Participatory Governance

  • Rocco PalumboEmail author
Living reference work entry


Public Institution Ordinary People Political Arena Democratic Governance Public Sector Organization 
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“Participatory governance” widely refers to the democratic mechanisms which are intended to involve citizens in public policy-making processes. In other words, participatory governance is aimed at establishing a bridge between public institutions and ordinary people, in an attempt to increase the effectiveness and responsiveness of public policy-making activities. Either an interest-based, integrative, or functional logic may inspire participatory governance initiatives. Apart from the inner logic at the basis of these initiatives, the attempt to give a deliberative power to people distinguishes participatory governance.


At the beginning of the third millennium, a gradual shift from democratic government to participatory governance has been figured out by the scientific literature (Gbikpi and Grote 2002). However, still little is known – both in conceptual and empirical terms – about the distinguishing attributes which could be argued to characterize participatory governance initiatives. As well, it is not clear how citizens’ involvement in effective policy making could be factually realized. Drawing on these considerations, it is not surprising that different perspectives have been embraced by scholars and practitioners to unravel the ultimate meaning of participatory governance.

Gustafson and Hertting (2016) pointed out that three different notions of citizen participation may typify participatory governance initiatives. Sticking to an interest-based logic, citizens are argued to accept to participate in participatory governance initiatives in order to protect and promote their own interest. Embracing such a perspective, participatory governance arrangement is understood as an opportunity to articulate the interests of specific groups of the community in the political arena. In a quite different way, the deliberative logic relies on the assumption that ordinary people are primarily interested in participatory governance initiatives to contribute to the establishment of a political arena for reasoning together. Within this arena, they are able to integrate the partial and context-specific perspectives usually embraced by public sector organizations with their own points of view. Therefore, as compared with the interest-based logic, an integrative approach is adopted, which paves the way for a contamination of the traditional perspectives that inspire public policy-making processes. Lastly, adopting a functional logic, participatory governance initiatives are intended to enable citizens and to make them aware of their coproducing potential in solving important societal problems. Obviously, ordinary people should be empowered and be willing to deal with public policy issues.

Regardless of the underlying logic inspiring participatory governance initiatives, it is possible to identify several recurring attributes, which are symptomatic of citizens’ involvement in public policy making (Fung and Wright 2001): (1) a focus on specific social and/or political issues, which legitimize the implementation of participatory governance; (2) the engagement of ordinary people in decision-making processes, who are either directly or indirectly concerned by the issues dealt with; and (3) the deliberative development of targeted solutions to handle social and/or political issues. Since these three attributes could be retrieved in various institutional arrangements which are aimed at fostering citizen engagement in public policy making – such as citizen-centered governance, democratic governance, and co-governance – it is convenient to briefly mark the boundaries between these different constructs, in an attempt to better define the attributes of participatory governance.

State of the Art: Marking the Boundaries of Participatory Governance

Even though the involvement of citizens in public policy making could be currently depicted as a buzzword, it is not easy to provide a comprehensive definition of participatory governance. Indeed, this concept may evoke different meanings to varying audiences. Therefore, to shed light on participatory governance, it is crucial to outline the differences between this construct and its correlates.

Although relying on citizens’ participation, citizen-centered governance maintains the leading role of public sector organizations in shaping public policies. Public policy making is molded according to the specific needs of the population served, which is involved in informing this process (Crawford and Walters 2013). In this circumstance, a limited degree of citizens’ involvement is realized, which is ultimately intended to better inform the traditional decision-making processes accomplished by public institutions.

Democratic governance is peculiar in that it entails a greater degree of citizens’ engagement in public governance. It could be argued that the main purpose of democratic governance is to increase the legitimacy of public policies through the consultation of ordinary people, rather than to empower and enable them to factually participate in decision-making processes (Franck 1992). From this point of view, democratic governance does not challenge the traditional state-centered policy-making process, even though it emphasizes the need for a greater citizen involvement in the political arena.

As confronted with the previous approaches, co-governance has been generally depicted as a particular shade of coproduction in the public realm. Indeed, it involves the establishment of a cocreating partnership between the citizens and the public sector organizations, which is intended to increase the latter responsiveness and effectiveness (Ackerman 2013). In spite of these considerations, co-governance focuses on decision-making processes, which are related to public services’ design and delivery, rather than on policy-making activities (Somerville and Haines 2008).

If contrasted with citizen-centered governance, democratic governance, and co-governance, participative governance is a form of deliberative empowerment of the citizens, who have the opportunity to establish a renewed and enhanced relationship with the policy maker (Fischer 2006). Rather than performing as mere recipient of public services, citizens are enabled to actively participate in the public policy-making activities, gaining an increased control over the deliberation practices concerning the different government levels with which they interact. Beyond providing the citizens with the right to exercise voice, participatory governance allows them to have a significant role in public policy decisions, which produce tangible changes in their everyday life. It is worth noting that these participatory initiatives are not fragmented: rather, they involve the citizens in an ongoing dialogue with the public sector organizations, which paves the way for the creation of a unique joint value (McNulty and Wampler 2015).

In sum, participatory governance initiatives could be conceptualized as a partnership which is established between the ordinary people and the public institutions, which is intended to improve the quality and the effectiveness of public decision-making processes. In turn, the establishment of such a partnership relies on three building blocks: (1) the equal importance of each participant in addressing and influencing policy-making activities, (2) the need for a binding social capital based on a common vision and understandings, and (3) the leading role of a focal public institution, conceived as a senior partner in implementing participatory governance initiatives (Walker and Shannon 2011).

Drawing on these considerations, several points to implement effective participatory governance could be figured out (Gaventa 2002). The establishment of a renewed and cocreating relationship between public institutions and ordinary people is a precondition of citizens’ involvement in public policy making. For this purpose, both public institutions and ordinary people should be empowered, in order to increase their cocreating potential. The introduction of tailored and friendly mechanism to factually realize citizens’ participation in public decision-making processes is required to fully realize the potential of participatory governance. Lastly, specific agreements intended to minimize the risks of poor outcomes associated with participatory governance initiatives should be arranged to shrink the institutional barriers to citizens’ engagement. These points inspire the process of participatory governance institutionalization, which is discussed below.

Future Perspectives

Institutionalizing Participatory Governance

Participatory governance reforms are gaining a growing relevance in both developed and developing countries. However, it is still not clear whether a participatory approach to public policy making supports or endangers the proper functioning of public institution; besides, only limited evidence on the ability of participatory governance initiatives to enhance the democracy and the effectiveness of public policy-making processes is available (Lindgren and Persson 2011). The lack of an unanimous understanding about the consequences of participatory governance initiatives is – in part – produced by a variety of approaches which could be taken in order to involve citizens in public policy making.

Drawing on Speer (2012), it is possible to identify four main interpretations which may influence the implementation of participatory governance initiatives. First of all, participatory governance could be conceived as an attempt to realize a gradual process of democratic decentralization, which recognizes the critical role of citizens in shaping public policies. Public institutions’ accountability and responsiveness are the main targets of participatory governance initiatives. However, this kind of interventions generally focuses on the enhancement of public sector organizations’ legitimacy, rather than on citizen empowerment.

Differently, a deliberative democracy approach relies on the assumption that participatory governance interventions create appropriate spaces to explicit and aggregate the heterogeneous preferences of citizens, engaging them in a direct and cocreating partnership with public institutions. The main purpose attached to citizens’ involvement is to make public policy-making processes more democratic and responsive, enabling ordinary people to actively participate in shaping public policies. From this point of view, the enhancement of the quality and the effectiveness of public decision-making basically inspires the interpretation of participatory governance initiatives as deliberative democracy approaches.

It is worth noting that deliberative democracy assumes that all citizens are able and willing to play a role in public decision-making processes. However, this is not necessarily the case when the disadvantaged classes of the population are concerned. An empowerment approach to the institutionalization of participatory governance initiatives recognizes the need for enabling the citizens, in an attempt to encourage their involvement in public decision-making. In this specific circumstance, participatory governance primarily aims at enhancing the citizenship of ordinary people, shrinking the social and institutional barriers to citizen involvement.

Lastly, a self-governance approach entails a full-fledged empowerment of citizens, who turn out to be able to deeply contribute in codesigning and co-implementing tailored solutions to increase the effectiveness and the quality of public decision-making processes. On the one hand, ordinary people benefit from an increased engagement in policy making, being able to express their perspectives and their needs in the political arena; on the other hand, public institutions have the opportunity to increase their resilience, as well as their adaptiveness, opening their boundaries and awakening the dormant assets of citizens to improve public policy-making processes.

In most of the cases, the institutionalization of participatory governance follows a life cycle, which starts with a democratic decentralization approach and tends toward a self-governance approach. From this standpoint, participative governance itself engenders the development of a collective identity among the different actors involved in the public policy arena, which in turn paves the way for an increased involvement of ordinary people in public governance. While an instrumental perspective characterizes the initial phases of participatory governance, a transformative approach arises later, conceiving ordinary people as critical value cocreators in shaping public policies (Hordijk et al. 2015).

Implementing Participatory Governance

Different instruments and tools may be used to realize participatory governance initiatives. Of course, the attributes of these tools rely on the specific purposes which are attached to participatory governance. When an instrumental interpretation of citizen involvement prevails, the main tool used to implement participatory governance is the activation of a one-way communication flow, which allows to establish a unilateral link between public institutions and citizens. Different channels may be used, including print information materials, audio and video media, and web-based information tools (Soomro et al. 2016).

Obviously, one-way communication is not enough when a transformative approach is embraced. Actually, to foster the engagement of ordinary people in public policy making, two-way communication tools are needed. Among others, opinion pools, public hearings, meetings, focus groups, and similar approaches establish a ground for common reasoning between the citizens and public institutions, thus paving the way for deliberative governance, where ordinary people are able to express their contribution to public decision-making activities (Gordon et al. 2017).

The implementation of self-governance requires deeper and more pervasive communication tools. In this circumstance, the enablement of the citizens’ dormant assets and the encouragement of their active participation in public policy making are required to realize the full potential of participatory governance initiatives. As argued by Hordijk et al. (2015), round tables and councils which gather both ordinary people and representatives of public institutions are crucial to foster the establishment of a cocreating relationship between them to mold public policies.

The Dark Side of Participatory Governance

Participatory governance is not free from criticism. The lack of empirical data about the value added of participatory governance initiatives does not help in pointing out the potential benefits which could be obtained from involving ordinary people in public policy making. As pointed out by Speer (2012), it is likely that the impacts produced by participatory governance are affected by the specific stage of public service provision to which it is attached. For the sake of the argument, it is possible that participatory governance may be effective during the planning and the design of public services, contributing to improve the responsiveness of public sector organizations; alternatively, it could be dangerous when the delivery of public services is concerned, producing increased risks of discrimination in the access to public services.

Also, it is worth noting that participatory governance may be used as a window-dressing strategy by public sector organizations, which is ultimately unable to challenge the existing power structures and to realize a factual citizen empowerment. From this point of view, it has been pointed out that participatory governance could pave the way for a new tyranny (Cooke and Kothari 2001), especially if ordinary people are not motivated to participate in public policy-making activities. To minimize this risk, participatory governance initiatives should be supported by tailored interventions intended to empower citizens, in order to awaken their dormant assets and to enable their involvement in public decision-making processes.

Of course, this makes participatory governance initiatives particularly expensive in terms of time and resources. In the current period of economic and financial distress which affect public sector organizations, it could be difficult to afford the implementation of full-fledged participatory governance interventions. To overcome this barrier, it is crucial to foster the development of a stronger social capital within the community through bottom-up mobilization, in an attempt to enhance the individual commitment to the cocreation of public value and realize the full potential of participatory governance (Silver et al. 2010).


Participatory governance is being promoted in different context to increase the engagement of ordinary people in public policy-making process and in broader processes of public value cocreation. However, there is still little agreement on the meaning of participatory governance. Further research should be aimed at providing a full-fledged understanding of participatory governance structures and instruments, in order to provide both scholars and practitioners with adequate insights to deal with the involvement of ordinary people in policy-making processes. As well, the pros and cons of participatory governance should be examined in depth to better comprehend the benefits and side effects of citizens’ involvement. Last but not least, there is a significant need for empirical studies intended to push forward the knowledge about the best practices of participatory governance.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Management & Innovation SystemsUniversity of SalernoFiscianoItaly