Thursday September 29, 2022

The public in public decisions

June 16, 2021

What often passes for public participation in a public decision is nothing more than mere tokenism. To be able to distinguish substantial participation from the mere semblance of participation is critical to fostering meaningful participation of the public in public policy decisions.

Here tokenism is taken to mean a policy or practice that makes only a symbolic effort rather than a sincere practical one. The symbolic pretension of participation, if cleverly portrayed, can lead publics who have been essentially far removed from the public decision-making processes to erroneously feel that they matter, that their voice is carrying forth to the corridors of power and that things are poised to improve for them in the future.

The traditional structure of public decision-making processes, especially in developing countries, has been one of elites taking decisions authoritatively, in a top-down manner, with little or no participation of the grassroots level public. Though the bulk of present-day public decisions adhere to the traditional public decision-making processes, still, the actual level of participation of the public in public policy decisions does vary.

Here public participation is taken to include the interaction of the grassroots levels most directly affected by a public decision and the traditional political, administrative or institutional decision-making structure.

The participatory public decision-making process can cover very different contexts, and can be of varying levels of organization or formality. The important underlying precept is that the decision process should be structured to allow the participating publics to have a clear mechanism to influence the public decisions. In token or essentially non-participatory decision-making processes there appears to be some avenues for participation by the grassroots level publics but these avenues do not allow the publics to exert any influence on the public decisions.

The manipulative processes that give a misleading semblance of meaningful participation can take many different forms. One popular form that this nature of participation can take is the inclusion of a very limited number of members of a community or grassroots level population segment in committees, working groups, commissions, advisory boards, etc. These forums of token participation help engineer a visible presence of the grassroots level public and at the same time limit involvement to just being visibly present without enabling deeper participation in the decision process.

One way in which participation can be stifled in these forums occurs because of asymmetries of power and status among the grassroots level public and the other more established elitist members. In addition to the constraining disparities in power and status, the grassroots level public’s participation can be constrained by a one-way flow of ‘official’ information to the token public grassroots level participant, by implicitly or explicitly discouraging questions or discussion, and by providing legalistic or technical jargon filled information to the token grassroots public representative.

In improving the quality of participation one way is to make the public decision process a more interactive one. The process should include junctures where the participants are provided opportunities to share their point of view and are given opportunities to raise questions. This kind of participation in a public decision-making process is an improvement over the token participation of just being present. However, making the decision process even more genuinely participative would require paying attention to what was being said by the participants.

Another mechanism that can be used to establish a connection to participation in decision-making is engineered through survey research. This method works by researching public opinion and public decision preferences and then accommodating the views of the public in policy decisions. While this reasoning process is fine in theory, the practical aspects can make the link between prevailing public opinion and public policy decisions tenuous in many cases.

Speaking as one who has taught research methods at the university level and one who has a practical understanding of research, my considered opinion on public opinion research is that for it to be really useful this kind of research has to be very carefully designed, conducted, compiled and analyzed. Shortcomings in sampling, instrument design, question wording, data collection, and data analysis can seriously distort conclusions that come out of such research.

A meaningful participatory stance necessarily needs to include interactive processes that look more like negotiations between equals rather than token participation of the disenfranchised. Methods that will enhance participation by the public in public decision processes could include design elements, such as the need for consensus, or providing all participants of the group decision-making process with veto power. These mechanisms provide for a more equitable interaction between participants with vastly varying levels of power and status.

One key point that needs to be addressed in any group structure that seeks to arrive at public decisions by being participatory and inclusive is that the member chosen to represent the interest of the grassroots community or public should clearly be recognized as a representative of the community that he or she purportedly represents. This point is important because the legitimacy of the participatory endeavor can be seriously compromised if the individual cannot claim the representativeness of the group.

Another key aspect of the process of public participation is that there needs to be a buy-in into the process for it to be seen as legitimate. One point at which it would make much sense for involving the grassroots level public in the decision-making process is to involve the participants at the outset in defining how they would like to participate in the decision process.

Public participation in public decision-making processes has been steadily gaining in importance in the last few decades. The rubric of public participation is broad and includes on the one extreme, meaningless token participation that placates, and on the other extreme meaningful participatory processes that involve hitherto excluded publics in influencing public decisions. Recognizing the meaninglessness of the token participation is the critical realization that opens the possibility of meaningful public participation at some later stage.

The writer heads a university-based policy centre in Islamabad.