics from affordable housing,
hazardous waste, resource management to ethnic conflict and building civil society
(Chrislip, 2002; Connick, 2003; Fung & Wright, 2003; Innes et al., 1994; Susskind et al.,
1999; Thomson, 2001).
Experiments in collaborative dialogue abound as well in Europe. For example, in
Portugal and Sweden, Local Agenda 21 has resulted in new forums for local stakeholders who have built social, intellectual and political capital (Khakee, 2002; Vasconcelos et
al., 2002). In Italy, experiments in participatory planning increased satisfaction (Balducci,
1999). In the UK it has been said that collaborative processes constitute new governance
forms (Healey, 1999). A recent paper published by the UKâ€™s Deputy Prime Minister, after
extensive research on practice, recommends reforming the planning system to assure all
428 J. E. Innes & D. E. Booher
parts of the community have their voices heard through consensus building and
participatory engagement (UK Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2003).
Keys to Success: Dialogue, Networks and Institutional Capacity
Much of the reason for these successes is what has been called the transformative power
of dialogue (Roberts, 2002a; Yankelovich, 1999; Forester, 1999, pp. 115â€“153). When an
inclusive set of citizens can engage in authentic dialogue where all are equally empowered and informed and where they listen and are heard respectfully and when they are
working on a task of interest to all, following their own agendas, everyone is changed.
They learn new ideas and they often come to recognize that othersâ€™ views are legitimate.
They can work through issues and create shared meanings as well as the possibility of
joint action. They can learn new heuristics. This power of dialogue was amply demonstrated in a research experiment called Choice Work Dialogues, which the authors
observed. Randomly selected citizens met in groups of 30 for a dialogue on growth
policy in San Diego. These people, over the course of a day, talking only to each other
and following the principles above, started by opposing growth and ended by agreeing
that regional management was needed. They also came to see themselves as people who
could make a difference as their end-of-the day testimonials made clear (Yankelovich,
Collaborative processes also build networks. The one outcome participants almost
universally cited (Innes et al., 1994) was that they built new professional and personal
relationships. They came to understand each otherâ€™s perspectives and in most cases build
considerable trust. This social capital translated into new networks that they could and
did use for many other issues outside the collaborative process (Innes & Connick, 1999).
These networks often proliferated as participants learned the power of the processes and
transmitted the ideas and practices to associates. Booher & Innes (2002) have argued that
this phenomenon creates a new form of power as players develop shared heuristics and
as information flows through the network and results in new forms of distributed,
Finally collaborative, networked processes contribute to building what Healey and
others have called institutional capacity, which is a combination of social, intellectual
and political capital (Cars et al., 2002; Chaskin, 2001; Gruber, 1994; Khakee, 2002). As this
capital grows and spreads through collaboration into interlocking circles and networks,
the civic capacity of a society grows and participants become more knowledgeable and
competent, and believe more in their ability to make a difference. In a study of four Los
Angeles community collaborations, for example, researchers found citizens became more
competent, increased their expectations for services, and were no longer seen by agency
staff as â€˜unreasonableâ€™ or â€˜irrationalâ€™ but rather as an experienced group to be reckoned
with (Mandell, 1999). In a Brookings study of civic infrastructure researchers found
similarly that â€œIn Cleveland a multifaceted and overlapping network of CDCâ€™s urban
development funds, and foundations fosters a vibrant market place for community
development projectsâ€ and brings in massive private funding, whereas in another
comparable city where a major foundation dominates and a third where the public
sector dominates, far less funding has been generated. The study attributes the contrast
to the relative strength of their community building institutions (Bogart, 2003).
A New Paradigm for Participation
Instead of seeing participation as citizens and government in a formal, at most two-way,
Reframing Public Participation Strategies 429
interaction where citizens react to proposals from government, this article contends that
participation should be seen as a muliti-way interaction in which citizens and other
players work and talk in formal and informal ways to influence action in the public
arena before it is virtually a foregone conclusion. This framing is based on the observation first that governance is no longer only about government but now involves fluid
action and power distributed widely in society. The authors share Hajer & Wagenaarâ€™s
view that â€œA new range of political practices has emerged between institutional layers
of the state and between state institutions and societal organizationsâ€ (2003, p. 1).
Effective participation requires a systems perspective that supports and builds on the
interactions among public sector agencies, non-profits, business organizations, advocacy
groups and foundations which make up the complex evolving reality of contemporary
This framing is also based on extensive research, such as that cited above, which
demonstrates that when the conditions for authentic dialogue are met, genuine learning
takes place; trust and social capital can be built; the quality, understanding and
acceptance of information can be increased; jointly developed objectives and solutions
with joint gain can emerge; and innovative approaches to seemingly intractable problems can be developed (Innes & Booher, 1999b; Innes, 2004). Even when the conditions
are not all met, social capital and trust begin to develop through inclusion, deliberation,
social learning and co-operation (Bloomfield et al., 2001). These in turn can lay the
foundation for further outcomes. At the very least results are more satisfactory in terms
of the objectives of participation than the polarization and anger that so often emerges
from non-collaborative methods.
Finally, this framing is based on the reality of the globalized network society (Castells,
1996). In contemporary times hierarchical authority is increasingly less effective. Instead,
authority and power are fragmented, and information flows through networks. If actors
have worked collaboratively they are able to develop shared heuristics, joint objectives
and shared knowledge and meanings. These provide the basis for building and maintaining new networks which create their own forms of power and action (Booher &
Innes, 2002). In the model citizens must be part of such networks and thus be part of the
The new model does not look much like the one enshrined in US institutions. This is
a model where citizens participate in public choice and action in many arenas. They
participate as individuals or through representatives of their interests. All sectors of the
community are represented rather than just the most organized or the angriest or those
with the narrowest interests. If this dialogue is done well, even when someone does not
like the final result they may accept the fairness of the decision if they have had some
impact on the final package. They can see what their impact is because of the transparency of the dialogue and openness of the conclusions (Roberts, 2002b). In Davis, for
example, the final budget proposal, which would not have been acceptable to almost
anyone prior to the dialogue, was widely accepted by all parties and the larger
community. In Cincinnati too, while everything was not solved in the first year, the
dialogues changed the climate and the potential for dealing with later issues in
Collaborative participation is an ideal which will never be fully attained, any more
than is the ideal of participation embodied in the public hearing and review and
comment procedures which depends on an informed citizenry and responsive bureaucracy, but it has more promise for dealing with the dilemmas of participation in
contemporary society. It is a model where participants often say â€œyou leave your guns
430 J. E. Innes & D. E. Booher
at the doorâ€. In dialogues the war metaphor is replaced by more peaceable language
(Thompson, 1997). Participants live and act in two worlds, those of dialogue and the
external partisan world. Collaborative participation can be more representative than
other methods, but to assure that it is, it may be necessary to help disadvantaged groups
organize into groups and select representatives to speak for them. These groups often
need technical assistance so they can have equal voice with the more experienced and
better funded interest groups. They may also need financial assistance so they can afford
to attend meetings. Only a limited subset of citizens will ever participate in a full-fledged
way, spending months or years in meetings, but many more can participate in one-time
workshops and large dialogues. Larger groups can develop visions, sense of direction
and priorities. Many techniques deal with large groups of citizens, including town
meetings, interactive cable and web-based dialogues, citizen panels, workshops and
focus groups (Lukensmeyer et al., 2004; Susskind & Zion, 2002). These can be used in
combination with smaller representative groups which follow-up to produce workable
Collaborative participation thus dissolves many dilemmas of theory and practice. For
example, there is no need for citizens or planners to choose between the collective and
individual interest. In these dialogues the effort to meet individual interests produces a
collective interest, unlike the pluralist model, where individual interests are packaged
without being integrated. In collaborative participation, interdependencies are uncovered and participants can discover how all may benefit from improving a resource
(Innes, 1996). The issue of whether citizens know enough to be listened to also
disappears as they become knowledgeable, and as agencies or other players work with
them on participatory research and joint fact finding. Planners and citizens are far more
likely to enjoy rather than hate this sort of participation as it can be an interesting
learning experience. It is still fraught with emotions, but these methods allow venting
and then moving on. Even when issues are not fully resolved, as in Cincinnati, they
become less polarized as participants find common ground. Finally these processes help
planners and administrators to become more in touch with their communities and
citizens to understanding political and economic realities.
Ultimately the differences between the methods legally required in the US and
collaborative approaches include: one-way talk vs. dialogue; elite or self-selected vs.
diverse participants; reactive vs. involved at the outset; top-down education vs. mutually
shared knowledge; one-shot activities vs. continuous engagement; and use for routine
activities vs. for controversial choices. The authors believe that practice will increasingly
be defined by the collaborative model because it better serves the purposes of participation. These methods allow decision makers to learn more accurately about preferences
because participants are more representative and have more opportunity to provide
thoughtful, informed input than in the standard required methods. They can incorporate
citizen knowledge into the collaboratively arrived at recommendations because citizens
can place their knowledge in the larger context of what the experts and planners know
and vice versa. The collaborative approach is more likely to advance fairness and justice
goals if process designers and collaborative groups make sure that the dialogue is
inclusive and that weaker stakeholders are given assistance to assure their effective
representation. The authors believe this method has more legitimacy than the legally-required methods because it does so much better on these purposes.
Legitimacy of the collaborative methods, however, will remain contested until they
have proved themselves more widely. In the US, institutions have been in place for
decades supporting the old methods and actually equating participation with public
Reframing Public Participation Strategies 431
hearing and comment procedures. The two approaches will coexist, and public sector
decisions made through collaboration will continue to be reviewed through these
conventional procedures (Marshall & Ozawa, forthcoming). If collaborative methods
have been properly implemented however, it is likely that few members of the public
will turn out at hearings to complain.
Collaborative participation can help build civic capacity at least among community
leaders and they can spread it to their circles of associates. This capacity in turn has the
potential to create a more intelligent society, better able to adapt quickly to changes in
the conditions and more competent to address controversial, difficult issues (Innes &
Booher, 1999a). Dryzek (2000) contends that collaborative processes could co-opt the
citizenry and argues that the polity and civil society should remain distinct and to some
degree oppositional to preserve democracy. However, in our model the contention is
that this too is not a dichotomy. Some citizens become more integrated into the polity
while others develop skills and knowledge to challenge the powers that be in more
sophisticated ways. Both are needed.
In the US there are many obstacles to implementing collaborative participation, including:
â€¢ open meetings laws;
â€¢ Robertâ€™s Rules of Order, which forces votes, divisions and partisanship instead of the
seeking of common ground and building social capital (Susskind, 1999);
â€¢ the hubris of elected officials who fear loss of their authority;
â€¢ the limited time citizens can give to collaboration;
â€¢ the disadvantaged groups who lack the resources to participate;
â€¢ the lack of collaborative skills among planners and citizens;
â€¢ the lack of opportunity for genuine dialogue among competing stakeholders;
â€¢ the costs of staffing collaborative efforts, and
â€¢ the well-entrenched institutions of public decision making which many will resist
Political interests want to retain control as they did when a collaborative growth
management effort among major stakeholders in California failed to produce results in
great part because of a simultaneous and competing effort in the Governorâ€™s office
(Innes, 1994). However, by contrast, the governor of New Jersey in the late 1980s
announced he would support a state growth management plan, provided it was arrived
at by all key stakeholders. A five-year collaborative process involving representatives of
all interests, along with engagement of 50 000 citizens, resulted in a plan which was
adopted by the legislature and implemented by agencies (Gualini, 2001; Innes, 1992).
The obstacles to collaborative participation are considerable, but they can be overcome. The most basic starting point, however, is to recognize that many situations are
not appropriate for collaborative methods in the first place. Before undertaking a
collaborative effort, planners must make sure a conflict assessment is done (Susskind et
al., 1999, Ch. 2) to find the obstacles and determine whether they can be overcome. This
identifies the potential stakeholders and their interests and resources. It then looks at the
costs and at the potential political opposition or support for such an effort and assesses
the likelihood that agreements reached will have an impact. Such a study must make a
comparison between a realistic estimate of staffing costs and technical assistance in a
432 J. E. Innes & D. E. Booher
collaborative process with the costs of litigation, delay and continuing conflict. While
properly done collaborative methods may seem costly (for example, the 4000-person
workshop conducted for planning for the World Trade Center site in New York cost
$400 per person for recruitment of diverse participants, preparation of balanced information for participants, technical equipment for recording discussion and networking
the groups, and the staffing),3 the costs of not using such methods can be even greater
(developers were planning investments of many millions of dollars that were being
delayed by seemingly intractable conflict over the plans and the citizens were deeply
divided over this emotional issue).
Public agencies now mired in conflict with stakeholders or other agencies can explore
changes in procedures that encourage deliberative processes, as has been done in
California, where 28 state and federal agencies now collaborate among themselves and
with stakeholders to manage the stateâ€™s precious and limited water resources after
generations of conflict. They can provide resources and structure to assure inclusion of
disadvantaged groups (Verba et al., 1995). These groups themselves can build their own
countervailing power by a variety of means to create what Fung & Wright (2003) call
â€œempowered participatory governance.â€ Government or private organizations with the
power and desire to prepare plans, solve problems or implement development ideas
may create the spacesâ€”the forums and arenasâ€”where dialogue can take place (Bryson
& Crosby, 1993). They may design and sponsor dialogues or simply make clear that they
will take seriously the work of widely representative collaborative efforts as did the
Governor of New Jersey. Foundations, government and private sector actors can provide
staff and funding. Educators should provide training to planners and public officials in
designing and managing collaborative methods. Scholars should do more systematic
research to demonstrate how, when and why collaborative methods work or do not
Ultimately, institutional change will be needed which will be neither rapid nor easy.
It will require creativity as situations must be addressed one at a time. The authors
believe that through the agency of planners and leaders who want to establish new
practices, over time the structures will evolve. Citizens need to make a difference and
planners need to believe their work is professionally responsible. Both need to feel that
participation is fair, representative, well informed and transparent. Collaborative participation can help in all these ways.
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