Public participation in decision-making

Public participation is dependent on both the willingness of the public to be involved and on government to allow appropriate opportunities. The appetite for both has been growing, notably with the Local Government Act 2007 under the Labour government and more recently with the coalition government's Big Society agenda. In both cases, the aim is to enable greater involvement of ‘real’ citizens in decision making at a local level, rather than involvement of community groups or the ‘usual suspects’. Another aspect of this trend is the increasing use of user democracy, where citizens are engaged as consumers through mechanisms such as satisfaction surveys and network democracy (e.g. partnerships - see driver on partnership working and governance).

What are the implications?

Who and what is involved

  • Raised expectations of greater participation and citizen engagement.
  • The emergence of a ‘participation industry’ in which VCOs can play an important role.
  • Difficulties in widening the demand for participation beyond than those often referred to as the ‘usual suspects’.
  • Removing of barriers to participation and increasing the ways in which individuals can be supported and given the skills and confidence to participate will depend on resources, commitment and political will over time. Will this be threatened by austerity measures?
  • Initiatives may face problems if they fail to understand ultimately what makes people tick – why, when and how they want to participate.


  • Tensions around the accountability and legitimacy of different groups to represent different interests and make decisions.
  •  VCOs need to be clear about the extent to which they have involved their users and members in shaping their views.
  • An increased need for community leaders who can reconcile the diversity of individual and group expectations and needs across the partnerships and control and manage the direction.
  • The role of VCOs, as community representatives and/or in addressing the barriers (such as time, skills and confidence) that remain for individuals and communities wishing to be involved, may not be fully recognised.

Where to engage

  • Engagement may shift away from ‘the town hall’ towards more informal spaces of community life such as at the school gates, supermarkets or places of worship.
  • There may also be a role for online social networking.

Moving forward

The trend towards a more participative and consultative democracy is opening up new governance spaces and ‘new conversations’, both at the local and national levels.

  • Does your organisation have a role to play in helping individuals to understand how they can make their voice heard, and in building their confidence and skills? Bear in mind, this might not necessarily be through your organisation.
  • Can you facilitate a dialogue (more than simply a conversation) between your users and policy makers?

The Big Society may raise further issues

  • Will the “Big Society” provide new opportunities? Will it lead to increased competition for volunteers? And will the rhetoric be matched with appropriate funding and infrastructure?
  • Whatever the answers to these questions, it may be worthwhile considering how your organisation will respond to the potential opportunities and challenges.

There may also be new challenges around issues of accountability

  • It may be time to review your internal governance structures or to attempt to involve a more diverse range of people, perhaps through working in partnership with other VCOs.
  • Are you able to demonstrate to local elected representatives the many ways in which you consult and involve your users?

Want to know more?

Growing the Big Society

Published by: IPPR, the Institute for Public Policy Research

Date: June 2010

Format: PDF

What is it? A report discussing the potential benefits and challenges of the Big Society.

How useful is this? This report explores the coalition government's notion of the Big Society, describing its potential benefits and difficulties. It begins with a policy and literature review then goes on to describe case studies and present the results of an online survey. It also gives the views of support providers and local authorities. Overall, the tone is positive but sufficiently neutral to provide a good overview of the Big Society.

Other comments:

Ten Big Questions about the Big Society

Published by: Economics Foundation – an independent think tank.

Date: June 2010

Format: PDF

What is it? A short document answering ten key questions about the Big Society, including the implications for communities and for the size of the state.

How useful is this? This brief document outlines the key aims of the Big Society and suggests potential difficulties. It is too short to give details but given the nebulous definition of the Big Society, it provides an accessible starting point for thinking about the strategic implications.

Other comments:

Individual pathways in participation

Published by: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – a UK research agency addressing economic and social concerns.

Date: 2007

Format: PDF

What is it? A booklet produced as part of the ESRC and NCVO seminar series, examining whether participation in community and voluntary work can spur people to participate in civic and public service activity.

How useful is this? The booklet looks at peoples’ individual pathways to and from participation in community activities. It then goes on to investigate whether being involved in these activities can result in individuals taking part in decision making structures and processes, namely in state institutions and public services. The research shows that people feel increasingly disconnected from the public realm despite the government’s focus on increased empowerment. The booklet then goes on to identify ways forward.

Other comments:

Community participation: Who benefits?

Published by: Joseph Rowntree Foundation – a social policy research and development charity.

Date: 2006

Format: Web

What is it? A report evaluating Government policies to involve more local people in decision making processes at a local level.

How useful is this? The report, through a review of literature and original research in two deprived areas, seeks to identify whether policies to promote community participation in governance build social capital. The research found that contrary to the case put forward by the Government, few people tend to be involved in governance, and those that are tend to be a small core group of the same people. The report then goes on to look at how wider community participation could be fostered and makes recommendations for both policy and practice.

Other comments:

Last updated at 15:43 Thu 13/Jan/11.

Recent comments


I’m concerned that the funding and regulatory environment and the perception of risk/liability means members of the public are less likely to want to take independent action and set up and join community activities. What can we do?

This is not in reply to Peter (sorry!) but just a quick post to alert people to the people and participation website, sponsored by the DCLG, MoJ and the Sustainable Development Commission. I haven’t had a chance to look at it in any depth but its an interesting site that builds on the excellent Involve publication of the same name. The site aims to be a central portal for information and inspiration about participation to practitioners across the world.

Véronique's picture


Third Sector Foresight

For those interested in participation and governance, you might like to have a look at the latest publication of The Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability which summarises the contents of an international learning event on engaging citizens in local governance. The event brought together 44 people (24 from the UK and 20 from 14 other
countries)who looked at the challenges local governments face in responding to growing demands for citizen engagement and more participatory forms of governance. Chapter 5 is particularly interesting because it considers the implications for different actors (government, appointed officials, locally elected representatives, communities and civil society and donors).

Véronique's picture


Third Sector Foresight

NCVO and the ESRC NGPA programme is organising an event similar to the one I was talking about in my last post on public participation in decision-making.

The event is on 9 October. It’s a lunchtime seminar at NCVO focusing on changing governance and how voluntary and community organisations and other civil society organisations in the UK and several aborad are experiencing the shift from government to governance.

The speakers are:

  • Taylor and Jo Howard (University of the West of England) who will explore the ways in which third sector organisations experience and ‘navigate the tensions’ of working in new governance spaces in Bulgaria, Nicaragua and the UK.
  • Heather Blakey (University of Bradford) who will review a range of municipal innovations in public participation and policy-making in Latin America and the UK.
  • Karin Gavelin (Involve) who will draw out implications for policy and practice.
    For more information and to book a place
Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Launched this week, from Central Bedfordshire council is worth keeping an eye on to see how it takes off. I think it's a great initiative to engage the public, using web 2.0

Hi Kathryn, since you asked and it's been something I've been thinking a lot about today.

From Empowerment to Big Society

These are some of my current thoughts of where Participation in the UK is going right now.

At the top I think we need to acknowledge the following tensions & trends:

Service Engagement (services) Vs Community Activism (democratic);

Increasing demand for volunteering Vs Increasing Time Poverty;

Growth of Social Media Vs Limits of Social Media

I think that we need a new approach which doesn't throw the baby out with the bath water but recognises the limitations of traditional community organising/development, consultation etc. And that different people like to get involved in very, very different ways. I think at the heart of the new model needs to be an attempt to reconcile conflict based (democratic) Vs consensus based (service) engagement. There appears to be an unspoken assumption in so much of this and the previous governments rhetoric and literature that active citizens will want to improve services. I'm not so sure. I illustrate the differences below:

Democratic Actors (often conflict based):

community development

community organising



Service Based Engagement (often consensus based):

social innovation

social entrepreneurship

community engagement


And all this will need to be framed by a model whereby we build new cost effective systems and ways of working that enable on-going interaction and engagement between, people, government, business and the VCS. These systems will not rely on expensive consultants but harness the power of social media and the power of committed entrepreneurial values driven individuals who will prioritise positive change over and above any particular approach or outcome.

Join the discussion!

How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

Log in or join for free to comment.