• participatory democracy;
  • contention;
  • deliberation;
  • inclusion;
  • empowerment;
  • redistribution;
  • social justice


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Participatory democracy: an overview of the literature
  5. The contributions to this symposium
  6. Conclusions
  7. References


Participation is a popular buzzword in contemporary urban studies. For some, it implies a deepening of democratic deliberation; for others, it represents grassroots resistance to powerful elites and neoliberalization. Rather than seeing participation as either consensus-building or conflicts of interest, as either a top-down or bottom-up process, the evidence suggests that it can be all of these. By adopting a more dynamic, pragmatic, and empirically informed perspective, seemingly opposite normative conceptions of democratic participation may be theorized as different ‘moments’ in the democratic process. Bottom-up mobilization may coincide with and complement top-down initiatives, each dominating different political phases of policymaking, implementation and monitoring. Case studies from Belfast, Berlin, Durban, Philadelphia and São Paulo illustrate the approach and provide insight into the urban as a social laboratory in which other scales of social life and multiple ways to perform democracy are constructed.


La participation est un terme qui revient très souvent dans les études urbaines contemporaines. Pour certains, elle implique une réflexion démocratique approfondie, pour d'autres, une résistance des citoyens face à la puissance des élites et au néolibéralisme. Si la participation peut être vue comme un moyen de bâtir des consensus ou l'expression de conflits d'intérêts, ou comme un processus imposé par le haut ou bien par la base, les faits suggèrent qu'elle peut être tout cela. En adoptant une perspective pragmatique plus dynamique reposant sur des éléments empiriques, des concepts normatifs de la participation apparemment opposés sont susceptibles d'être formulés en tant que “moments” différents du processus démocratique. La mobilisation par la base peut venir en coïncidence et complément d'initiatives imposées par le haut, chaque forme dominant des phases politiques distinctes dans la prise de décision, la mise en œuvre et le suivi. Des études de cas portant sur Belfast, Berlin, Durban, Philadelphie et São Paulo illustrent la démarche et font apparaître l'urbain comme un laboratoire où s'élaborent d'autres dimensions de la vie sociale et de multiples modalités d'exercice de la démocratie.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Participatory democracy: an overview of the literature
  5. The contributions to this symposium
  6. Conclusions
  7. References

Participation is a popular buzzword in contemporary urban studies, cropping up across the political spectrum.1 The direct involvement of ordinary citizens in the initiation, formulation, implementation and monitoring of public policy is increasing throughout the world. Many international organizations and social scientists present ‘democratization’ or inclusionary participation as an unalloyed good, countering concern about declining social capital, heavy-handed bureaucracy, government inefficiency and social exclusion. Yet their conceptions of democracy often diverge, giving rise to debate about the ideal form of citizen participation in self-government. Traditional representative democracy, in which elections aggregate preferences, interests and votes, has fallen into disfavour. As the contributions that follow illustrate, this is associated with a renaissance of direct citizen participation in politics and governance at the local level. In contrast to the technocratic and output-oriented notion of ‘good governance’, many see participatory, direct or deliberative democracy as an attractive and less elitist basis for political legitimation sitting alongside traditional democratic representation.

This symposium examines empirical cases of inclusionary participation of ‘ordinary’ residents from cities throughout the world.2 This introduction presents the cases from the perspective of scholarly disputes over participatory democracy. Several key controversies dominate the field. The most prominent debate is normative, and concerns the ideal form of participatory democracy. As the following section argues, there is polarization between those seeking consensus through deliberation, decision making and collective action for the public good, and those who maintain that democracy is about political contestation, clashes of interest and control over governance itself. Related to the debate over democratic participation is the extent to which urban governance is ‘neoliberal’ in the sense of serving to reduce the public sphere and initiating citizen participation from the top down or controlling it, if it emerges from the bottom up. The critical literature on neoliberal governance expresses concern that government or elite efforts to elicit citizen participation are thinly veiled attempts at securing legitimacy for and cooperation with policies already adopted that favour capitalist growth. Consultation co-opts potential opposition and drives a wedge between grassroots leaders and their constituents. In contrast, bottom-up initiatives are considered more authentic expressions of citizen sentiment, claims and demands and forms of resistance to neoliberal goals. However, insurgent citizens claiming their formal rights to the city may ultimately meet organized violence and exclusion from local participatory arenas (Holston, 2007; Baud and Nainan, 2008).

We argue that these distinctions between consensus and conflict, top down and bottom up, do not constitute mutually exclusive categories. They might even overlap and can to a degree be reconciled by adopting a more dynamic, pragmatic and empirically informed perspective. Rather than propose a compromise or ‘hybrid’type of democracy (e.g. ‘radicalized communicative rationality’ in Beaumont and Loopmans, 2008; ‘radical pluralism’ in Purcell, 2008) or simply view contestation and consensus as mutually exclusive alternatives, we see opposing normative conceptions of democracy as different ‘moments’ in the democratic process. Bottom-up mobilization may coincide with and complement top-down initiatives, each dominating different political phases (Briggs, 2008), and different conceptions of participatory democracy may apply to varying degrees at distinct stages of the political process. At the policy initiation stage, politics, conflict and ‘agonism’ (Mouffe, 1996) may dominate, as local grassroots groups make demands, or elites propose policies for which they seek legitimacy and compliance. At the stage of decision making, when antagonistic contests move towards resolution, deliberation, consensus seeking or compromise may be more prominent. At the governance or implementation stage, when problem solving and practical results matter, participation in executing or monitoring a policy may be more-or-less inclusive and transparent. This notion of a ‘cycle of contestation and consensus’ complements the familiar notion of ‘social movement cycles’ (e.g. Tarrow, 1994). While the ‘agonistic’ conception of democracy rejects the idea that political conflicts between unequals are ever voluntarily suspended, one in fact observes compliant periods in democracies when people stop fighting and try to achieve goals. In brief, empirically, democratic practice in the same context with the same actors may look different in different moments. At some point, the conflicts can become institutionalized and come to look more like ‘normal politics’.

It is important to renounce another faulty assumption common in the participation literature, namely that grassroots involvement is always progressive. While it is true that in some instances citizens demand more inclusive, responsive and efficient government that equitably redistributes resources, in other cases, such as NIMBY conflicts, people selectively get involved to protest majority decisions, civic action or the public interest. This was a blind spot in the social capital literature (Portes and Landolt, 1996) that threatens to pervade the direct democracy literature too. Indeed, one reason that modern states have traditionally resisted decentralization and local self-government is that small jurisdictions can abuse their power, pursue narrow interests, exclude outsiders, express parochial identities and impose externalities on their neighbours contrary to the greater good (Frug, 1999; Magnusson, 2005). Grassroots participation of ‘ordinary’ citizens is not necessarily inclusive, empowering or egalitarian. First, public–private partnerships, community consultation and other forms of citizen participation encouraged from above typically include only selected organizations or interests. The representativeness and accountability of civil society associations who claim to mediate access of excluded and poor populations to the state is rarely contested (Houtzager and Gurza Lavalle, 2009). States use participatory forums to offload public responsibilities, defuse protest, co-opt opponents, impose social control and mobilize communities behind a neoliberal agenda. Often, citizen participation is not directed toward social justice at all, but rather ratifies and even carries out decisions that favour capital. It is a mode of ‘governmentality’ reproducing state power in new spaces, but also allowing active subjects to influence government (Dean 1999; Morison, 2000). Second, participation is not synonymous with empowerment. Voicing one's point of view does not mean that one will carry the day. Power inequalities between participants remain. Third, the results of inclusive, empowered citizen participation are not necessarily egalitarian. Some evidence suggests that ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’, that is, those actively involved in local politics win more resources than do passive, demobilized communities. Bachrach's and Baratz's (1975: 903) old observation that ‘those who most need to participate in the political process are the nonparticipants’ applies to experiments in participatory democracy just as surely as it does to more conventional political processes. Under some circumstances, increased participation can reinforce rather than reduce inequalities between social groups. Self-selection in voluntary participation results in homogeneous groups ‘skewed toward the upper range of education and socioeconomic status’ and excludes the disadvantaged through practical barriers of time, money, culture and information (Perrin and McFarland, 2008: 1234). Conflict is precluded and deliberation facilitated in less diverse settings, but issues of distributive justice may never be discussed in them.

This symposium concentrates on the participation of ‘ordinary’ and excluded citizens in what are more-or-less distributive conflicts over resources. The contributions assess local participation, both conflictual and cooperative, from a dynamic perspective and from the vantage points of inclusiveness, empowerment and social justice at the urban level. The articles show that participation of ordinary citizens, or ‘direct democracy’, has the potential to provide at least three benefits. First, it can promote social inclusion. The issue here is access: who participates? Democracy is supposed to be open to all citizens, but in fact many participatory structures are exclusive or selective in some way. In neo-corporatist bargaining, for example, organized representatives of selected ‘stakeholders’ are the only parties to the negotiation. People without an immediate stake but who may be indirectly affected have no say. Stakeholders bargain to reach compromises between opposing interests, rather than give reasons to reach the public good. Representatives have organized constituents to whom they must answer, even as they collaborate with others. Should not disinterested and excluded members of the public participate in decisions too?

A second potential benefit of participation is empowerment. Getting to the table is not enough. Members of marginal groups need equal capacities to participate. Even when forums are open to the public and traditionally excluded groups have access to deliberation and decision making, their voices may not be influential. They lack time, resources and cultural capital. Evidence suggests that community participants have much greater voice than nonparticipants, but not much more power (Taylor, 2007). More educated or powerful groups may dismiss them because of their styles of expression. This is a danger of deliberative democracy that Young, Mouffe, Fraser and other radical democrats warn of. Several contributions to this symposium show how vulnerable segments of the population or once-ignored environmental groups win power and recognition through civic participation.

Third, participation is often assumed to result in redistribution or social justice. This is perhaps the most neglected or naïve aspect of the participation literature. The focus on process neglects consequences. What is citizen participation for? Who benefits from it? Advocates of deliberative democracy claim that the best arguments, not the largest number, should win the day, encouraging a consensus over the public interest. In contrast, electoral democracy appeals to the principle of majority rule, which poses a problem for permanently outvoted poor and excluded minorities. Although citizen participation is not always about zero-sum conflicts, as in the struggle for a better environment and other public goods from which all can benefit, ‘politics is who gets what, when, and how’, to use Harold Lasswell's famous definition. Some of the cases examined here, such as São Paulo's participatory budgets discussed by Hernández-Medina (2010, this issue), show that redistributive outcomes can be achieved.

Finally, the symposium raises the question of where participation takes place. Two aspects of this are relevant: spatial scale and specific context. Some of the cases here report on participation at the level of an entire city or metropolitan region (Aylett, 2010, this issue; McAlister, 2010, this issue), but most discuss the connection between participation at the city and neighbourhood levels. That the contributions to this symposium have an urban focus is not coincidental. The city has long been viewed in social theory as the locus of free association (e.g. Simmel, 1950 [1903]). New England town meetings, like the Greek polis, are the prototypes of direct democracy. More recently, Paul Hirst (2005: 11) has asserted that ‘developed governance has always been urban’ and that cities were the ‘anchor point of a relatively autonomous “civil society” ’ (ibid.: 10) before there were nation-states. On this view, the quality of democracy at the national level is in no small part dependent upon the quality of democracy at the urban level. If this is correct, then the revival of political participation at the urban level is to be welcomed.

The synergistic benefits of local participation may again transform the urban context into a social laboratory within which increased freedom for the grassroots to experiment encourages social innovation in complex and diversified societies. Of course, scale plays an important role from another point of view. Cities themselves are situated within global, regional and national contexts that constrain local government action, but are also the contexts within which people engage in multi-level governance and politics (Kazepov, 2010; Piattoni, 2010). National and transnational processes are localized in cities (Magnusson, 2005). Neighbourhood participants can join forces with others at much higher geographical levels. Thus, the varying scale of action provides differentiated room for manoeuvre available to the different type of actors. As Aylett's contribution illustrates, local environmentalists interact with transnational NGOs and may engage The Hague and other international human rights bodies.

The specific context in which participation takes place also shapes the democratic process. In this symposium are cases from the global South — São Paulo, Brazil and Durban, South Africa — and the global North — Belfast, Northern Ireland, Berlin, Germany and Philadelphia, USA. Some of these cities were historically divided — sometimes by concrete walls — along sectarian, racial and political lines or by extreme income inequality. These boundaries make deliberation and consensus building difficult. Some cities have a longstanding tradition of citizen participation, while in others people were predominantly passive and withdrawn. Some cities benefit from relatively generous welfare states, while others struggle. Depending on the specific historical and institutional context, local participation and civic engagement can break down social differences or reinforce them. The cases from middle-income democratizing countries in this symposium provide grounds for optimism, while more sceptical positions are taken with respect to the two post-industrial cities in the US and Germany, with Northern Ireland in-between.3

Participatory democracy: an overview of the literature

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Participatory democracy: an overview of the literature
  5. The contributions to this symposium
  6. Conclusions
  7. References

In contemporary urban studies, it is difficult to avoid the ubiquitous subject of participation. This journal alone published symposia edited by Melo and Baiocchi (2006) on ‘Deliberative Democracy and Local Governance’, Beaumont and Nicholls (2008) on ‘Plural Governance, Participation and Democracy’, and Guarneros-Meza and Geddes (2010) on ‘Local Governance and Participation under Neoliberalism’.4 In these discussions there is a common critique of liberal pluralist democracy based upon multiple interest groups, individual rational choice and periodic voting. However, echoing the earlier distinction between pragmatic and political approaches to popular participation (Schonwalder, 1997), the critics themselves differ between those seeking efficient problem solving through deliberation, reasoning, partnership and consensus over the public good, and those who maintain that democracy is about political contestation, inevitable inequalities, clashes of interest and bargaining to reach compromises.5

These debates have often been framed in terms of a — perhaps over-simplified — opposition between two major thinkers: Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault. These names serve as shorthand for a set of oppositions. ‘Habermas’ stands for consensus, rational deliberation and the bracketing-off of power in the name of attaining a discursive formation of the collective will. ‘Foucault’ stands for the ubiquity of conflict, power inequalities and their constitutive, indeed creative, nature. The opposition — between rational and emotional, outcome driven and process driven, inclusive vs. exclusive and direct vs. mediated political practice — has been central to the social scientific literature (Perrin and McFarland, 2008). Much subsequent analysis — including some within this symposium — comes down on one or other side of the ‘Habermas–Foucault divide’. Since several excellent summaries of this theoretical controversy exist (e.g. Flyvberg, 1998; Purcell, 2008), we highlight only those differences relevant to the study of citizen participation. We shall focus on just two aspects: consensus vs. conflict and procedure vs. process.

Firstly, consensus vs. conflict. Habermas is fully aware that economic power and state power are the major factual means of social coordination in modern societies. Indeed, that was a key point of his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action (Habermas, 1984 and 1987). Nevertheless, he gives prominence to a more normative claim, namely that, as Penski (2001: 50) puts it, ‘processes of reaching understanding and collective will-formation constituted a vital if fragile third mode of social coordination’. His work on discourse ethics (Habermas, 1992) and on law (Habermas, 1996) undergirds the hope of realizing the normative claims implicit in speech and in law through deliberation, provided it is free of strategic considerations and the exercise of power. From this perspective, deliberation plus law and due process constitute resources for the marginalized and powerless. For Foucault, by contrast, power is generative of social relations. Nor is it conceptualized as a source of interference or ‘systematic distortion’ in social relations. The latter are inconceivable without the exercise of power. Power is not an externality that can be bracketed out, but is intrinsic to and constitutive of discursive and other social practices (Flyvberg, 1998: 227). Foucault's paradoxical notion of ‘governmentality’ suggests that local democratic participation liberates and controls citizens simultaneously. Civil liberties enable people to govern and impose rules upon themselves, reducing the need for strategic, coercive or punitive state governance (Magnusson, 2005). While power is frequently presented as a zero-sum game in political science and political sociology literature, the governmentality literature emphasizes expanding capability. To be sure, participation may be an instrument to manage the disadvantaged, but even limited opportunities for involvement by the powerless may be an improvement on the status quo (Blakeley, 2010). Although most evidence suggests that disadvantaged communities remain on the margins of partnerships and new participatory opportunities, they still allow ‘active subjects’ to influence these new arenas. The contestation of power — the ever-present possibility of resistance — is potentially empowering (Morison, 2000; Taylor, 2007).

Secondly, procedure vs. process. For Habermas, the requirements for a state governed by the rule of law (a Rechtsstaat), such as the (theoretical) inclusion of any party affected by a discussion and citizens' status as authors and not merely as subjects of the law, are key empowering aspects of democracy. Such procedures partially embody enlightened reason and anticipate an ideal speech situation in which pre-existing inequalities of power are neutralized, participants have equal opportunity to present and criticize claims, and a discursive formation of the collective will is possible. In contrast, a Foucauldian perspective views the struggle itself as the empowering moment. Empowerment has an internal relation to the struggle with and against technologies of power. Formal procedures cannot fix or guarantee such ‘empowerment’. While Foucault (1982) is careful to avoid romanticizing resistance, those who look to his arguments emphasize contestation, non-rational appeals and power rather than rational dispute and formal procedure. They thus prescribe neither process nor outcome. There is here no equivalent to Habermas' notion of agreement as the transcendental end of communicative action, and thus no moment of closure.

These contrasts between consensus and conflict, procedure and process, and different conceptions of empowerment and power — power as barrier vs. power as generative — frame subsequent debates. Accordingly, this symposium contrasts two main forms of local participation: (1) deliberative and participatory democracy; and (2) radical pluralist democracy.

Deliberative and participatory democrats

Those who emphasize deliberation (e.g. Cohen, 1996; Gutmann and Thompson, 2004) suggest that by reasoning together, treating everyone with respect, giving everyone a chance to speak and learning from different opinions, interest- or identity-based conflict can give way to consensus. This implies that politics, in the sense of interest-based antagonistic cooperation, is detrimental to attaining the common good. In Joshua Cohen's (1996) conception of democracy, for example, free public deliberation is the basis for the legitimate exercise of power. The ‘principle of deliberative inclusion’ determines membership in a self-governing community, in that members consent to be governed by collectively made decisions with which they may disagree. Members or citizens with equal capacities to participate give reasons or justifications for their opinions that can be acceptable to all, instead of pursuing naked interests. Deliberation conveys agreement that members are equal and deserving of respect. Since deliberation allows for value pluralism within the bounds of the principle of deliberative inclusion, Cohen argues that it transcends procedural or aggregative democracy. Given reasonable value pluralism, abridging rights to participation or rights of expression is unacceptably exclusionary, because it denies equal standing and equal opportunities to influence others. Equal standing in deliberation ‘severs the fate of citizens from the differences of social position, natural endowment, and good fortune’ (ibid.: 106). Furthermore, participation cultivates civic virtue and political skills.

Some supporters of participatory or associative democracy do not necessarily share the above consensualist assumptions and, following Durkheim's (1957) cue, emphasize the role of citizens' organizations rather than direct democracy and participation of individual citizens (Cohen and Rogers, 1992; Hirst, 1994; Fung, 2003). They see voluntary associations, social capital and a vibrant ‘civil society’ as beneficial to democracy and liberty, countering state power and serving as schools of democracy. Civil society associations claim to represent politically excluded segments of the population, providing access to new public decision-making institutions that might otherwise be off limits (Houtzager and Gurza Lavalle, 2009). Although not all of these mediating groups have active memberships, citizens who do participate in associations learn to transcend self-interest, build social capital, seek the common good and revitalize and re-legitimize the political process and democratic institutions.6 This is the ‘creative’ side of deliberation in which social interaction — whether rational or emotional —‘distorts’ the outcome (Perrin and McFarland, 2008).

However, this deepening of democracy is not exclusively an end in itself. Participation, deliberation and consensus building solve practical problems and get things done (Cohen, 1996; Sabel et al., 1999; Briggs, 2008). This more pragmatic argument supports the shift from government to ‘governance’. Once deliberation produces a consensus about goals, citizen involvement in governance improves government efficiency and accountability for producing results. Participants, especially those with local experiential information, contribute to and monitor implementation of consensual goals, deepening participatory democracy and making it more efficient. In turn, ‘citizen authors of public policy come to view government at all levels as a partner to be recruited into a broadly collaborative effort, rather than as a master rule-maker or ultimate arbiter’ (Sabel et al., 1999: 14).

Although they are hardly neoliberals, this group of scholars takes a pretty dim view of civil servants. They consider government to be an inferior and constrained service provider. As Briggs (2008: 6) puts it, there are ‘limits on what government alone can accomplish to solve important problems’. In contrast, civic capacity, social capital and citizen participation help to make things better. Yet, there may be ‘a trade-off between inclusiveness and effectiveness’ (ibid.: 315).

Radical pluralist democracy

‘Radical pluralists’ (see Purcell, 2008) and other critics of these proponents of consensus building call attention to the downsides of citizen involvement. They share Foucault's view that conflict is inevitable, but creative. They say that power is always present, even in communication, so conflict is unavoidable. Social inequality pervades all of social life thereby rendering all relations political. The radical critique of promoting participation in deliberative decision-making and governance is that it serves to hide inevitable inequalities, exclusion and conflict. As Chantal Mouffe (2000: 104) argues, consensus ‘always entails some form of exclusion’.7 Vested interests may engage in ‘social closure’ around a consensus just as they might around any other social resource. Only a thin consensus about the values of equality and liberty underlies democracy. Democracy is difference, pluralism, conflict.

Radical democrats reject deliberative democracy on several grounds. Pre-existing inequality of resources and status and omnipresent power relations bias public discourse and produce unequal influence in deliberation (Fraser, 1992). Deliberative speech aims to persuade some people to change their minds and reach unity, consensus or the common good. Thus, it is competitive, assertive or antagonistic, as well as formal, general and dispassionate. Despite the pretence of neutrality, these hegemonic aspects of deliberative discourse — both in language and styles of speech — create a cultural bias towards those with the best skills at rational argument. They privilege calm ‘reasonable’ speech. Deliberation devalues the usual styles of expression of women, minorities and the working class or poor (Young, 1996) thereby marginalizing and excluding alternative voices. In sum, consensus always implies ‘a silenced margin’ (Beaumont and Nicholls, 2008).

In turn, consensus becomes hegemonic and exclusionary. Mouffe (1996: 246) rejects the Habermasian ‘objective of unanimity and homogeneity which is always revealed as fictitious and based on acts of exclusion’. The exclusion of multiple and contesting identities and values is unfortunate as diversity and alterity are good for democracy. If participants were already calm and reasonable, there would not have been a disagreement in the first place (Allen, 2004). ‘The emphasis of deliberative theories on reaching substantive consensus means not facing up to the realities of value pluralism’ (Tsakatika, 2007: 872). Ways of communicating besides critical reasoning — greeting, rhetoric, flattery, deference, storytelling — can establish trust and respect, level the playing field and confront the privileged with different perspectives and knowledge. Subaltern counter-publics expose the particular interests behind the apparent consensus and provide counter-hegemonic resistance to a dominant culture that marginalizes minority groups (Fraser, 1996). Through conflict and relations of inequality, the weak are constituted as political agents.

Difference, then, rather than consensus, is the basis of ‘agonist democracy,’ in which groups consciously and perpetually struggle to gain hegemony, but each recognizes the other's right to exist as a legitimate enemy. Agonist democracy must engage difference, posing counter-hegemonic resistance to neoliberalism. Radical politics consist of contesting domination, questioning discourse and making power and exclusion transparent. In these ways, conflict is productive and creative. These critics see value in a good fight.8

Radical critiques of deliberative democracy frequently appear in urban studies as critiques of ‘neoliberal governance’. Governance signals a shift from regulation by the state alone to regulation based upon a consensus among multiple actors, ranging from union participation in corporatist arrangements to softer forms of collectivism. Decentralization, devolution and deregulation under the constraints of heightened global competition and declining fiscal support force cities to compete for corporate investments (Brenner and Theodore, 2001: 342). When cities promote civic participation and public–private partnerships, they can more easily offload public responsibilities, cut expenditure and legitimate the hegemonic status quo (Stoker, 1998; Brenner and Theodore, 2001; Stoecker, 2002; Harmes, 2007; Harvey, 2007). Neoliberal governance stresses outputs, performance and efficiency, enlisting citizens in measuring, auditing and monitoring, holding government accountable for results in a depoliticized technical process that defuses conflicts and treats them as consumers (Hickey and Mohan, 2004; Taylor, 2007).

Other critical concerns

But it is not just theorists of radical democracy who doubt the claims made for participatory forms of governance. The emphasis by governance enthusiasts on ‘horizontal’ rather than ‘vertical’ coordination and upon partnership and negotiation in place of hierarchy and command has likewise been met with a degree of scepticism. There is a burgeoning literature critical of governance, some of which is potentially relevant to issues of participatory and deliberative democracy. ‘Governance’ for example, is said to suffer from many of the same drawbacks as European neo-corporatism (Offe and Preuss, 2006). The selectivity of participants belies the rhetoric of inclusion, governance arrangements are often closed, lack transparency and have no clear means of holding participants accountable or responsive to those they claim to represent (see Houtzager and Gurza Lavalle, 2009; Palumbo, 2010). Governance by consensus is ‘ruling without an opposition’ (Offe and Preuss, 2006: 181) and both manifests and reinforces weak legitimation. Others have argued that deliberation defuses protest. Partnerships co-opt opponents into the state and demobilize social movements (Schonwalder, 1997; Mayer, 2006) and thus contribute to further depoliticization (van Gunsternen, 2006). Bringing civic associations into governance changes their character, requiring them to fundraise, professionalize and seek legal, financial and other expertise. As Becher (2010, this issue) shows in her contribution to this symposium, participation of civic leaders in governance also subjects them to cross-pressures from their collaborating partners and their constituents. Active protest against consensual governance partnerships may even benefit local democracy. Independent critics play the crucial roles of holding the state accountable for results and monitoring partnership compliance with the law.

Opposition groups maintain their autonomy against usurpation of power, a particular threat in clientelistic settings. Group representatives can stay loyal to their constituents, legitimizing civil society organizations. Civil society innovates from below and collects new information that the state may otherwise ignore. And by forming networks across space, local groups can share information and learn. As Briggs (2008: 309) puts it: ‘Productive conflict and pressure politics can play important roles, such as mobilizing participation, clarifying stakes and getting more options for action considered’. Aylett's (this issue) contribution to this symposium likewise identifies positive functions of conflict.


In all the enthusiasm for citizen participation, its downsides have been neglected. Firstly, the relationship between participation and trust does not hold everywhere (Clark and Carreira da Silva, 2009). In some settings, civic groups are closed, particularistic and clientelistic, hardly encouraging democracy. The same strong ties of solidarity that help members of a group accomplish goals often enable it to exclude outsiders and dissenters (Portes and Landolt, 1996). Secondly, in most societies, there is class bias in citizen participation. Elites try to keep decision making private and out of public view; in the words of Schattschneider (1975: 34–5), ‘the flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent. Probably about 90% of the people cannot get into the pressure system’. Insiders and organized interests have advantages in information, resources, access to expertise and so on. A large proportion of participants in participatory institutions are not ordinary citizens, but rather leaders of civil organizations who speak for particular groups, values or identities without any formal responsibility to them (Houtzager and Gurza Lavalle, 2009). The educated middle classes are more likely to get involved in voluntary associations than the poor, men and older people more than women and youth. Elite capture of local politics also increases the opacity of the policymaking process, exacerbating accountability problems. Thirdly, when the upper and middle classes do get involved locally, they often defend their privileges. Until recently, local environmentalism was largely reactive, with residents protecting themselves from what they perceived as threats. Protests against undesirable land uses, toxic waste or air and water pollution can quickly degenerate into NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) movements or erecting ‘gates’ that exclude undesirable neighbours. Although low-income groups may also mobilize around NIMBY issues, these are often accompanied by more general environmental or social justice demands.

The joint effect of these downsides is to undermine territorial solidarity between places where citizens participate and places where they do not. Well-organized municipalities that form a consensus to exclude some land uses or particular people force these into other communities less able to resist them. Only government of a larger scale can constrain such externalities.

Content, context, scale and process

So far, we have presented the controversies between those seeking consensus through deliberation, decision making and collective action for the public good and those who maintain that democracy is about political contestation, clashes of interest and control over governance itself. This debate over democratic participation is also related to whether citizen participation is initiated from the top down or emerges from the bottom up. There are several additional issues about citizen participation that are underplayed in these disputes that pertain to content, context, scale and process.

The debate in political theory over citizen participation is often waged in universal terms with abstract models that could apply anywhere, and even those radical democrats who challenge this universalism have a broad-brush view of oppositional politics. In other words, much of the debate, from either side, lacks an empirical referent. There is little interest in language, culture, or the social, spatial and physical contexts in which deliberation takes place. While it is possible to conduct experiments in deliberative democracy, these have the character of ‘controlled experiments’ at one remove from normal political contestation. In contrast, the focus of the contributions in this symposium is on actual experiences of citizen participation. They acknowledge that people participate in real places with distinctive histories, legal and policy frameworks and institutions. Some settings, from Durban in South Africa to Kreuzberg in Berlin, have long traditions of civic activism, while in others — such as Northern Ireland — democracy was long suppressed. In brief, context shapes civic participation.

One consequence of this lack of empirical referent is that the debate between deliberative and radical democracy is more concerned with procedure than substance. How gets more attention than what. Objectives are almost interchangeable. These scholars care more about efficiency in attaining goals than the goals of deliberation, decision making and governance themselves. There is some discussion of the nature of goals. Deliberation should be oriented to practical goals. Local citizen participation should address ‘a specific area of public problems’, such as land use, open space, public services, education, policing, or environment (Fung and Wright, 2001). But the ultimate purpose of democratic participation is taken for granted.

There are three key issues here: First, the protagonists ignore the transversal nature of conflicts. In participatory budgeting, for example, the decisions are about priorities. Usually there are zero-sum tradeoffs, not an overall common good or a single consensual goal. Second, they skirt the issue of who benefits from participation. One should ask not only ‘does participation lead to more efficient outcomes?’ but also ‘does it produce fairer ones?’ Are the goals redistributive? Do they promote social justice? Just because the deliberative process is inclusive does not mean that the poor will have equal influence or win the day. Increasing citizen participation does not guarantee progressive consequences, but what else are the poor and excluded struggling for? While both sides of the debate address the problems of exclusion and inequality, strangely they have little to say about the possibility of changing them. A third issue related to context is scale. What is the most appropriate scale for citizen participation? The classic justification for decentralization and devolution is that deliberation works best in small face-to-face forums where everyone has a chance to speak and where solutions to problems are tailored to local conditions. Neoliberal governance rejects the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to policy. Yet without some way of connecting localities, communities can become inward looking, parochial and restricted to their own local resources, potentially exacerbating spatial differentiation, competition and conflict.

While the contributions here seek to redress all these shortcomings, the issue of scale turns out to be particularly important. Critics of direct democracy take the position that grassroots participation must scale up. As Briggs (2008) notes, John Dewey expected face-to-face communication in the local community in the early twentieth century to give way to the ‘Great Community’ in which the public conversation took place through the mass media. Bonding social capital that glues communities and neighbourhoods together, Briggs maintains, should be complemented with bridging social capital through ‘intermediaries’ connecting them to other actors and places.9 For example, neighbourhood assemblies in participatory budgeting elect representatives to city-wide councils where local and urban priorities must mesh. The two levels interact. A more abstract procedure for articulating scales or levels of participation is Sabel et al.'s (1999) ‘rolling-rule regime’. Experts and citizens, national centres and localities, and conventionally antagonistic interests engage in direct practical deliberation, collaborate and are mutually accountable. At the grassroots, citizen participation mobilizes local knowledge and provides on-the-ground monitoring to ensure compliance with collective decisions. Local participants feed information back up to a centralized level to permit learning, diffusing good practices to others and reinforcing the monitoring process. This vision of democracy entails continuous cycles of feedback and adaptation across levels to improve performance.

The ‘rolling-rule regime’ provides an example of how to think about citizen participation more as a process than as a model. A similar dynamic description of how citizens get things done is found in Briggs (2008: 308–9, original italics), who distinguishes between ‘who initiates action and who participates in other ways over time’, and advocates for ‘savvy iterations of learning and bargaining’. Episodes of bargaining — which connotes ‘adversary’ democracy — and social learning — including insight into counterparts' interests and values —‘need to be sequenced’ (ibid.: 304). In the same way, democratic politics consist of repeated iterations of conflict and consensus as, in specific contexts and at different scales, citizens demand inclusion, deliberate or bargain over goals, carry out decisions and demand accountability for results.

Others have sought to resolve the debate between deliberative and radical democracy by abstracting seemingly desirable principles from real cases to build hybrid models combining consensus and conflict — e.g. ‘empowered participatory governance’ (Fung and Wright, 2001; Fung, 2004), ‘radicalized communicative rationality’ (Beaumont and Loopmans, 2008) and ‘radical pluralism’ (Purcell, 2008). However, we argue that this approach dilutes the empirical reality of conflict or cooperation observed at any given time. A dynamic perspective on participation reveals both conflict and consensus. Variations on participatory budgeting can be found in three of the cities in this symposium: Berlin (citizens' budgets as part of the Soziale Stadt programme), Durban (under the Integrated Development Plan, local communities have a voice in determining how budgets are spent in their communities) and São Paulo (where socially vulnerable segments are specifically included and empowered). Social learning occurs over time. Participatory budgeting appears to work best where there are timely results, so people can see that it works. It also helps to have popular pressure to adopt it and prevent special interests from capturing the process.

The weaknesses of participatory budgeting should not be neglected. With respect to inclusion, public meetings may be open to all, but illiteracy, language barriers, fear of retaliation for criticism and other obstacles lower attendance. Outreach campaigns, quotas and targeting disadvantaged groups for inclusion can overcome uneven turnout (Fishkin, 1995; Shah, 2007: 10). Selective incentives may be needed to overcome such collective action problems. Empowerment remains a challenge. As elsewhere in the world, more educated, articulate and organized interests usually dominate deliberation.10 As the process progresses, elected district representatives or appointed stakeholders bargain over local priorities at a more central level. Budgets may favour some organizations over others, promoting their relative growth and rendering them more powerful in future meetings. There is a danger that, by participating, ordinary or disadvantaged citizens may unwittingly legitimate decisions that they did not prefer, such as private over public solutions, but in terms of the ‘principle of deliberative inclusion’, their participation signals consent to be governed by such collective decisions with which they may disagree. Finally, participatory budgeting should not be glorified. Redistributive effects, while important, are modest. Typically, only a small share of the city's total budget, usually for public works, is involved in participatory budgeting, so ‘it does not dramatically reduce poverty (especially in terms of income) on its own . . . Even in the relatively small number of municipalities that succeeded in improving local service provision with participatory budgeting, low incomes and joblessness remain serious problems’ (Shah, 2007: 6).

Dynamics of democracy

Democratic participation is a process. At different stages, there are different practices, benefits and drawbacks. The initiative for participation may come from above or below. Later, actors may deliberate to set goals, weigh priorities and make decisions, including over the extent of redistribution. During implementation and execution of these decisions, there may be grassroots participation in governance. As results become visible, citizens may monitor outcomes, evaluate costs and benefits, learn lessons that are conveyed beyond the immediate context and hold decision makers accountable. Central government coordinates among parts, collects feedback, assembles knowledge learned and encourages adaptation. In sum, the debate between advocates of consensus and conflict in civic participation might be resolved by thinking dynamically. When studies classify cases as deliberation or dissension, consensus or conflict, they are usually referring to a given phase or moment in a longer democratic political process.

To discover agonist democracy at the beginning of a policy process does not mean that conflict and protest are perpetual. At some point, decisions are made through compromise or consensus and citizen participation may take a new form. Thus, ordinary citizens themselves, or their elected or appointed representatives or spokespeople, may later deliberate with erstwhile opponents to solve problems, identify goals and set priorities. At least temporarily, it may appear that a consensus is reached. Decisions move on to the implementation stage, and citizens may participate in executing a policy. During this ‘back-end’ phase — or institutionalization — participation might come to resemble ‘governance’. If citizens do not participate in carrying out decisions, they may still monitor results and hold those who do realize policy accountable for their performance, setting off more conflict within new forms of localism (Stoker, 2004).

The contributions to this symposium

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Participatory democracy: an overview of the literature
  5. The contributions to this symposium
  6. Conclusions
  7. References

The neoliberal era is not the first time that grassroots participation has been in vogue. During the 1960s, the slogan ‘Power to the People’ encapsulated the New Left's democratic goals. In the United States, the War on Poverty called for ‘maximum feasible participation’ of the local population in community action programmes. In Germany, as Rosol (2010, this issue) recalls here, squatters and other alternative groups sought control of their neighbourhoods, opposed urban renewal programmes and launched Bürgerinitiativen (citizens' action committees). In South Africa, Aylett's contribution describes Fossil Fools Day and other symbolic actions by Durban's budding environmental movement that presaged today's citizen involvement in governance (Aylett, this issue). There is also a long history of direct participation in parts of Brazil (Nylen, 2003).

In the historically informed contributions to this symposium, the extent and quality of citizen participation ranges from minimal — consultation of the public by planners in Belfast and Philadelphia — to more extensive — residents' budgetary decision-making in São Paulo, policy implementation in Berlin and grassroots mobilization holding government accountable in Durban. While the government initiated citizen participation in São Paulo and Belfast, as well as one of the four community gardens in Berlin, the grassroots were the origins of participation in Durban and in most of the Berlin gardens; government and citizen groups simultaneously developed an interest in participation in Philadelphia. In the five cases in this symposium, the state supported citizen participation, but in one (Philadelphia), state support came early in the policymaking process and was later withdrawn. In a second case (Berlin), state support was forthcoming only after assertive citizen initiatives became entrenched. In Durban and Berlin, there was more protest against and demands on government; citizens' symbolic protest strategies like environmental bucket brigades, squatting and planting gardens captured government and public attention. The Philadelphia Empowerment Zone shows that partnerships with government break down and lead to conflict over time if the participatory element withers during policy implementation and, without necessary grassroots feedback, government may injure community interests.

In ‘Putting the “Community” into Community Planning’, Ruth McAlister (this issue) offers a detailed assessment of plans for increasing community inclusion in Northern Ireland. In a context of historical exclusion, the new access to the democratic process, however limited, has much appeal. For academic proponents of participatory or empowered deliberative democracy, and particularly for ‘radical democrats’ like Fung, the broadening of participation is both a worthy end in itself and a way of building community capacity. For policymakers and planners who come to view participation as an instrument for improving the quality of public provision, smoothing the way for the implementation of policy and increasing political legitimacy, participative proposals have additional appeal. Clearly the rhetoric of participation enjoys broad support, but what of the experience of planning to put it into practice in Northern Ireland?

McAlister's case is the Review of Public Administration (RPA), an initiative introduced after a 30-year period of violent conflict, the euphemistically named ‘Troubles’. The RPA both exemplifies the emphasis on policy delivery that has been so central to the New Labour project in the UK generally, and part of an administrative reform of local government in Northern Ireland in particular. In a broader context, it is, as she notes, part of the much-heralded shift from government to governance, another cornerstone in the language of New Labour, but also part of an international trend. In line with the arguments of this introduction, McAlister contrasts the broad consensual approval of participatory governance with the bewildering complexity of the diverse proposals in the literature and policy practices on the ground. Most agree that participation is ‘a good thing’, but confusion arises when one tries to determine what ‘it’ exactly is.

In the case of the RPA, ‘it’ is a series of modest proposals for more consultation in planning processes. This is a long way from the more radical world of participatory budgeting discussed by Hernández-Medina (this issue), but nonetheless a democratic improvement over the fear and passivity of an earlier era. McAlister is analyzing a case in which the challenge is to create a participatory community more-or-less from scratch. The problem is further compounded when we consider who constitutes the ‘community’ that is to be addressed and included. This is a problem that is particularly acute in the Northern Ireland context where sectarianism is a recent memory and an ever-present danger. One of McAlister's key findings is that underlying sectarian tensions could potentially undermine inclusive participation in decision making. Here again, the context sensitivity of the case-study approach adopted in this symposium — in contrast, or as a supplement, to more normative/universalistic approaches — demonstrates its value.

Public consultation in Belfast may offer inclusion, but it falls short of empowerment. If there is a spectrum of the degree of strength of various forms of participation and deliberation, then ‘consulting’ must surely constitute the weakest end of the spectrum. McAlister's analysis emphasizes the contrasting perspectives and mutual suspicion of the key actors: policymakers, planners and the state on the one hand, and citizens on the other. The former are frustrated by the latter's ‘apathy’; they assume there is a homogeneous community made up of ‘Joe Public’ in a setting where there are selective incentives for participation by the paramilitary or those who expect to make a buck. Ordinary citizens suspect the planners of ‘tokenism’, paternalism and manipulation. The complicated and opaque process is disempowering, producing the feeling that citizens are consulted simply to ratify elite decisions. McAlister concludes that the ability of ordinary people to influence decisions in Belfast has been ‘less than marginal’.

To its critics, consultation is a way of including citizens while keeping the actual decisions firmly in the hands of the politicians and elites, of ensuring ‘the maximum level of minimum participation’ (Crouch, 2004: 112). While her own evidence supports the view that participation in this consultative form has had few inclusive, empowering or redistributive effects, McAlister resists drawing the clear-cut, simple and perhaps pessimistic conclusion that participative governance is a failure. Rather, she views these difficulties as potentially addressable (if not resolvable) governance challenges. This approach is shared with some of her interviewees on both sides of the planner–citizen divide and with some of the academic literature (e.g. Fung and Wright, 2001). For example, simplifying institutional governmental structures could lessen confusion about what is decided and by whom. A clearer identification of the power and capacities of the ‘community’ relative to the state could make the issue of ‘who is the community?’ less controversial.

McAlister thus walks a fine line between the heady optimism of some of the early governance literature and the pessimism of more diagnostic accounts of democratic decline or neoliberalization. For the radical democrat, there is still scope to challenge the dominant rules of the game. Her pragmatic approach comes close to Sabel et al.'s (1999) similarly pragmatic notion of the ‘rolling-rule regime’. The rules of the game, and thus its outcomes, are not set in stone; the plans of elite political actors can be disrupted, and not merely under the exceptional circumstances of a ‘fugitive democracy’ (Wolin, 1994). The process has both to be guided by a general and universalizable principle — for McAlister, Habermas' discourse theory of ethics can provide such a loadstar — and ‘properly constituted’. In a context of potential sectarianism, the problems are all the greater, but so too the need and the urgency.

Of the cases here assembled, Belfast comes closest to the neoliberal model of governance and partnership; it has the lowest level of citizen participation. Initiated from the top down in a context of historic mistrust and low civic involvement, bringing the ‘community’ into planning remains a formidable but desirable challenge. How different from the case of participatory budgeting in São Paulo! In another difficult context, one of extreme income inequality where the middle and upper classes live in gated communities and the poor in squalid favellas, Esther Hernández-Medina (this issue) presents an optimistic scenario of inclusion, empowerment and redistribution.

As in Belfast, citizen participation in São Paulo was initiated from the top down, but in an attempt to break with the patronage and clientelism, rather than passivity, of past local politics. Moreover, this Brazilian Workers' Party's (PT) initiative was complemented by grassroots involvement in decision making at several levels, election of representatives, implementation and monitoring the outcomes of policy decisions. The case clearly demonstrates how, in different ‘moments’, participation may entail conflict of interest and claims making as well as deliberation and collaboration. What sets São Paulo's participatory budgeting apart from the Porto Alegre ideal type, in addition to taking place in a larger, more segregated and more unequal city, is its deliberate ‘affirmative action’ to include traditionally excluded groups.

São Paulo introduced an institutional arrangement to involve socially vulnerable segments, as well as territorial and thematic representatives, in local decision making. The participation of these nine target groups — Afro Brazilians, senior citizens, children and adolescents, youth, the GLBT community, women, indigenous groups, the homeless and people with disabilities — offered these non-income-based ‘subaltern counter-publics’ (Fraser, 1992; Nylen, 2003) some much-sought-after visibility, recognition and pride. Where the movements behind them were strong, the segments were especially influential, producing a redistributive impact on resource allocation. Inclusion of the segments in participatory budgeting in São Paulo introduced new ideas and proposals, and the participants reported feeling greater dignity, respect, tolerance and equal treatment.

This combination of ‘contest’ in the form of identity politics and ‘deliberation’— both Habermasian communication for the common good and Fung and Wright's (2001) empowered participatory governance — produced greater social cohesion and more equality in this fragmented metropolis. Furthermore, most of the proposals and decisions made in the socially inclusive participatory budget forums and council meetings were in fact implemented, giving these segments a sense of empowerment as well as dignity, and increasing the effectiveness of governance. The inclusionary aspects of São Paulo's participatory budgeting contribute to the empowerment of vulnerable groups and their subsequent ability to gain resources from the political process.

However, Hernández-Medina does not present participatory budgeting in São Paulo as uniformly successful. She identifies particular contextual and institutional conditions that affect the outcomes of budgetary deliberations, especially related to the phases of contest and implementation. For one thing, as in Berlin, decentralization of decision making to smaller localities can impede city-wide coalition building. The level or scale of participation matters. Civil society organizations must be strong and autonomous from the state initiators of participatory budgeting. Where local politicians control the process and prevent transparency, decentralized budgeting can revert to patronage, rather than result in good governance. Much as in Belfast, capture of the participatory process by special interests demoralizes citizens and especially members of the vulnerable segments who feel exceptionally unheard. The São Paulo case demonstrates the need for institutions that safeguard against this. These include mechanisms for independent monitoring of implementation and results.11 With these caveats, São Paulo's participatory budgeting appears to offer all three benefits of citizen participation that democratic advocates seek: inclusion, empowerment and redistribution.

In contrast to the cases just presented, in which the authors are cautiously optimistic about the potential benefits of citizen participation, the next three cases are more critical. Perhaps this is because all three sites have a tradition of community activism aimed at the local state, giving rise to suspicion of government. Political conflict or contestation plays a larger role in these case studies, but nonetheless at times gives way to compromise and even collaboration in governance.

Marit Rosol's (this issue) study of four community gardens in Berlin, ‘Participation in Post-Fordist Urban Green Space Governance’, is set in yet another distinctive context. The city historically enjoyed large subsidies from the former West Germany that were withdrawn with reunification, leaving the city with a huge fiscal hole. At the same time, partly because of its earlier anti-war alternative scene, the city had a history of radical citizen participation and even a squatting movement, much of which was devoted to fighting the local redevelopment of low-income neighbourhoods. While Berlin is a unique context, a similar history of militancy and protest characterized the early community gardens in other cities (Schmelzkopf, 1995). Tracing the political process by which Berlin activists and residents established local community gardens on public or private land reveals that the earlier grassroots experience provided a foundation for the self-organization of most of the garden groups.

Although the initiative came mainly from the bottom up, over time the state ended its opposition and decided to work with these civil society groups, even encouraging local engagement in community gardening. Rosol's fourth garden case study shows how neoliberal governance can usurp such voluntary activities. In a period of spending cutbacks, the residents provided free labour to create and maintain open space and greenery on unsightly empty land that had little ground rent value. Yet there is nothing secure about the group's hold on the local gardens they created, maintain and enjoy since the government retains the right to develop the land in the future. Ultimately, Rosol argues, neoliberal governance institutions shaped local citizen participation by offloading or outsourcing formerly public responsibilities without providing sufficient resources. Public–private collaboration acted to depoliticize, discipline, co-opt and even forced community opponents to compete for limited state funding. However, she points to a contradictory outcome of this governance project, in that communities can empower themselves by it. Offering self-determined free space enjoyed by the residents, the gardens have become a social meeting place for raising political awareness and building opposition to uses the state may one day propose for them. To summarize the process, local participation was more contestatory in the early stages of initiating the gardens, but later was absorbed into the boroughs' and city's larger neoliberal project. Yet conflict remains a distinct possibility again.

Rosol's contribution presents some evidence that, despite grassroots attempts at social inclusion, especially of immigrant and ethnic neighbours, middle-class Germans living in these low-income areas controlled the gardens, casting doubt on their inclusionary effects. This is true in other Berlin neighbourhood programmes too. The Red–Green government (1998 to 2005) launched the Socially Integrative City (Soziale Stadt) and Neighbourhood Management (QM) programmes to encourage citizen participation in ‘Districts with Special Development Needs’ (DIFU, 2003). Municipal government officials unanimously praised the participation programme for improving relations with and among citizens (IfS, 2004). For example, more than half of all districts established ‘contingency funds’ to allow residents and groups to accomplish small projects of their choice. While cutting other urban programmes, the Land of Berlin allocated resources from its own budget to set up an Empowerment Fund in the programme areas (500,000 euros for 2 years), and committees of local residents decided on the use of these resources. Thus, Berlin has a modest form of participatory budgeting. Although any given project was endowed with few resources (often around 10,000 euros), residents' committees spent the funds very scrupulously and efficiently, mostly on the living environment and public space.

Yet these ‘citizens’ budgets' and other neighbourhood participatory programmes are as controversial among urban scholars as the community gardens are for Rosol (Silver, 2006). Token sums to effect superficial changes and cosmetic improvements can defuse opposition and offload public responsibilities. Encouraging participation solely at the neighbourhood level distracts and undermines city-level coalitions that can have a more significant impact. Although the Soziale Stadt programme granted considerable discretion for local experimentation, the extent of bottom-up involvement varied between areas. Community meetings tended to attract only middle-class residents or organized interests. The formal communication style excluded less educated groups, while migrants and their families, the long-term unemployed, senior citizens and others who had special needs were hardly involved. To reach ‘ordinary’ people, the juries that decide on the uses of the contingency Empowerment Funds consist of randomly selected residents, perhaps making participants more statistically representative, but bypassing the self-organized residents that formally represent the neighbourhood and speak for minorities like migrants. As one city official observed, ‘everyone is there, not working together’ (Bockmeyer, 2006). In sum, inclusion, empowerment and redistribution were modest compared to São Paulo.

Alex Aylett's ‘Conflict, Collaboration, and Climate Change’ (this issue) offers a focused case study of environmental activism in the South Durban Basin, South Africa. In common with some other contributors to the symposium, he provides an analysis of governance on the urban, or rather, metropolitan scale. An industrial area, Durban has a history of active and vocal citizens' groups, stretching well back into the apartheid era. This experience, closely associated with the local struggle against apartheid, continues to be formative. In this context, as in Philadelphia and Berlin, protest is not the alternative to or opposite of participation, but its twin. The political process is animated by the alternation between the two. This contribution explicitly illustrates the value of thinking about democratic participation dynamically, with moments of conflict and cooperation.

At a theoretical level, Aylett's analysis of environmental struggles in Durban adopts the ‘agonistic’ model of democracy which, in the work of Foucault, Derrida and Mouffe, views power and conflict as constructive and generative. As Simmel (1955 [1908]) and Coser (1956) noted, conflict has positive functions. Protest leads to the collection and diffusion of new information and promotes learning. Conflicts make for strange bedfellows such as between grassroots, policymaking and scientific communities, countering the power of industry. After conflicts in which opposing views are expressed and heard, policy has greater legitimacy. It is more difficult to enforce accountability for results and compliance with environmental rules with friends than with adversaries. Conversely, consensus has downsides, such as complacency. Even if there is agreement about the benefits of a better climate, partnerships in governance can marginalize and disempower citizen groups, or alternatively encourage government to abdicate responsibilities.

This is a context in which the ‘consensus or bust’ bias — a perspective shared by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Habermasian discourse ethics and much of the environmental policy literature on ‘good governance’— is more hindrance than help. Aylett seeks to reorient the debate away from the polarization of consensus vs. conflict and from the associated negative evaluation of confrontation. He argues that confrontation must be considered unproductive in a setting where participation is supposed to produce consensus. What is unproductive for Aylett is this assumption itself. Governance and consensus are not adequate to address pressing contemporary environmental problems. He calls instead for a balance of protest and participation, because conflict is an aspect of actual participation. Urban conflicts, Aylett notes, have generally been absent in climate and environmental debates and policies, notably those of the IPCC. While the IPCC has gradually broadened its initial natural–scientific and model-based approach to include socio-economic factors, only now, notably in the Assessment Report (AR4), is it beginning to consider the inclusion and support of citizens in policy implementation. However, the institutional bias of even these efforts limits the scope of the IPCC's response. Climate policymakers are not yet fully prepared for confrontation with grassroots participants outside formal state institutions. Aylett seeks to open this conversation.

To make the argument, he focuses on government policymaking when confronted with the protest and participatory activities of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA). This vocal and established civil society actor defied the norms of the consensus-oriented good governance model. It used protest, often with allies outside Durban, to destabilize the rules of the game and make demands on government. It hooked up with transnational NGOs to join its concerns with similar environmental struggles elsewhere. It held a Fossil Fools Day to reach the broad public, while deploying its expertise to engage government, translating concrete local environmental justice problems into complex technical demands. Involving the grassroots in governance is far edgier, less predictable and less controllable than anything policymakers might imagine under the slogan of ‘participation’. Yet, these conflicts, challenges and pressures from civil society ultimately prove beneficial. They strengthen government's ability to regulate industry and to direct collaborative networks. The outcome — a public good — inhibits private industry from reaping benefits at public expense.

In sum, Aylett broadens the notion of ‘participation’ beyond consultation, partnership and deliberation to include protest and confrontation. Inclusion and cooperation may be the objectives of the policymaker, but the empowered civil society actor aims to check and occasionally disrupt the aims and projects of more powerful actors, whether states, industry or international institutions. Thus, there are two variants of political praxis: the former emphasizing consensus, while not ignoring the inevitability and value of conflict, and the latter emphasizing agonistic democracy, while not excluding its contribution to solving shared problems. The ‘rolling-rule regime’ provides both a smooth and a bumpy ride. Conflict and cooperation, Aylett concludes, are both legitimate and mutually reinforcing forms of participation.

Debbie Becher's (this issue) case study of American Street in Philadelphia is also situated in a specific historical and national context. The Empowerment Zone (EZ) programme she examines was the urban revitalization programme of the Clinton Administration. In 1994, six distressed cities were federally designated as EZs and received targeting funding and tax incentives to help revitalize these low-income minority areas. The programme combined supply-side aspects of the neoliberal enterprise zone programme under Reagan and Bush, Sr., with the Model Cities Programme and the liberal Democratic War on Poverty of the 1960s with its call for ‘maximum feasible participation’. Yet, despite the federal mandate to include consultation of disadvantaged residents, as in Belfast, the EZ programme was largely initiated from the top down. Evaluations found that traditional economic development programmes, which received greatest emphasis, did little to improve socio-economic outcomes in the zones, while ‘community building and involvement initiatives received the least amount of funding’ (Oakley and Tsao, 2006).

The national EZ programme largely left it up to local governments to design mechanisms for citizen participation. In the Philadelphia neighbourhood studied by Becher, low-income Puerto Rican residents and small businesses had organized in the 1980s to reclaim their neighbourhood, invited the EZ programme in and helped design the application. For a while, elected community representatives served on the governing board of the EZ, but the Mayor made the ultimate decisions. The EZ entailed some ‘deliberation’ in the Habermasian sense, but community organizations also competed and fought among themselves. During the implementation stage, as residents had to be relocated to allow for construction, the community lost voice. Elections to the board were jettisoned and citizens' concerns ignored. Elites pressured representatives to conform to government positions. As the work became bureaucratic and complex, resident participation fell off. One dissident forced off the EZ board mobilized a citywide anti-government campaign against the policy of eminent domain that had fed distrust, forcing the EZ and City Council to respond to the protest.

Becher asserts that it makes more sense to speak of ‘intermediation’ than ‘cooperation’ between the community and government. Rather than only top-down or bottom-up communication, intermediaries ‘represent citizens to government, and government to citizens’. Rather than reach consensus, participants reached a ‘compromise’. As government began to use eminent domain to take residents' property for the redevelopment plan, community representatives needed to remain independent of government if they were going to change the policy. Their freedom to exit made it easier to agitate against government and pursue citizens' social justice aims. Like the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, the Philadelphia leaders ‘expanded the scope of conflict’ (Schattschneider, 1975) beyond the neighbourhood, this time to build a city-wide coalition opposing the Mayor's redevelopment agenda.

Thus, the Philadelphia case study confirms once again the benefit of tracking civic participation over time. Debbie Becher shows how meaningful deliberative participation in the early stages of the EZ is not the end of the story. At the ‘back end’ of the process, after decisions are made and are being implemented, citizens need to hold government accountable for results, if not through continued participation in partnerships then through outside pressure. Her analysis of intermediation in the political process concludes that citizens participate in multiple institutions, and both direct and representative democracy. Cooperation in public–private partnerships at one moment may be reconciled with conflict and external civil society pressure at another.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Participatory democracy: an overview of the literature
  5. The contributions to this symposium
  6. Conclusions
  7. References

Normative theory — in particular the Habermas–Foucault ‘debate’— set the research agenda and framed the questions of this symposium. In turn, the empirical case studies contribute to the broader debate by highlighting the need for: (1) sensitivity to context; (2) emphasis on scale and spatial aspects of deliberation and participation; and (3) focus upon substantive distributive outcomes — Who gains? Who loses? — rather than exclusively on process or procedure. More generally, the authors suggest that the theoretical debates are driven by overly simple binary oppositions: consensus or conflict; procedure or process. Some of these polarizations obscure more than they reveal and the dangers of idealizing or romanticizing conflict are no less than those of idealizing or romanticizing consensus.

Firstly, the case studies in this symposium can act as a check or corrective to these polarizing, and potentially idealizing, tendencies of theoretical discourse. More concretely, they have shown that both conflict and consensus are present in different places and at different times. This is why, from a pragmatic and empirically informed perspective, it makes more sense to see conflict and consensus as moments in the political process than as stark alternatives. Furthermore, the academic debate and the empirical practices are not taking place in different, hermetically sealed, worlds. Notions such as ‘participation’ and ‘deliberation’ have entered both policy debates (where they can even act as ‘policy drivers’) and popular discourse. As the case studies show, different actors participate in a variety of ways and with a variety of ends. Elites can use such notions to support neoliberal governance, but equally claims makers can deploy them to enhance their power resources. The common tendency to argue that participation is either neoliberal governance or an empowering, inclusionary, progressive implement can and should be confronted with a battery of questions: Where? When? By whom? For what purposes? To what effect? In their variety, the studies here illustrate the diversity of intention and practice, not to mention outcome, that lies behind what are ostensibly ‘the same’ concepts. ‘Participation’ means something quite different to policymakers in Belfast than it does to those demanding a say in participatory budgeting in São Paulo. The universalizing language of normative and general theory — whether consensus or conflict oriented — is inclined to gloss these decisive differences.

Secondly, the case studies point us to the practical and material conditions necessary to foster participation and deepen democracy (whether conceptualized as consensus or as agonism). Social inclusion is surely a prerequisite for citizen participation. To get everyone involved may require outreach, affirmative action or quotas (Fishkin, 1995; Cabannes, 2004; Avritzer, 2006; Sintomer et al., 2008). The process should be open, transparent and protect the rights of minorities. In a democracy, no one should lose out permanently and systematically because they are denied a voice, directly or indirectly. The stakeholder approach, in which only interested parties are welcome, excludes disinterested parties who may have a valuable independent perspective or may become interested in the course of deliberation. In a context of inequality, every citizen must also be empowered to participate, and that entails treating them differently both because their power resources are unequal and because, without adopting a misplaced essentialism, they often have different needs. The process should provide resources and opportunities to engage at every stage and to put new issues on the agenda.

To go beyond inclusion to promoting empowerment, some things can be done to neutralize the unequal power of participants linked to differential access to information, expert knowledge and pre-existing class inequalities. Legal and regulatory reforms that systematically empower poor and marginalized groups can be legislated. These range from simple things like setting convenient times and places for meetings to extending and enforcing civil rights. Public funds can subsidize the operations of new organizations of excluded groups to equalize collective resources, although this poses the danger of dependency, loss of autonomy and capture. Advocates of ‘empowered participatory governance’ propose that professional facilitators should attend meetings to ensure that all voices are heard and given equal respect (Susskind, 1999; Fung and Wright, 2001; Briggs, 2008). Whatever the method, however, there is the need to overcome biased deliberations in which some voices count more than others.

Ultimately, the rationale for studying the participation of ordinary people is the belief that their involvement will change the content of decisions and make policy more socially just. Including newly empowered citizens in deliberation and making it easier for them to protest the actions of elites should produce redistributive outcomes. There is some evidence of this from cities in Brazil and elsewhere in the global South (Abers, 2000; Nattrass and Seekings, 2001; Narayan et al., 2009). By mobilizing, some neighbourhoods may win more public services, victories which in turn encourage more participation. Indeed, better local governance, and especially participatory democracy, may even help people move out of poverty.12

To conclude, consensus-seeking deliberation is touted because it is efficient; it helps get things done. However, it can also be exclusionary and perpetuate inequality. Citizen participation is most democratic when it gives voice to everyone, includes and empowers the weak, holds representatives, professionals and government accountable, and promotes redistribution and social justice.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Participatory democracy: an overview of the literature
  5. The contributions to this symposium
  6. Conclusions
  7. References
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  • 1

    Leal (2007) points out that, as ‘participation’ became a buzzword, it suffered ‘political decapitation’ and now needs to be linked once again to counter-hegemonic grassroots resistance, struggle and transformation.

  • 2

    The articles in this symposium were first presented as papers in the joint sessions chaired by the symposium editors on ‘Urban Inclusion and Citizen Participation’ and ‘Urban Participation and Urban Governance’ at the ISA RC21 conference on ‘Urban Justice and Sustainability’ held in Vancouver on 22–25 August 2007.

  • 3

    The purpose of the symposium is not to offer causal generalizations, such as the universal impact of neoliberalism (McMichael, 1990; Guarneros-Meza and Geddes, 2010), or to conduct systematic comparative analysis (Pickvance, 2001). Rather, we aim to identify some important analytic distinctions among the cases while avoiding ‘comparative anecdotalism’ in which case studies drawn from different contexts are integrated into a single explanation (Houtzager and Gurza Lavalle, 2009).

  • 4

    In addition, Politics & Society published a special issue on Fung and Wright's (2001) ‘empowered deliberative democracy’, while Boston Review published numerous commentaries on Sabel et al.'s (1999) proposal of a ‘rolling-rule regime’ to govern citizen participation in environmental regulation.

  • 5

    This twofold distinction between consensus seeking (via discussion and deliberation) and ‘agonistic’ approaches (emphasising conflict) is a simplification that elides significant differences within these positions. For example, deliberative democracy involving deliberative polls among randomly selected members of a population (Fishkin, 1995) is quite different from spontaneous forms of participatory democracy existing ‘on the ground’. Furthermore, some theorizations of participatory democracy — for example, Paul Hirst's ‘associative democracy’ or the neo-republicanism of Skinner and Pettit — straddle this divide between conflict and consensus. Nevertheless, we are using this simplification because it frames much of the discussion of democracy at the urban level, which is de facto concerned with various forms of grassroots initiatives and face-to-face politics.

  • 6

    American scholars in particular have devoted much attention to the question of whether policy can cultivate social capital, deliberative democracy and civic participation, especially in poor neighbourhoods (Berry et al., 1993; Putnam, 2000; Chaskin et al., 2001; Saegert et al., 2001; Warren, 2001; Orr, 2007). Policies to build ‘community capacity’— to create spaces for meetings, provide information and expertise, and identify bottom-up goals controlled from below — are spreading throughout the OECD countries (Noya et al., 2009).

  • 7

    Following the post-structuralist logic of Lacan's thesis that language is political and Derrida's ‘constitutive outside’ and the inevitability of ‘irreducible alterity’, Mouffe argues that social objects are constituted through political acts of exclusion. Every identity is forged by difference, constituted as much by what it is not (outside it) as what it is (inside it). There is always imposition of decisions on someone who had no say.

  • 8

    Liberal pluralists are none too happy with the criticisms of either radical pluralists or deliberative democrats. They defend representative, aggregative, electoral democracy as efficient in large complex societies and object to the claims about a democratic deficit in governance. They accept value pluralism, but relegate it to the private sphere or create checks and balances to reduce its public impact. All pluralists see conflict as the heart of politics, but liberal pluralists value competition and issue-based coalition building among often unequal interest groups. For liberal pluralists, the outcome of democratic contests is compromise, not consensus. Both liberal and radical pluralists reject group essentialism.

  • 9

    Whether those intermediaries are self-selected, appointed or elected seems to matter less to Briggs. Indeed, he is suspicious of ‘tyranny from below’, believing there are tradeoffs between ‘too much participation’ and getting things done, between democracy and efficiency. If he is sceptical about ‘experts’ and ‘top-down, exclusionary planning and decision making’, he does not seem to mind the involvement of the ‘ “grasstops”— not political or economic elites in the traditional sense’ but civic intermediaries ‘well-positioned to influence others and mobilize resources’ and willing to lead (Briggs, 2008: 308–9). This neglects the question of whether those intermediaries are legitimate, accountable and responsive to those they claim to represent. Too often civic associations resort to ‘assumed representation’ based upon an isomorphism with the social structure or ‘a natural (or authentic) extension of the social or life world’ (Houtzager and Gurza Lavalle, 2009). It should be noted that Briggs explicitly excludes Europe from his analysis because unlike the US it is a ‘state-centred’ place. Many European states unproblematically recognize mediating institutions empowered to bargain for social constituencies.

  • 10

    ‘Even in the case of participatory budgeting in Brazil, which is considered a model for direct citizen participation, leaders of civil organizations make up a large share of delegates and become dominant in successive rounds of the process. In the PB of the cities of Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Santo André, and São Paulo . . . over half the delegates elected during the first round of the PB were leaders of civil organizations’ (Houtzager and Gurza Lavalle, 2009: 10).

  • 11

    Self-selected spokespersons for the excluded may also police themselves. Leaders of 229 civil society organizations in São Paulo that actively work with (or on behalf of) the urban poor declared their commitment to mediate the voices and express the interests of their constituents. Although they themselves were members of the middle class or elite, this was their single most-often cited claim to legitimacy, although geographical proximity, group identity and other justifications for serving as representatives were also offered.

  • 12

    Good leaders, local elections, information and government transparency, and a larger number of people's organizations are all associated with citizens' beliefs that their local government is responsive. In terms of outcome, ‘communities where local governments had become more responsive had better access to clean water, schools, doctors, nurses, and public health clinics than communities where responsiveness had decreased. The quality of education and health services also showed more improvement’. Good leaders, local elections, information and government transparency, and a larger number of people's organizations are all associated with citizens' beliefs that their local government is responsive. In terms of outcome, ‘communities where local governments had become more responsive had better access to clean water, schools, doctors, nurses, and public health clinics than communities where responsiveness had decreased. The quality of education and health services also showed more improvement’ (Narayan et al., 2009: 235).