Monday, 11 June 2012

Public Participation and Organizational Performance

Extracts from:
Neshkova, M and Guo, D. 2011, "Public Participation and Organizational Performance : Evidence from State Agencies", Journal of Public Administration Theory and Practice, OUP.

Public engagement in administration has been widely advocated by theorists and practitioners alike since 1950s to the present day.
  • According to democratic theorists (e.g., Dahl 1989; Urbinati and Warren 2008), the importance of public participation stems from the principle that those affected by public policies should have a meaningful and equal opportunity to influence policy outcomes. 
  • New  governance scholars emphasize ‘‘the collaborative nature of modern efforts to meet human needs’’ (Salamon 2002), and encourage public administrators to engage citizens in a more active manner. 

Nabatchi (2010) nicely summarizes the reasons why American public administration should strive to better engage citizens in the work of government:
(a) to promote and maintain democracy,
(b) to compensate for its long-stranding embrace of bureaucratic ethos, and
(c) to respond to the needs associated with the recent shift to network and collaborative governance.

Nonetheless, there are two theoretical perspectives about the effect of public participation on organizational performance.

Traditional Perspective
The traditional perspective holds that there is a trade-off between democratic and administrative decision making. As Gawthrop notes ‘‘The engines of bureaucracy and democracy run on different tracks, leaving from different stations and heading for different destinations’’ (1997, 205). Indeed, whereas democracy emphasizes participation, equality, and a bottom-up approach to decision making, bureaucracy values efficiency, hierarchy, and top-down decision making (Denhardt and Denhardt 2006).

Consequently public administration scholars have long acknowledged the inherent tension between bureaucratic decision making and citizen participation (e.g., Gawthrop 1997). Administration of public policies is considered a professional pursuit requiring technical expertise to be executed in an efficient and effective manner. In fact, bureaucracy is thought to derive its legitimacy as a 'policymaker' from its expertise (Dahl 1989; Stivers 1990). In contrast, the public lacks specialized knowledge or policy expertise. Citizens are often reluctant to devote time and effort to understand the intricacies of public issues, as indicated by the chronic low attendance at public hearings, for instance. Further Kweit and Kweit note, "in the ideal bureaucracy, describe by Max Weber...bureaucratic decision making implies a centralization of authority.... In the ideal bureaucracy there is no place for citizen participation. Citizens lack technical expertise, are unfamiliar with bureaucratic routines, and are emotionally involved in issues rather being detached and rational. Citizens are outside the hierarchy and therefore hard to control. As a consequence, participation may increase the time needed to reach a decision as well as the level of conflict. The end result hampers the efficiency and rationality sought in the ideal bureaucracy’’ (1984, 235).

However, in democratic societies since the public ‘‘owns’’ the government, the people are the ultimate principals that delegate authority to policymakers—both elected and appointed. As Stivers notes, the
question is ‘‘whether citizens’ qualifications or intentions would constrain or divert the agency mission’’ (1990, 89).

Competing Perspective

Scholars agree that engaging the public in administrative decision making is normatively desirable and can bring about important educative and empowering benefits to citizens and communities. However, administrators are more likely to be concerned with how participation impacts the performance of public programs. In response, a competing perspective suggests that citizen input provides administrators with valuable site-specific information and contributes to more efficient and effective public programs.

Within this second perspective, citizens are recognized as a resource for problem solving.

  • First, because bureaucrats make decisions on the basis of their narrow specialized knowledge,they might not be able to foresee all unintended consequences of public policies Based on their practical knowledge and day-to-day experience, citizens can provide public managers with context-specific information that might not otherwise be available, or notify them of unforeseen factors and thus prevent costly errors. Dahl asserts that decisions on public issues have both a moral and instrumental component. Citizen interface will allow bureaucrats to cover information gaps and improve the instrumental component of the decisions (1989).
  • Second, citizens can provide ‘‘innovative solutions to public problems that would have not emerged from traditional modes of decision making’’ (Moynihan 2003). Innovative solutions based on  local knowledge would lead to better resource allocation decisions and better effectiveness.                           -------------(Beierle and Cayford 2002, Fung 2004; Moynihan 2003; Sirianni 2009; Stivers 1990).
  • Citizen input also allows public officials to better understand public priorities and reduce wasteful projects, which in turn leads to better efficiency. 
  • Analysis of Beierle and Cayford (2002) shows that recommendations made by citizens can lead to more cost-effective solutions than the alternative courses of action.
Supporting this perspective, Neshkova and Guo's study (2011) of US state transportation agencies demonstrated that  citizen input is positively and significantly associated with better service in terms of both efficiency and effectiveness. Results show that more public participation is associated with less expenditures per vehicle mile traveled, fewer poor quality roads, and lower highway fatality rates.
They further state that there is not necessarily a trade-off between the values of democracy and the values of bureaucracy. By incorporating citizen participation into the usual business of government, public managers better serve the main objectives of their agencies.This finding has important implications for the theory and practice of democratic government.

In conclusion we can identify the following impact of citizen participation (Nabatchi (2010):
(a) normative (or intrinsic) benefits, that is, it has value in and of itself regardless of outcomes;
(b) instrumental benefits for citizens, that is, educative and empowerment effects through increased knowledge of the policy process and the development of citizenship skills and dispositions;
(c) instrumental benefits for communities, that is, capacity building within the community; and
(d) instrumental benefits for policy and governance.

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