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Great Expectations – Little Change: Addressing Public Participation in Administrative Settings

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michelle Tsiebos

The traditional role of public administrators in the public policy process is implementation. Public administrators implement policies along with a network of organizations, both private and non-private, and the citizens at time. Unfortunately, even when citizens are invited to participate in administrative processes, many are still excluded. Public participation is affected by the issue of the lack of representation of those who participate.

Tsiebos septNot all segments of the population participate in administrative affairs when the opportunity is offered. Citizens of low socioeconomic levels generally do not participate. Institutional citizen participation processes are plagued by the same individuals often referred to as “the usual suspects” in the literature. They are generally persons of high socioeconomic status. They feel comfortable in the infamous public hearing setting, with its three minutes of speaking time.

Legal mandates shape the participation of citizens in government affairs. These mandates were part of the reform movement of the 1960s, which gave birth to the war on poverty by the Johnson administration. According to John Bryson, Kathryn Quick, Clarissa Slotterback and Barbara Crosby in a 2013 Public Administration Review article titled “Designing Public Participation Processes,” early citizen participation requirements were a response to the public’s accusations of administrative biases toward the more advantaged segments of the population.

Legal mandates can be quite restrictive and can limit the government obligations to a simple disclosure of the decision taken in a given process. Lisa Bingham stated in a 2006 Review of Policy Research article titled “The New Urban Governance: Processes for Engaging Citizens and Stakeholders,” the legal mandate invites citizens at the policy downstream where the choice is quite inexistent, and the discussion is of a conflictual nature. Legal mandates have an impact on how far public administrators can involve citizens. Reevaluating legal mandates to making them more favorable to citizens in public participation is an unavoidable step moving forward for public administrators.

Truly, there is a noticed lack of citizens’ involvement into administrative affairs. But to appeal to citizens, the participation processes must be meaningful. This involves giving a real say to citizens in the decision making process. To be meaningful to citizens, participation must permit sharing of the decision making to some extent. There is still reluctance from public administrators to share their power with citizens due to the perceived citizens’ lack of expertise.

The demand for more government transparency has been growing with the shrinking of public revenues as allocations become even more contentious. This is the context in which President Obama, on his first inauguration day, called for more transparency, citizen participation and collaboration between public and private agencies for a more effective government. This presidential call for open government was supposed to put citizen participation at the forefront of government business.

According to John Thomas in a 2013 Public Administration Review article called “Citizen, Customer, Partner: Rethinking the Place of the Public in Public Management,” high cost for government and inefficiency associated with the amount of time required to implement the participation process are often presented as the reason public administrators are reticent to involve citizens in policy.

For administrators to work with citizens, they need to change their bureaucratic ways of decision-making, which reflects a hierarchical process. They must enter into a horizontal relationship where decision-making requires a collaborative approach; this management change is not automatic as argued by Michael Lennon and Gary Berg-Cross in a 2010 Public Manager article titled “Toward a High Performing Open Government.” Public administrations are characterized by a top-down approach to all their processes including citizen participation.

According to Soon Ae Chun, Stuart Shulman, Rodrigo Sandoval and Eduard Hovy in the 2010 Information Polity: The International Journal of Government & Democracy in the Information Age article titled “Government 2.0: Making Connections Between Citizens, Data and Government,” e-participation can involve interactive communication between participants using social media ,which allows for the creation of content by citizens outside of the governmental agency. E-participation is now the promising panacea for citizen participation because of its attributed benefits listed below:

  • Lower cost for government.
  • Better decision making: stemming from the availability of information.
  • Shared accountability between citizens and government officials.
  • Better democracy: through increased representation, and more transparency.

E-participation is not fully implemented. The latter authors attributed this deficit to many limiting factors presented below:

  • The abundance of online data.
  • The government’s lack of expertise in the use of social media as an interactive tool.
  • The problem of privacy intrinsic to the Internet.
  • The users themselves, or citizens; socioeconomic status, education, and ease of Internet use are amongst the most important characteristics that determine an individual’ success in e-participation.
  • The “digital divide”: access to the Internet is not a given for all groups of society.

Finally, e-participation encounters the same kind of barrier met by traditional participation. It is the issue of representation. The participants have not changed.

Dennis Linders, in a 2012 Government Information Quarterly article titled “From E-government to We-government: Defining a Typology for Citizen Coproduction in the Age of Social Media,” states that change must happen in the organization of public administration in order for citizen participation—as a collaborative endeavor between equal partners—to become current practice in administrative affairs. How to bring about that change to permit the sharing of power is still an issue. Presidential mandates or other authoritative decrees will not suffice. Organizational learning would be a promising venue to implement the needed change.

Pressed to engage citizens in administrative processes, and make government more transparent, public administrators find themselves between citizen participation processes that lack representation and a bureaucratic structure ill equipped for horizontal forms of communication. The results are participation processes doomed to failure because of their bureaucratic top-down approach. At the end, there are no winners.


Author: Michelle Tsiebos is a doctoral candidate (ABD) in public administration at the University of La Verne, California. She conducted a process evaluation of the citizen participation plan of the county of Los Angeles for the 2011 redistricting process. Tsiebos is employed by the county of Los Angeles as an environmental health specialist in the Department of Public Health. She evaluates the public health impact in land development projects. Tsiebos can be reached at [email protected].

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2 Responses to Great Expectations – Little Change: Addressing Public Participation in Administrative Settings

  1. Douglas Brown Reply

    July 9, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    I was not really aware that there was a name for that type of participation, but E-Participation is fairly self explanatory. The benefits of such a medium are obvious, especially the lower cost to government, and I think is still a great way for people to get involved when they want to. You are right though, that there is an abundance of data online, and sometimes less experienced users may have a hard time finding pertinent data. Thanks for the post.

    • Michelle Tsiebos Reply

      March 5, 2016 at 5:04 pm

      Thank you Douglas for taking the time to read my article. I think our biggest concern in government is to have people “want to” getting involved, because there’s no true democracy without participation of the many.

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