Impact of participation

Costs of public participation

There is far less literature on the costs of participation than the benefits, although there is material on the dangers, risks etc. Against the tide of a generally positive view of participation, political commentators are beginning to criticise participation as an expensive waste of time and money and as increasing the risk of pressure from specific interest groups operating from selfish and uninformed positions (e.g. Parris 2005 and Taverne 2005).  The backlash against NIMBYs, when they ‘participate’ to oppose something seen as ‘for the public good’ (e.g. wind farms and other new developments) has become vociferous (e.g. Lock 2005).

In addition, one of the main reasons for participation initiatives not matching up to the expectations of those seeking greater effectiveness and efficiency is the rhetoric/practice gap (Cooke and Kothari 2001), in which the fanfare that accompanies a participative process is not matched by the actual opportunities to participate or the eventual influence of the process. There are three dominant factors underlying the rhetoric-practice gap, often symptomatic of an inexperienced or naïve approach to participation:

  • The focus on involving large numbers of people can drive an over-enthusiastic marketing of the process (e.g. “your opportunity to save the world”, when in reality you may be simply informing a local policy); or
  • The will and commitment to promote participation being greater than the individual and organisational capacity to make it effective; or
  • The interest in participation not being matched by a willingness to actually change anything as a result.

Other issues identified around badly-run participative processes include:

  • The cumulative effects on multiple forms of participation can be a cost, in the form of ‘over-consulting’ and ‘engagement fatigue’ (Newburn and Jones 2002, 52).
  • Poor reliability in one project can grow into a general lack of trust (Collier and Orr 2003, 4)
  • A weakness in many participative programmes is that they rely on short-term funding and depend on the will and enthusiasm of individual champions. (ODPM 2005b, 7)
  • Lack of support for participation workers has been identified as a constraint that can jeopardise the benefits of participation. Effects of resource constraint include:
    • Team leaders sometimes hire less expensive staff or consultants.
    • Complex projects are given the same budget as those that are simple.
    • Sometimes technical specialists are excluded; social scientists may be the first to get cut.

An additional problem is the amount of time required of staff to find the additional resources required to make participation work properly (Aycrigg 1998, 18). However, while these are dangers associated with a poor participatory process, rather than actual ‘costs’, there are also specific costs associated with poor processes, which are both absolute (e.g. conflict generated by a bad process which costs staff time to deal with), and relate to benefits not gained (e.g. no buy-in and ownership by local people).

Direct costs might include (InterAct 2001; Oakley 1991 and others listed below):

  • Staff costs will be generated. Extra (and different) staff may be needed to support participation. Training for staff may also be needed. Participation can take up calendar time (to allow days, weeks, months for participants to come back with comments / become active); and staff time that cannot be spent on their usual work.  It is a “major cost” (Jackson 1999) identified by numerous sources (Countryside Agency 2004, Lilja, Ashby and Johnson 2004,  Jackson 1999). Irvin & Stansbury (2004, 58) identify the “heavy time commitments that citizen-participation processes require” as the main reason why participation is “arguably more expensive than the decision making of a single agency administrator”.

The staff costs are likely to be increased if external expertise is brought in to run or advise the project (Jackson 1999).  Manring (1998) points out that there is a difference between time measured in man-hours and calendar days, both of which entail different costs. Participation might lead to quicker decisions, but might well require more intensive work for those directly involved.

  • Event costs (rooms, refreshments, payments to participants).
  • Publicity (for the process overall, special events etc).
  • Exhibitions, reports, leaflets, websites etc.

Other dangers identified in the literature related to costs include:

  • Shifting the burden of cost to participants, including:
    • Participation may hide the fact that less money is available by shifting the burden on to the voluntary effort of local people (Hallett 1987).
    • In times of resource constraint, voluntary effort can be seen as the one infinite resource and over-exploited (Taylor 1995).
    • Participation in major projects may overload local people who become expected to do for free what professionals are paid to do (Taylor 1995).
  • When consulted, people may oppose the initiative (Oakley 1991, 14), which may generate costs in managing next steps of the engagement process.
  • Participatory mechanisms may be unpredictable and therefore difficult and costly to manage (Oakley 1991, 14).
  • Participants may prove to be emotive and irrational, or ignorant of complex situations (Burton et al. 2004) and may as a result make poor quality decisions (Irvin and Stansbury 2004). In addition, the drive to create common ground and reduce conflict may lead to outcomes which are sub-optimal (Coglianese 2001).
  • Those involved in participative projects rarely reflects the population at large in spite of often being used / seen as ‘representative’. Instead it may be those groups who feel the strongest and/or have the most to win or lose that get involved (Irvin and Stansbury 2004). The feeling that participants tend to act in a subjective and self-interested manner is widespread in some sources (Burton et al. 2004, Sanders 1997, Rhoades 1998, 7, Rossi 1997, 174, and Rydin and Pennington 2000, 158) warn of the frequent capture of participation efforts by special interest groups, often to the detriment of the wider community.
  • According to Marshall (1999), there is a risk that participatory processes will become over complicated and retain the status quo.
  • Jackson (1999) emphasises that many participatory processes are troubled by uncertainties and delays. Others have raised the issue of expectations raised by participation but which are then not fulfilled leading to cynicism and burnout (Countryside Agency 2004)
  • Participatory mechanisms are seen as potentially coming into conflict with and undermining the power of existing democratic structures (NLGN 2005, 12).

There are also other important risks, including the following:

  • Reputations. Everyone involved in participation is risking their reputation, whether in the design and delivery of the participatory exercise, the willingness to participate at all, and the willingness to abide by the results (if that is appropriate to the technique used);
  • Failure to deliver on promised outcomes. Even where the desired outcomes seem clearly defined from the start, decision-makers may refuse to accept the outcomes;
  • Uncertainty. Project managers who ‘give away’ a degree of management control of their project through encouraging participation have to deal with a level of uncertainty in terms of delivery of agreed products (World Bank 1994).
  • Relationships. A poorly run process can damage relationships between all those involved – although participation can increase social capital and build capacity if designed to do so, bad participation can damage relationships and undermine confidence.

If the process is managed well, all these risks could translate into benefits rather than costs, but that depends on the quality of the process.