Modern decision-making takes place in a complex, constantly changing context that demands different ways of making and implementing decisions.

Traditional values of respect for authority and expertise have diminished generally in Western society, and perceptions of increased risk (often highly individualised and dangerously unquantifiable (Beck 1992), lack of trust and uncertainty, characterise relationships between government and citizens. This has changed the relationship between people and many institutions, to the extent that people trust university research centres and environmental groups far more than Government departments or business and industry  (NCSR 2001). In addition:

People display a pronounced degree of fatalism and even cynicism towards the country’s public institutions, including national and local government.  This is reflected in an apparently pervasive lack of trust in the goodwill and integrity of national government, and in doubts about the ability or willingness of local government to achieve positive improvements in the quality of people’s lives (not least because local authorities’ powers are seen as diminishing

(Macnaghten et al 1995, 3)

Civic institutions (government and its agencies but also others) cannot operate without the consent of the people:  they need legitimacy to do their work on people’s behalf.  This credibility has been severely damaged in recent years, as evidenced by falling electoral turnouts and growing hostility or, more likely, apathy:  “There are signs of a new cleavage between two social classes:  the privileged ‘decision makers’ and the ‘administrees’, the majority of the population … the typical reaction to this situation is indifference or aggression” (Dienel quoted in Stewart et al 1994, 9).

According to Marshall (1999, 11) “the capacity of top-down governance (…) has become outflanked by (…) new  social and environmental problems”.  Problems are often either local or global, making the governing institutions at the national level seemingly ill-suited to deal with them.

Another linked factor is that the “boundaries between sectors of life and different institutions have become increasingly blurred” (Stoker 2004, 4), which means that for example better health outcomes or lower crime can no longer be left to the medical profession or police respectively. Instead the intended beneficiaries need to be involved in bringing about these beneficial outcomes. Some claim that the achievement of many goals depends on the actions of others and without their consent the achievement of these goals is impossible. Participation would therefore become a necessity in some cases where the government requires co-operation and lacks the capacity to coerce (Le Quesne and Green 2005).

Participation is seen as being able to repair the damage by creating new relationships of trust between government and citizens, partly as a result of improved communications and greater understanding on all sides (Rogers and Robinson 2005, Burton et al. 2004, Countryside Agency 2004, Rydin and Pennington 2000, Jackson 1999). By allowing direct communication and information exchange between parties, participation has the potential to reduce the transaction costs of decision-making dramatically (Le Quesne and Green 2005, 16).

The survey of public participation in local government, published by ODPM in 2002, found that ‘better decision-making’ was the second most important benefit of public participation identified by respondents (after improvements in services).

Participation is thus seen as being able to deliver the following benefits in this field:

  • Appropriate decisions. It is argued that more accurate and representative information about the needs, priorities and capabilities of local people, including better feedback on existing programmes from existing and potential ‘users’, can be obtained through participatory mechanisms (especially deliberative mechanisms that allow thinking to be developed) than through conventional information gathering exercises.
  • Legitimacy / support for decisions. In contrast to the ‘decide and defend’ approach to decision-making which has characterised some institutions, participation can allow support for a decision to be developed with stakeholders before it is formally taken, reducing the need to ‘market’ decisions after the event and increasing the ‘legitimacy’ of the decision through overt public support. Being able to have a say can also improve implementation as a feeling of ownership over the results of a process can lead to less conflict in the implementation stage (Burton et al. 2004, Countryside Agency 2004). However, participants are often quick to withdraw from projects if they feel that promises have not been delivered. Participants actively assess costs and benefits of participation (without necessarily thinking in these terms) (Countryside Agency 2004, 12).
  • Accountability to the public. Participation can build on the formal systems of accountability exercised through representative democracy by enabling citizens to hold elected representatives and others more directly accountable through face-to-face discussions. An alternative way of looking at the accountability benefits of participation is that accountability is more widely shared, as more people are involved in the decision.
  • Inclusion and cohesion. Carefully designed and implemented participation can create mechanisms and institutions that can enable marginalised groups and often excluded groups to be brought into the decision-making process, reducing the divisions in society by bringing excluded groups into the mainstream of society and community (ODPM 2005, ODPM / HO 2005, Home Office 2005, NAO 2004, SEU 2004, Stewart 1996, LGA 2002).

People who are excluded from decision-making may well have relevant new information or knowledge to contribute to a decision (Burton et al. 2004). Some also speak of participation as a way to engage with hard to reach groups as the structure of participatory processes can be both less intimidating and more engaging for marginalised groups than conventional formal processes (Burton et al. 2004; Stoker 2004).

  • Meeting public demand and expectations for involvement. Even the most traditional institutions have long recognised the need to meet public demand for involvement: “local people and visitors increasingly expect to be able to have a direct influence in protecting the places they most value” (National Trust 1995, 1). This is often even the case when the places in question are in people’s backyard.

Actually measuring the quality of a decision is very difficult, and the exactly opposite claim is sometimes made about participation:  namely that participation leads to uninformed and/or selfish decisions (see below).  Scientists in particular are often worried about the quality of the decisions produced by participation, especially in areas of science and the environment where the issues are very technical. Their fear is that, by involving people who know very little about the scientific issues, decisions will be made with unanticipated and detrimental effects to society as a whole and on the basis of what is seen as the public’s irrational fear of risk.

Beierle (2002) conducted a case survey of evaluations of stakeholder-based processes over the last two decades, and concludes that the evidence is that most of these processes have actually led to better and more informed decisions. Other benefits evident in the majority of cases was mutually beneficial solutions arising from the process, and new information. The more intense and deliberative processes were more likely to produce these beneficial outcomes than more traditional approaches.