A Joined-up Approach to User Participation in Public Services: Strengthening the “Participation Chain”


Address for correspondence: Richard Simmons, Department of Applied Social Studies, University of Stirling, Stirling, Scotland. Email: r.a.simmons@stir.ac.uk


Participation has emerged as a key theme for social policy and administration in the UK. Public service providers are often keen to consult users, and users themselves want to make their voices heard. Despite this, however, there is a perennial problem in getting people to participate, and participation is often better supported in principle than in practice. The motivations of key actors are crucial, but are often poorly understood. This article attempts to build a more detailed understanding of the motivations to participate of one key group: service users. Using Mutual Incentives Theory, it shows the extent to which users are motivated by individualistic or collectivistic concerns. These “demand side” factors are then combined with others on the “supply side” in a model we call the “participation chain”. This model provides a systematic framework for understanding what makes public service users participate, and seeks to demonstrate that, while the question of participation requires a combination of answers, it is a combination that can be predicted, planned for and acted upon.


Participation has moved into the foreground of UK social policy and administration. A desire to enhance the performance of key public services, perceived needs for new forms of accountability, and concerns over the legitimation of public authorities have all combined to help promote participatory ideas and strategies to a more central position. Participation first gained prominence in the UK as far back as the 1960s. Following a decline in the 1980s at the height of the New Right agenda, the 1990s witnessed a revival of interest (Stoker 1997). Enhanced user participation was widely promoted as a feature of administrative reform strategies—at least in rhetoric (Pierre 1998; Peters and Savoie 1998). More recently, this agenda has been developed by the New Labour government in the UK, in a range of initiatives that has seen participation emerge as a significant policy theme (Newman 2001; Bochel and Bochel 2004).

In recent years, policy-makers and consumer groups have therefore called for the more intensive participation of service users in the governance and delivery of a range of public services (e.g. Cabinet Office 1999; DETR 1998, 1999; DoH 1998, 2001; DTI 2001; NCC 2001, 2004). In response, service agencies have engaged in evaluating their own policy and practice, and there has been a move towards creating a range of alternative forms of user participation (such as consumer councils, panels and forums, and/or participation in agencies’ governing structures) to supplement more traditional methods (Stewart 1997; Lowndes et al. 2001a, 2001b). Together, these developments lead Beresford (2001: 267) to assert that “there has never been so much political and policy interest expressed in participation, across so many fields”.

As a result, service users are being asked to participate more and more in the planning, provision and evaluation of services. Service providers are often keen to consult users, particularly given their duty to do so under Best Value (Cook 2002). Meanwhile, users themselves often want to make their voices heard (e.g. Martin and Boaz 2000). Yet there is a perennial problem in getting people to participate. Despite previous research looking at the institutional barriers to participation and extensive guidance on how to promote participatory initiatives, there is a substantial degree of confusion and disagreement as to what works and why. This article begins by assessing how the context in two local public services (housing and community care) has resulted in pressures for greater service user participation. It then presents a theoretical model of what motivates public service users to participate, which was tested and elaborated in a recent ESRC-funded study. The model examines service users’ motivations alongside a range of other factors that might make their participation more or less likely: “resources”, “mobilization” and “dynamics”. In doing so, it provides a systematic framework for understanding why some people get involved while others do not, and contributes to ongoing debates about how participation can be strengthened.

The Context for User Participation in Public Services

Participation has been put forward as a way of using dialogue to support new forms of responsiveness and accountability in which users’ views can be “taken into account” (Linder 2001; Roberts 2002). There is a technical rationale for this approach. As Pierre (1998: 137) observes, this form of service user input can provide policy-makers with “a wider variety of ideas, perspectives and suggestions than traditional policy advice can offer”. Participation is therefore claimed to have practical value for the performance of key public services by shaping better-informed decisions and ensuring that limited resources are used to meet service users’ priorities. However, there is also a relational rationale. Where participation is successful in improving communication and building trust, it is claimed to help reduce conflict and discord, and smooth the process of policy implementation (e.g. DETR 1998; Seargeant and Steele 1998). Beyond this, it has been argued that participatory initiatives play a role in legitimizing a public sector in which trust in government is low. This may be particularly important in the context of an increasing number of devolved service agencies and partnerships, whose indirect relationships with local government have led to accusations of a “democratic deficit” (e.g. Pollitt et al. 1998). Here, participation may be seen as a way to help draw a balance between the desire of devolved agencies for autonomy and the need for them to maintain their credibility and legitimacy with the public for managing public services.

Underpinning these factors has been the development of consumerism in public services. Transitions in the “production” of UK public services have seen a progressive movement away from the hierarchical arrangements associated with the postwar welfare consensus. Yet the assumption of the 1980s and early 1990s that users’ interests would be more adequately represented by market-type mechanisms such as customer service, complaint and redress (Deakin and Wright 1990) has also come under increasing scrutiny. As Perri 6 (1998) argues, neither of these sets of arrangements has proved satisfactory, each failing in different ways to solve problems of trust amongst consumers. In particular, it has been argued that these methods have rarely been enough to turn service users into partners actively involved in shaping services, or to effect a radical shift in the distribution of power away from producer interests (Potter 1994). For Hood et al. (1996), the result has been a strain of “producerist consumerism” in UK public services, whereby producers set and monitor consumer-friendly service standards, and participation is primarily instrumental. Nevertheless, it has increasingly been argued that “public services may only be understood through the accounts of users and their experience of those services” (Rowe 1999: 101). In the search for an alternative, participatory initiatives have gained ground, and an emerging view is that there should be a collaborative relationship between service users and social administrators.

More and more, public service providers have begun to abandon their previous attempts to “bolt” user participation on to existing administrative practices, and to adopt a more collaborative approach (Vigoda 2002, 2003). As they have done so, key barriers to facilitating conditions for user participation have been exposed. Previous research in this journal and elsewhere has helped to highlight some of these factors (e.g. Cook 2002; Lowndes et al. 2001a, 2001b; Barnes et al. 2003; Seargeant and Steele 1999). However, despite (1) the production of extensive guidance on how to “do” participation, and (2) numerous evaluations of participatory initiatives at the micro level, an important question often remains: will service users actually come forward to participate? For Clary and Snyder (2002: 583), a key problem for those seeking to promote participation is “the problem of inaction”, namely the oft-demonstrated fact that many more people endorse the values of participating than actually participate. Lack of awareness of the opportunities to participate provides one explanation for this “participation gap” (Wilcox 1996; Lowndes et al. 2001b). Yet the problem of inaction is not restricted to those who lack awareness. Many other people who endorse the values of participation also tend to remain inactive. Hence, for Lowndes et al. (2001b: 450), a “latent” participation potential exists in many citizens, which organizers seek to tap in participatory initiatives. Surprisingly, however, very few researchers have asked public service users what makes them participate. The research on which this paper is based was designed to provide detailed insights into this question. Our main objectives were:

  • 1to build an understanding of variations in the motivations of participants and non-participants using Mutual Incentives Theory;
  • 2to combine this with other explanations of user participation to provide a systematic framework for understanding what makes public service users participate;
  • 3to furnish lessons for policy and practice about what motivates participants, about how opportunities might best be created and promoted to attract potential participants, and about whether the demands being made of participants are realistic.

Approach and Methodology

Our research focused on the participation of service users in two public services in which participatory mechanisms are relatively well developed and users have shown themselves willing to take part: housing and community care. The following was used as an operational definition: “voluntary participation in groups which aim to have some influence over the way in which services are planned and delivered”. Such groups included both user-led organizations (e.g. tenants’ associations, older people's forums, disability groups) and structures set up at the “interface” between service users and providers (e.g. strategic review groups, area committees). However, in addition to our main focus on the individual participants in such groups (N= 392), a comparison group of “non-participants” was also interviewed, defined as service users who were aware of the opportunity to participate but had never been known to do so (N= 106).

A survey, conducted through face-to-face interviews, collected data on individual respondents’ characteristics (age, gender, ethnicity, education, income, status, caring responsibilities) and participation history (duration, intensity, types of participation). The rest of the schedule was divided in accordance with the predictions of the theoretical model, including a newly devised, 30-point “scale of collectivistic motivations”. This scale was found to be internally reliable (Alpha = .7649). At the end of the schedule, open-ended questions were used to allow respondents to briefly tell their own story and help eliminate any gaps or ambiguities in their answers. A reduced version of the same instrument was used for non-participants. This work was supplemented with a more in-depth study of the conditions for user participation in the two services in each of three locations, giving six service settings.

For logistical reasons the process used to identify participants resembled multi-level cluster sampling. Three local authorities were selected at random (2 in Scotland, 1 in England). Contact was then made in each local authority area with known tenants’ associations and community care service user groups. Following an extended period in each location, building trust and support for the project (which involved the researchers in attending meetings with either the full group or their key representatives), the cooperation of 86 per cent of these groups (N= 113) was secured. This allowed for the compilation of a list of all known participants in these groups, from which 80 per cent were randomly selected. Face-to-face interviews were then undertaken at the respondents’ convenience, and a response rate of 83 per cent achieved. The non-participant sample was a convenience sample, consisting of individuals who were known to service user groups or who frequented day centres, community facilities and so on. The main survey was supplemented by semi-structured interviews with key informants in each of the three locations (N= 63). These informants included elected members, senior officers, frontline staff, voluntary organization workers and service users.

What Makes Public Service Users Participate?

First, factors relating to the service's “importance” to service users need to be considered (see figure 1). In theory we can generalize that, other things being equal, the greater the intensity, continuity, and duration of need in a particular service sector, the more likely people will be to participate. Second, users’ perceptions of the quality of the service may be influential. Here we can generalize that if users are happy with the service they receive, they will be less likely to participate than if they are unhappy. However, for those who are unhappy we can also generalize that the greater the degree of consumer competence to assess service quality, and the lower the availability of alternatives (or “exit”), the more likely will people be to participate (or use “voice”) (Hirschman 1970).

Figure 1.

Characteristics of the service–participation relationship

The two services considered in this research (housing and community care) had a similar profile on all of the above factors. In both services, the intensity, continuity and duration of need and the ability to assess service quality were generally fairly high, and the availability of alternatives (at least, affordable ones) generally low or non-existent. By controlling for differences in these service-sector-related characteristics in our research design, we were able to focus on the particular interest of this project: factors making participation more or less likely at the level of the individual.

There have been a number of attempts to establish why particular individuals participate. This has resulted in important bodies of research on participation in mainstream politics, interest groups, social movements, and voluntary work, as well as social administration. The prior resources and capacities of participants are thought to provide one important set of explanations (e.g. Verba and Nie 1972; Verba et al. 1978, 1995, 2000; Parry et al. 1992). As Verba et al. (2000: 265/254) observe, “participatory activities vary in their resource requirements and individuals vary in their resource endowments . . . Resource constraints are an important factor in determining who becomes active in what way.” Previous research has also focused on the mobilization of participants. First, “issues” such as relative deprivation and dissatisfaction with authorities have been proposed as important catalysts of participation (e.g. Lowndes et al. 1998, 2001a). Second, the creation and promotion of opportunities, or “facilitating conditions” (McAdam 1996), has been identified as an important factor (e.g. Lowndes and Wilson 1999; Maloney et al. 2000). Finally, previous research has pointed to the importance of recruitment efforts in mobilizing participation (e.g. Klandermans and Oegema 1987, 1994; Jordan and Maloney 1996). While some individuals seek out participation opportunities themselves, “being asked” tends to be reported by participants as important in their mobilization. This is particularly the case where the “recruitment agent” is known to them through their existing social networks (e.g. Klandermans 1984; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993; Brady et al. 1999).

The main interest of our research was in what motivates public service users to participate in terms of incentives and attitudes. Incentives and attitudes are considered to be the “internal” psychological mechanisms that explain why some potential participants make the decision to take part, while others do not. Much of the recent literature on incentives has focused on rational choice models, which propose that rational actors will not participate in collective action to achieve common goals (Olson 1965; Whiteley 1995). They will instead “free-ride” on the efforts of others, unless there are private payoffs (“selective incentives”) that they calculate to exceed the costs of participation. As the private payoffs from participation are usually considered to be low, a paradox lies in explaining the fact that some people do participate.

For Finkel et al. (1989), narrow rational choice explanations predict excessive abstention, and are better in explaining why individuals do not participate rather than why they do. Similarly, Whiteley and Seyd (1992: 59–61) argue that there is a need to “consider a wider array of incentives . . . where the individual ‘thinks’ collectively rather than individually”. There have been various attempts to do this (e.g. Muller and Opp 1986, 1987; Finkel et al. 1989; Finkel and Muller 1998). In perhaps the most sophisticated model to date, Whiteley and Seyd (1992, 1996, 1998; Whiteley et al. 1993) combine social-psychological and rational choice explanations in their General Incentives Model, which, alongside selective incentives, features such factors as collective incentives, expressive incentives, altruism and social norms. These models still work within a rational choice framework. However, for some commentators, stretching the theory to accommodate such additional concepts is controversial.

These controversies have informed our work in developing a “Mutual Incentives Theory” (MIT) of motivations to participate. MIT looks beyond the above theories, combining two more general social-psychological theories of motivation (one individualistic, the other collectivistic) that are both broad in scope and detailed in their predictions. The first, developed from social exchange theory (Homans 1961, 1974; Blau 1964; Ekeh 1974; Molm 2000, 2003; Alford 2002), assumes that people are motivated by individual rewards and punishments, and provides a set of generalizations about how these interact (see the Appendix, below). The second, developed from social cooperation theory (Sorokin 1954; Argyle 1991; Axelrod 1984; Vugt et al. 2000), interprets human behaviour very differently, assuming that participation can be motivated by three variables:

  • 1shared goals: people express mutual needs that translate into common goals
  • 2shared values: people feel a duty to participate as an expression of common values
  • 3sense of community: people identify with and care about other people who either live in the same area or are like them in some respect

This theory generalizes that the more each of these three variables is present, the more likely people will be to participate. In our research the two theories were initially kept separate and tested alongside one another, allowing a final interpretative framework to emerge from the data.

Mutual Incentives Theory and User Participation

Mutual Incentives Theory takes in both individualistic and collectivistic incentives. Individualistic incentives are shown in figure 2. This is an enhanced model of costs versus benefits, considering also the positive effects of habit and the negative effects of opportunity costs (whereby the individual calculates the costs of opportunities forgone) and satiation (whereby the oversupply of benefits reduces their subjectively perceived value).

Figure 2.

Individualistic incentives

Taking the negative factors to start with, we found that few respondents considered direct costs (as shown in figure 3) to affect them. Indeed, around 50 per cent said that none of these costs applied. In most cases, direct costs do not therefore appear to provide a significant barrier to participation. The story appears to be much the same for opportunity costs. Just 11 per cent of participants and 22 per cent of non-participants report that these costs put them off participating. Neither does “satiation” appear to have significant effects. Only 15 per cent believed that any benefits had become less valuable to them. However, the benefit most widely reported as becoming less valuable was “getting my own problems solved”. This backs up a key qualitative finding that some participants move from a narrow focus on their own problems to a wider focus once they become more involved.

Figure 3.

Costs of participation

The positive factors in figure 2 are benefits and “habit”. The effects of habit are largely confined to a single participant type (identified via cluster analysis—see below). Benefits can be subdivided into “external” (material/tangible) and “internal” (affective/expressive) (see figure 4). External benefits were not widely reported to be influential. Over 40 per cent said “none” were important to them. By comparison, more respondents considered internal benefits to be valuable. Our findings therefore tend to confirm those of Verba et al. (2000), that “taking part makes activists feel good about themselves”.

Figure 4.

Benefits of participation

Participants’ motivations to participate appear—from these findings—to be clear-cut: the benefits outweigh the costs, and this makes participation more likely. However, such a conclusion would be premature. The influence of individualistic incentives is called into question by a key finding from our research, which was that around 80 per cent of participants said they would still participate without any of the above benefits. While this seems contradictory, it implies they might have collectivistic incentives that outweigh the individualistic ones. Indeed, when asked, participants overwhelmingly stated that they wanted to get benefits for the group as a whole (79 per cent) rather than just for themselves as individuals (2 per cent). Some 19 per cent said they wanted both. This indicates that the pursuit of individual benefits is often secondary to a wider set of concerns, which Mutual Incentives Theory terms collectivistic incentives (figure 5).

Figure 5.

Collectivistic incentives

We found that participants have a strong sense of community, shared goals and, to a slightly lesser extent, shared values (see table 1). Non-participants scored significantly less highly on each of these three measures (p < 0.01). These findings indicate that collectivistic motivations are the primary mechanism in the motivation of service users to participate. However, we still needed to check whether the differences between participants and non-participants were a cause or an effect of participation. Significantly, when we analysed the collectivistic incentive scores of service users who had been participating for different lengths of time, we found that these motivations strengthened progressively (see table 2). This effect was expected. With participation, people's collectivistic motivations are reinforced and their commitment to the group develops (cf. Klandermans 1997; Passy and Giugni 2000). Yet, comparing first-year participants with non-participants still revealed a significant difference in their collectivistic incentive scores (p < 0.05). This provides evidence of cause as well as effect.

Table 1. 
Collectivistic incentive scores
 Sense of communityShared valuesShared goalsOverall
  1. Items scored on a Likert scale from 1–5; lower scores = stronger collectivistic motivations.

Table 2. 
Collectivistic incentive scores over time
Length of participation (yrs)>105–102–51–2<1
  1. Items scored on a Likert scale from 1–5; lower scores = stronger collectivistic motivations.

Collectivistic incentive score2.152.282.362.402.54

As stated earlier, our study used a 30-point attitude scale to measure collectivistic incentives. Cluster analysis was performed on these data to help us identify different types of participant and non-participant. Five clusters of participants and three of non-participants emerged. Cluster membership was then cross-tabulated with participants’ other responses to generate a more detailed picture of their characteristics. Among participants, we were able to characterize four different types of activist, and one less active participant type.

  • • First, there were the “campaigners” (19 per cent). These participants were very active and confident in their participation. They tended to be office-bearers in their groups, regularly taking part in committees and taking responsibility for communicating on behalf of the group. As “doers”, they tended to seek change rather than defend the status quo. They also tended to be more interested in politics, and to have a negative view of the role of authorities. Campaigners exhibited very strong mutualistic motivations, being more likely to “strongly agree” with all but four of the items on the 30-point scale.
  • • Second, were the “foot soldiers” (8 per cent). These were also quite committed and active, but were happier to contribute in a different way. Foot soldiers were more likely to undertake some of the group's support functions, such as fundraising and delivering leaflets, rather than strategic functions such as office-bearer and committee work. They were much more likely to have no educational qualifications. They scored highly on sense of duty items and community identity, but low on social trust. Trust tended instead to be invested in the group, which was considered to know best how to improve services.
  • • In contrast with the first two types, the third type (23 per cent) tended to be thinkers rather than doers. We have termed these participants “scrutineers”. They were more likely to have educational qualifications, and to be interested in participation as a learning experience. However, they were not as active as either of the above clusters of participants, attending meetings very regularly but avoiding taking on wider responsibilities in the group. Scrutineers scored quite low on sense of duty items—they were clearly there on their own terms. As thinkers, they may also have tended to see the “shades of grey”. They were therefore more likely to consider that the group was trying to take on too many problems or problems which were too difficult to solve. This could prevent them from becoming more active themselves, yet they were generally supportive of the group and its more active members.
  • • Fourth, were the “habitual participants” (37 per cent). These were guided particularly by internalized norms. Participation had become part of their regular programme of activities and was mature and stable, but they were not generally heavily involved in the core functions of the group.
  • • Finally, there was one cluster of “marginal participants” (13 per cent) who were less active and usually of short standing with the group. These users were relatively uncommitted and inactive. They either perceived themselves to be more marginalized, or else their participation was more of a peripheral interest. Participants in this cluster were much less motivated, perceiving the costs to be higher and benefits lower. Their collectivistic motivations were almost at non-participant levels, which suggests that it would not take much for them to decide to stop.

There were also three groups of non-participants.

  • • First, there were those who were on the margins but had not yet chosen to participate (40 per cent). These users were generally positive about participation. While they did not perceive the costs of participation to be particularly high, they lacked strong enough motivations (benefits and collectivistic motivations) to come forward and get more involved. However, with the right encouragement they might be persuaded.
  • • Second, there were those who felt alienated (40 per cent). These were likely to be more negative about participation, and to feel quite unconfident about coming forward to participate.
  • • Third, there was a minority who were simply apathetic (20 per cent). They did not have an opinion one way or another on participation—it was simply “off their radar”.

To summarize, in our analysis of individualistic “cost-and-benefit” incentives, only “internal” benefits show up as important in motivating participation. However, even here most participants said they would still participate without these benefits, which points to collectivistic incentives being more important. This is supported by the data, which show participants to be significantly more motivated by collectivistic incentives than non-participants. In a “straight fight” between our individualistic and collectivistic explanations of service users’ motivations to participate, the collectivistic explanation appears to win conclusively.

Yet it might be argued that people are simply more comfortable, or at ease with themselves, with the discourse of collectivistic incentives. So, when people say they would still participate without individualistic benefits, should we take them at their word? While collectivistic thinking and discourse are ostensibly dominant among participants, there is nevertheless some evidence that individualistic incentives are important for some participants at the outset of their participation. If individuals later re-open their decision to participate, it seems they may also start to calculate the costs and benefits afresh, trading the results against their stocks of commitment. However, unless participation is very young or has become problematic in a particular context, the influence of individualistic incentives still appears to be secondary. For the large majority of participants, who say they never calculate what they are getting out of it, collectivistic incentives remain the most powerful stated motivations for service user participation.

A Joined-up Approach: The Participation Chain

The insights of Mutual Incentives Theory are important. On their own, however, they are not enough to explain what makes people participate. Verba et al. (1995) suggest there are three main reasons why people participate: because they can, because they were asked, or because they want to. MIT therefore needs to be linked to other potential explanations if we are to provide a more rounded interpretation of why people take part. Whiteley and Seyd (1996) talk of incentive-based explanations as demand-side models, whereby incentives create a demand for activism. By contrast, other considerations—such as personal resources and mobilization factors—provide “supply-side” explanations for levels of participation. Whiteley and Seyd (1996: 225) go on to suggest that “a general model would incorporate both demand and supply side variables”. This leads us to propose just such a general model of motivations to participate, which we have termed the “participation chain” (see figure 6).

Figure 6.

The participation chain

This non-sequential model has a number of levels, or “links in the chain”. In addition to “motivations” (as discussed in Mutual Incentives Theory, above), we first expand our analysis to consider the prior resources and capacities of public service users. Important resources are usually thought to include time, money, skills and confidence. We examined the effects of service users’ personal resources in relation to their participation. Money did not show up as being important in our results. Participation did not correlate with income levels, either in the quantity or the range of activities undertaken by participants. This finding conflicts with those of earlier studies, and the low correlation is perhaps best explained by the homogeneity of our sample, which was heavily skewed towards low incomes. Time was influential in whether participants got started or not, but once people were involved had little further effect. On our proxy measures, non-participants showed up as tending to have less spare time than participants. However, among participants, there was little difference in the activity of those who had more or less of this resource. For participants, time appears to be a resource barrier that can be overcome. Skills (indicated by educational qualifications, previous experience and training) appear to be very important for service users both in getting started and in supporting higher levels of participation. Participants were more likely to have educational qualifications, previous experience and training than non-participants. Participants with these skills also participated for more hours and in a wider range of activities than those without. Similar effects were found for confidence. Participants reported much higher levels of confidence than non-participants. Among participants, confidence also had a strong correlation with the extent to which service users participate. However, the relationship between skills and confidence was not straightforward. Participants with qualifications reported feeling very confident about their ability to participate, but the correlation with another measure (regarding their confidence in personally making a difference to getting things done) was not significant. Previous experience did not correlate significantly with either indicator of confidence. However, participants who had received training were significantly more likely to report feeling more confident on both levels.

In summary, we found resources to vary in their effect on service user participation. Money did not show up as having a significant effect. Time influenced whether service users started to participate or not, but had little further effect once they were involved. Skills and confidence were very important in both getting started and supporting higher levels of participation. Some studies have found income to be more important, but in general these findings are in line with previous research.

To complete the chain, we expand our analysis to include the mobilization of participants. In common with Lowndes et al. (1998, 2001b), we found participants to be more strongly engaged by certain “catalysing issues” than were non-participants. In relation to public services, these issues include negative relationships with authorities (“authorities are not listening to people like me”; “authorities cannot be trusted to make decisions on behalf of people like me”), a sense of relative deprivation (“my community is worse off than other similar communities”), and a desire for change (“change is not happening quickly enough”). Our qualitative analysis also shows that opportunities to participate were evaluated positively by around 80 per cent of participants when they first became aware of them. Conversely, around 70 per cent of non-participants were more neutral or negative in their comments. To be fair, the majority of non-participants did not have more than a vague conception of what participation might involve, though a small number did express low expectations of how effective their participation was likely to be, in response to the question: “why have you chosen not to participate?” Positive evaluations of opportunities to participate, particularly in terms of their attractiveness, timeliness, relevance and expected effectiveness, therefore look to be important for mobilization. Finally, we found that “active” recruitment (or being asked), as opposed to “passive” recruitment (after reading written notices or making enquiries for themselves), was reported by around 80 per cent of participants. Non-participants were significantly less likely to have been subjects of active recruitment (p < 0.05). Furthermore, qualitative analysis suggests that the connectedness of individuals to recruitment agents in their own social networks can influence the likelihood of recruitment. In short, it does not only matter that people get asked to participate; it matters who does the asking.

A Fourth Link in the Chain? The Dynamics of Participation

In completing our work we were often struck by the impact of cultural and institutional factors on attempts to foster and sustain (or sometimes block and frustrate) users’ political participation. This has led us to suggest a fourth set of factors, involving the dynamics of participation. The literature here is also relatively well established. One line of research has focused on the styles and strategies employed by participants, for example as “defenders” or “protesters” (Piette 1990), or as “insiders”/“outsiders” (e.g. Maloney et al. 1994). Beyond this, studies have looked at “feedback effects” from participation (e.g. Parry et al. 1992; Finkel and Muller 1998). As DETR (1998) observe, people often hold a positive view of their experience of participation. This may lead to the affirmation of participants’ key motivations (e.g. Snow et al. 1986; Snow and Oliver 1993; Smith 1994), and to the development over time of a commitment to participate (e.g. Cress et al. 1997; Passy and Giugni 2000; Andrews 1991). Finally, the role of the group must be acknowledged in so far as it has a mediating role in structuring individuals’ ongoing motivations and behaviour (e.g. Baron et al. 1992) (see figure 7).

Figure 7.

The dynamics of user participation

For public services, the role and attitudes of service providers are also recognized as a key part of the dynamics (e.g. Barnes et al. 2003; Klijn and Koppenjan 2000). “Service provider participation” interacts with that of users in complex and important ways, which underlines the importance of cultural and institutional factors (see figure 8). Tarrow (1998) examines this kind of interplay along five dimensions: increasing access, shifting alignments, divided elites, influential allies and repression/facilitation. This framework emphasizes the need for providers to understand their own motivations to get involved in user participation initiatives, and to think about the styles and strategies they employ. Indeed, as a starting point, providers must decide whether or not they actually want greater participation (Hoggett 1995). Linder (2001) points out that arguments favouring specialized expertise and direction from above (and disparaging “empty talk”) are commonly made against participation. In practice, certainly, the commitment to participatory initiatives can be variable (Pratchett 1999; Harrison and Mort 1998).

Figure 8.

Bringing service providers into the dynamics of participation

In common with DETR (1998), our qualitative findings showed that the majority of service users held a positive view of their participation experience: hence the development over time of a commitment to participate. Service users’ perceptions of how difficult it would be to stop participating correlated significantly with both the level of their activity and the strength of their collectivistic motivations.

The group constitutes another important aspect of the dynamics of participation. At the point where the initial decision to participate is made, users’ knowledge of and relationships with the group tend to be quite abstract. Yet once they start to participate, the group can play an important role in the transformation of individuals’ motivations over time. This may involve the promotion of collectivistic motivations to a primary position in people's “motivational hierarchy”. If the experience of participation is positive (which may depend in part on positive perceptions of the structure, size, status and success of the group), the group may also help to develop greater commitment to participation. For example, participants may increasingly align their aims with those of the group (“shared goals”), or internalize group norms (“shared values”). Again, there is evidence for this in our results. Nevertheless, the extent to which users’ motivations are substantively modified by group processes (e.g. “forming, storming, norming, conforming”; Tuckman and Jensen 1977), or by individual processes (e.g. “self-interaction”; Passy and Giugni 2000; Archer 2003) remains an open question.

Rarely were participants consciously aware of adopting a general participation “style”. Indeed, observations during the course of the project confirm individuals’ reports that they tended to adapt their style to the context and goals of their participation. At meetings, however, there were sometimes discussions about the stance the group would take with service providers over particular issues (“we’ll give them this one, because we've got something bigger coming up soon”; “if we don't fight them on this, it’ll be the thin end of the wedge”). For their part, providers commonly reported the approach of service users to be too “oppositional”. They admitted that this could sometimes feed back negatively on their own motivations to participate, which anyway tended to be more vague and instrumental. Moreover, one provider representative argued that users “choose the wrong battles to fight—things they can't influence”. This observation emphasizes both the power differential between providers and users and providers’ commonplace failure to manage users’ expectations successfully.

A key issue for participants was their sense that authorities were not listening to them. On closer examination, it became clear that “not listening” had two meanings. At one level, participants meant that the authorities were physically not listening to them, i.e. that decision-makers were not attending meetings and hearing for themselves what service users had to say. For example, in one of our research locations, service users felt they had to lobby hard to get decision-makers to meetings, often with little success. Junior staff—described by one participant as “stooges”—were often sent instead, which had led to a general sense of frustration and resentment:

“Many of us have got very disillusioned with the professionals not taking it seriously. It's not even as if you see the same faces for very long. As soon as you think you’re getting somewhere with one of them, they get moved into something else and you’re back to square one with some new, fresh-faced kid.”

At another level, participants also meant that, while decision-makers might attend meetings and hear the views of service users, they showed no inclination to take what users said into account—in the words of one respondent, they were

“hearing but not listening—you feel like they’re just giving lip service, then they just go and do what they want.”

Other respondents agreed:

“Nothing that they've promised us is getting done—it's bloody hot air.”

“We’re always getting promises but no action. We never seem to get anywhere.”

“They lie to you—they say what you want to hear then that's the last of it.”

In these instances, getting decision-makers to meetings was felt to be less of an issue than getting them to respond tangibly to users’ views. For their part, providers in these locations often talked such perceptions down, quoting a number of examples where users’ views had had a direct effect on policies and services. Taken at face value, this suggests two things: that service users’ expectations are not being matched by their experience (which suggests again that expectations are not being managed effectively by service providers); and/or that providers are poor at providing users with adequate feedback and recognition for the inputs they make by their participation. The authorities in all three of our research locations acknowledged weaknesses on both of these counts. Of course, we have to bear in mind that the aims of users and their groups may conflict with those of providers—as well as with those of other groups of citizens and taxpayers. As one of the functions of councillors and managers is to ration scarce resources, not all demands can be met. Yet our respondents were generally realistic about this. There was rarely an expectation that they would get everything they wanted. A major desire was simply for “procedural and interactional justice” (Folger et al. 1996; Cropanzano et al. 2001): in other words, a fair hearing and an appropriate response. As one tenant put it:

“All we want is an equal scenario. We are not here to talk down to the Council, so they shouldn't be here to talk down to us.”

Conclusion: Involving Consumers—Strengthening the Participation Chain

As Linder (2001: 672) asserts, “arguments favouring public participation in various policy-making processes . . . are becoming more and more prevalent”. An emerging recognition that government can no longer act alone in relation to public services has led to pressures in policy and practice for a more collaborative relationship between service users and social administrators. Such issues have raised questions about the need for more direct and intensive processes of involvement and representation. However, policy-makers are getting worried about users’ willingness to come forward and participate. In the UK, many public service agencies have therefore examined their own practices with regard to service-user participation, and attempted to “unblock” it by minimizing or eliminating the perceived institutional barriers to participation. These attempts have been a less than complete success.

This article suggests that, if institutional structures supposed to be participatory and to foster participation are to work, then it is important to look more creatively at a range of other interrelated factors. If user participation is to become a wider reality, the first question that needs to be asked is: “do service providers really want participation?” If the answer is yes, the question that follows is: “will service users participate?”

Using Mutual Incentives Theory we have shown that individualistic benefits such as catharsis, learning, enjoyment, self-confidence and control are valued by participants. However, as motivators, these are secondary to collectivistic incentives such as a strong sense of community, a sense of shared goals and shared values. These “demand-side” factors are important. However, to provide a more rounded, general model, we have integrated three further sets of explanations with those of Mutual Incentives Theory in the “participation chain”. Hence, to motivations we add resources, mobilization factors and the dynamics of participation (see figure 9).

Figure 9.

Expanded participation chain

The chain metaphor is used for two reasons. First, it represents the fact that each link needs to be made as strong as possible if participation itself is to be strengthened. Our findings point to a role for community development, training and advocacy schemes in building potential participants’ skills and confidence, and thereby strengthening the resources link. Strengthening the mobilization link depends on the more honest engagement of users and consumers over key issues, the provision of opportunities that are relevant, timely and attractive, and the importance of making sure that people are asked—in the right way—to take part. Hence, it is important that people get asked directly to participate by people they trust; that it is not left to chance by simply putting up posters, etc., and expecting people to respond. Strengthening the motivations link in the chain involves appealing to people's dominant motivations in the promotion of participation, and ensuring that the participation process works with the grain, rather than against it, in relation to these factors. Finally, for the dynamics link to be strengthened, there is a need for providers to understand and communicate their own motivations, to manage the expectations of participants by delimiting the scope of initiatives and opportunities (e.g. Beresford and Croft 1993; Lowndes et al. 2001a), to provide appropriate feedback to participants, and to recognize the effects of power and other resource imbalances (e.g. Barnes 1997; Skelcher 1993).

Second, the chain metaphor emphasizes the importance of the links being connected up effectively. For instance, it is insufficient to say that we simply need to train people in civic skills, unless appropriate opportunities are going to be provided to use those skills. Similarly, it is insufficient to say that we should appeal to people's “collectivistic incentives” in participation initiatives, but then fail to engage in active recruitment. The links in the chain need to be joined together, in a coordinated way, if participation is to be effectively strengthened.

In sum, different factors working at different levels of the “participation chain” have a role to play in whether or not public service users participate. While our main interest has been at the level of incentives, we have taken a wide-angle lens to capture some of the other factors at work. From this vantage point it is clear that participation can be fragile. There are many ways in which it can falter and lose its footing. Using the framework provided by the participation chain, we have sought to demonstrate that while the question of participation requires a combination of answers, it is a combination that can be predicted, planned for, and acted upon.

Appendix: Propositions from Social Exchange Theory

  • 1The more often a person's participation is rewarded, the more likely the person is to continue to participate.
  • 2If in the past a certain kind of activity has been found rewarding, then the more similar the current activity is to the past one, the more likely people are to participate.
  • 3The more valuable participation is to a person, the more often he or she will be encouraged to participate.
  • 4The more often a person has received a reward from participation, the less valuable any more of the same kind of reward becomes, and the less he or she will participate.
  • 5The more unequally a person sees the rewards being distributed, the more likely he or she is to be angry, and so to experience participation as unrewarding.
  • 6When a person's participation does not receive the reward expected, the result is anger. He/she is more likely then to perform aggressive behaviour, and the results of such behaviour become more valuable.
  • 7In choosing between alternative actions, a person will choose that one for which, as perceived by him/her at the time, the value of the result multiplied by the probability of getting the result, is greater.

In operationalizing these propositions, we change “reward” to “benefit” as a less emotive word. We identify these independent variables acting on participation:

  • • type of benefits received by the participant
  • • value of benefits received by the participant
  • • degree of regularity of receipt of benefits
  • • extent of routinization/habituation to participation
  • • extent of fall-off in benefits over time, owing to satiety
  • • degree of satisfaction/dissatisfaction with the distribution of benefits
  • • opportunity costs of participation


This article draws on the findings of a two-year study, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council as part of their “Democracy and Participation” programme, entitled “A Theoretical Model of What Motivates Public Service Users to Participate” (Award no. L215252002). We are grateful to the ESRC for their support.