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Four ways to help promote citizen engagement and participation

By Russ Grayson - posted Monday, 11 August 2003

"Great!" I thought as the board agreed to broaden its membership to include people from other states, "That should enable participation from outside the area and diversify decision-making".

That experiment was short-lived. The organisation returned to its geographically-centralised form of management. My hopes for decentralisation were replaced by the expediency of proximity in decision-making and the choice of executive decision in place of member-participation.

Reflecting on this, I realise that the drift to executive decision-making is typical of the rise of "managerialism" in modern society. A means used by people in social institutions to make decisions for others, managerialism can be seen as the process by which the unelected make decisions for the unrepresented. Expedient it might be, it has contributed to the decline of participatory democracy in civil society.


Managerialism persists because our educational institutions, themselves hierarchical organisations, provide little by way of introduction to more democratic structures. After leaving school, people are continually exposed to top-down decision making in university, the workplace and in government. It is no wonder that people reflect in their decision-making what they have been taught all their lives.

Apathy will replace civic participation

Citizen participation is the theoretical lifeblood of democracy. Unless it is encouraged the public may revert to apathy.

A level of public disengagement is already evident in society. This is due to disenchantment with the major political parties. People feel helpless in the face of contemporary trends and events and feel unable to address them effectively. Combined with uncertainty over the future, that's why the government can maintain political support even though there is evidence that it lies and misleads the public, as in the children overboard and Iraq intelligence cases. The public attitude defaults from civic participation to the managerialism of government.

To paraphrase a well-known political theorist: intellectuals and bureaucrats have only interpreted the world of civic participation; the point, however, is to change it and make it real. It is doing that that is the challenge.

Confusing consultaton and participation

There is confusion over terminology when it comes to involving citizens in the decision-making process.

For some, simply asking the interested public what they prefer is seen as active public participation. It is not. That is consultation and it is a top-down, professional or bureaucrat-led process. This is not to say that it has no place, it does, but not all of the time. At best, consultation produces choices from which the consulted can choose. At worse, community preferences are ignored because they do not fit some pre-conceived model of "what the public needs" that exists in the minds of bureaucrats, politicians and professionals.


Participation is more difficult. It is time consuming. It requires that those leading the process have commitment to public participation and possess the techniques to enact it. Participation involves setting up structures within which professionals or bureaucrats become facilitators of a broad-based deliberative process. Skills in working with groups and in preventing vociferous individuals and the representatives of lobby groups dominating and unduly influencing proceedings are requisites. Such processes do exist; the Institute for Cultural Affairs, through its Technology of Participation, provides just one example.

When the public is told that it is "participating", when all that is being done is that project leaders are consulting, it is being duped. For many so-called "professionals" and bureaucrats it is an innocent dupe because they know no better. They do not possess the tools of participation and their education has failed them in not providing the training.

A brief flowering withers

It was an artefact of the times when, in the 1970s, there was interest in extending the concept of "democracy" beyond the four-year vote. Why, it was asked by those leading the thinking, should not the concept of democracy and participation be extended into the workplace and other institutions in society?

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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