The benefits of participation here tend to be based on findings that conventional, externally driven and expert-led services, projects and programmes to tackle complex problems (e.g. health, urban decay, poverty and inequality, agricultural productivity, environmental management), have often failed to achieve the significant long-term effects sought (e.g. OECD 2001, Hastings et al. 1996); often because physical improvements were not valued or maintained locally, and the necessary long-term changes in individual people and social structures did not materialize.

By contrast it is argued that, “Community participation is vital in ensuring value for money in public services. Services designed and delivered without community input risk wasting public money because they will be unused or underused if they are not what people need. Local people must have the opportunities to identify their needs and contribute to finding solutions, rather than feel powerless in the face of public authorities that deliver services on their behalf” (NAO 2004).

The benefits of participatory approaches for efficiency and effectiveness are seen to be (e.g.  (ODPM 2005, ODPM / HO 2005, NAO 2004, ODPM 2002, PIEDA 1995, Wilcox 1994), for example:

  • Innovation and creativity. Participation often involves processes that allow for the development of new ideas between sponsoring agencies and other stakeholders, helping to develop innovatory approaches that may create better solutions.
  • Avoiding conflict. Participation at an early stage to identify problems and solutions with stakeholders is seen to reduce, or avoid altogether, conflict at a later stage and thus reduce associated costs and delays. This reduction in conflict is perhaps the most common cost-saving benefit attributed to participation in the literature (Irvin and Stansbury 2004, Rydin and Pennington 2000, Marshall 1999).

Conflict can be extremely expensive: DEFRA and the Environment Agency (2005, 4) estimate that around 5% of all permit application took in excess of 500 hours work to process and 1% took over 1,000 hours. Litigation especially can be very costly, and any reduction here can mean substantial savings. In addition, by moving away from grid-locked positions and towards consensus, participation can save time (Irvin and Stansbury 2004).

However Irvin and Stansbury (ibid) point out that “if litigation is unlikely, an elaborate public participation process may in fact pull resources away from the agency’s mission” (Irvin and Stansbury 2004, 58).

  • Access to new resources. Participation is seen to potentially release and bring in additional resources not available to purely public or private initiatives (e.g. funding for community projects from charities). Participation may also create the leverage that can release goodwill and volunteer effort (increased involvement of volunteers). Costs may be saved by participation too, for example through cost sharing with other organisations for example (Countryside Agency 2004).
  • Continued development / maintenance. It is argued that people are more likely to maintain a project’s dynamic and continue development if they have been involved in decisions about setting it up.  More simply, developing local ownership is said to mean that local people are more likely to look after something they have been involved in creating (e.g. less likelihood of vandalism to physical improvements; lower costs for maintenance).

The Countryside Agency (2004), for example, points to the contribution of volunteer labour in maintaining regenerated green space. Jackson (1999) points to the World Bank’s experience of decreased management costs in the later stages of participative projects compared to non-participative projects.

  • Better quality outcomes in service delivery, projects and programmes (NAO 2004; Burton et al. 2004; Johnson, Lilja and Ashby 2001; Jackson 1999) are seen to be delivered by participatory approaches providing:
  • Information and expertise. In local projects, local people can bring local knowledge, so projects are more appropriate to local circumstances, needs and aspirations. Programmes can be adapted to local circumstances so scarce resources can be used more efficiently. Increasingly at wider levels than the local, stakeholders generally are understood to bring a range of different knowledges that contribute to the quality of the project.

According to Rydin and Pennington (2000, 155) “the public hold key resources of knowledge that policy actors need to achieve policy goals”. Jackson (1999) also claims that the knowledge of “poor citizens” is undervalued in normal decision-making.  For Le Quesne and Green (2005, 16) improved information flows reduce “information collection costs while allowing for the identification of better targeted solutions and measures”.

  • Increased public awareness and understanding. Where citizens have a greater say in an issue they are more likely to get informed about important issues (Benz and Stutzer 2004). This reduces the incentive towards rational ignorance which Rydin and Pennington (2000, 159) put down to the fact that “In many cases however, where the impact of individual participation in the policy process is uncertain and small, then it is simply not worthwhile becoming informed about the relevant policy issue”.

In addition, better information can help weed out any unfeasible option at an early stage, thus improving the likelihood of success (Johnson, Lilja and Ashby 2001).

  • Sharing responsibility. Some policy areas / public services need the involvement of the target groups to be successful (e.g. health services need the active engagement of the patient in their own treatment to be successful, especially in preventive measures and changes in behaviour). This has been termed ‘co-production’ (and see below) (Marshall 1999, ODPM 2005b).
  • Increased use. Participation usually leads to improved use of facilities / services because they are more closely based on people’s needs and expressed wishes.
  • Staff morale. In some cases participation can increase the morale and enthusiasm of the staff leading to more productive working relationships (ODPM 2005b, 2). However, there is also research, which has shown opposite tendencies (Manring 1998).

Many of these practical benefits are for the sponsoring agency. Clearly, participation also has to have substantial benefits for the people who join in institutionally promoted programmes, or their participation will be very limited.  These benefits may be described as personal, developmental and transformative (ODPM 2005, ODPM / HO 2005, Drijver 1990, Mostyn 1979, Oakley 1991, Wilcox 1994) and may include:

  • Confidence and skills. Skills learned through participatory action have been identified as helping to improve people’s lives, and be used in the wider community. This may be described as ‘capacity building’ (e.g. Jackson 1999) and ’empowerment’ by others (e.g. Irvin and Stansbury 2004). A similar empowering effect at a community level is also raised by other sources (Rogers and Robinson 2005).
  • Health and well-being. Positive health benefits from active participation have been identified by various authors, ranging from lower reported ill health to positive health effects (Rogers and Robinson 2005, HEMS 2000). (See also section on the health benefits of social capital: 5.2.3).
  • Trust and relationships. Involvement is seen to build understanding, trust and confidence, which can improve relationships with public institutions as well as between individuals and groups locally.
  • Access to more learning and other services. Participatory initiatives can create easier and lower cost access for local people to education and other benefits both through local institutions which may be newly established or changed through local action, and by increasing knowledge about opportunities and access.
  • Greater self-reliance. Participatory action is seen as potentially able to reduce dependency and improve self-reliance, increasing self awareness and confidence and enabling people to take greater control of their own lives.
  • Direct economic benefits: participation is seen as able to increase access to cash and other resources to support the projects people want to do.
  • Non-material benefits: social status, social pressure, interest, a wish to learn, and satisfaction from helping with a wider cause or issue have been identified as benefits.