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A couple of introductory precisions
Effects, outcomes, results, impacts, consequences are all different words that have an almost identical meaning (and that are used mostly in an interchangeable way) when dealing with participatory processes. They all refer to the idea of something that lasts, after the participatory process is over and to a reality that did not exist or was different before participation. As such, this new public policy, citizen capacity, level of social capital or skill of local burocrats is considered an effect of the participatory process: it has been created during the participatory process (or indirectly after it) and is associated to energies, interactions or transformations that have occurred through it.
We will deal here with the effects of participatory processes (any of the “Dispositifs
” of this dictionary). They present many similarities (but also some remarkable differences) with the more thoroughly studied effects of other participatory practices, like protest or social movement participation. For example, the effects on participants are likely to be more intense as a result of a long and intense social movement campaign, but some of the learning processes and mechanisms behind them would be quite similar. These similarities and differences between both types of participation effects have been only partially examined up to now.
Why effects matter
Evaluations of participatory process are basically of two types: part of them discusses their quality based on procedural criteria (how closely their organisational characteristics fit with democratic values) and the rest are based precisely on their effects, on what lasts and has changed as a result of their existence. As a result, the study of participatory effects is one of the most popular areas in the participation field. Effects are important because they are one of the main justifications
of why any kind of participatory practice should exist. For some, effects would only be an added value: participation is an important value and objective in itself and does not require further justification
. However, for others, participation would only be a valuable asset if it has practical results, changing to better any of the pieces of the process: better policies, better citizens, better communities, associations or public servants.
The academic debate about whether participation effects are a must or a plus is open, but some of the potential kind of effects may be quite necessary to convince the most reluctant sectors among citizens, elected politicians or administration officers. Those that are not convinced of the virtues that participation may have by itself, need to see that it is worth to spend public money, politicians’ time or citizens’ energies in developing these processes, because they have shown to produce some kind of valuable outcome.
Types of effects
Which are these possible outcomes? Each author has her own favourite way to organize the list, but basically they may affect two kinds of realities: 1) any of the actors involved in the participatory process and their relationships or 2) the policies being discussed in them. Surely, other important effects also exist: on legitimacy, on electoral results, on political conflict or on the framing of debates and ideas, to mention just a few. However, we will concentrate on the two groups that fit more closely with the alleged purposes of these processes: changing actors or changing policies. We will first present some of the most common positive effects that have been mentioned and then some of the negative ones.
The array of research devoted to effects in citizen participants is probably one of the most extended ones, covering quite a wide spectrum of participation devices, with an especially strong emphasis on deliberative mechanisms. Changes in knowledge about the subject of the participatory process, but also in more general attitudes like political trust, efficacy or tolerance have been widely (but not unanimously, see below) documented. In some cases, these changes go beyond attitudes and include civic or political behaviours, resulting in more participatory citizens.
Changes in individual participants may include also the other actors, either elected politicians that understand or appreciate better the demands or the capacities of the citizen’s participants, or the administration burocrats that gain knowledge about citizen problems or even learn thanks to more intense interactions with their fellow officials from different administration departments. However, it is important to point out that research about these two actors is much less common than about citizens. Changes in participants may go quite beyond the individual level. They may include a strengthening of the associational sector, a more coordinated voice of civil society, a more fluid (and less clientelistic) relationship between the local administration and citizens or even a substantial reorganization of the public burocracies or their working styles.
The second large group of changes is the one affecting the most clear potential outcome of any public debate: public policies. From a normative point of view, participatory policies should result in policies that better incorporate citizen preferences. Also, at least in the more deliberative processes, these preferences would not be any more raw unreasoned preferences, but the result of listening to other sides and making better judgements based on the common good or, at least, on an enlarged understanding of the individual and group needs. In some cases, these more diverse and refined preferences would result in innovative policies and in more fair, egalitarian and sustainable policies. Research about this topic is still limited, but all these claims have been sustained in at least a few specific cases.
However, the opposite ideas have also found their way into published research. The theoretical arguments sustaining why participatory processes could result in frustration, polarization or poor policies have been developed and empirical credence for each of these ideas has been also provided. The polarization of participants’ ideas as a result of participation has been quite thoroughly studied as well as the contexts where this outcome is more likely. Deception of participants due to closed processes that do not favour the appearance of alternative voices, but especially due to lack of implementation of policy proposals coming out of a participatory process, have also been frequently reported. Finally, the idea that these processes can end up in deadlocks that generate no viable proposals, as well as cases showing that proposals arising from participatory processes may produce negative redistribution or be too expensive, unspecific, unrealistic or with limited capacity of innovation has also appeared.
All these types of changes (among others) have been documented in one or several cases. A different story is how frequent they are, how convincing are the empirical materials sustaining these claims and how difficult it is to show that there is causal relationship between participation and its alleged effect.
Problems and open questions
The previous section has shown quite contradictory empirical findings regarding the effects of participation. Probably, evidences in favour of positive effects are quantitatively more numerous, but the existence of any none of the effects mentioned can be easily dismissed. This is likely to be the result of a combination of several factors. First, it is quite foreseeable that positive and negative effects are really simultaneously present in reality, even in the same specific process that may produce for example both, better critical citizens but also a more conflictive relationship between civil society and the municipality resulting in reduced political trust.
Second, these effects are difficult to document and it is even harder to show that they are the result of the participatory process. Some of these effects need more discussion about what is a relevant effect. For example, the discussion about attitudinal changes among participants has shown many short term changes, but some have argued that they are the result of emotional enthusiasm, in the immediate aftermath of a process, that disappear shortly after participants go back to their real lives. Something similar happens with policies: research has shown rich social policies as a result of participatory processes, but cases where profound social transformations have consolidated are quite more limited.
Third, these effects may vary strongly depending on the types of mechanisms, on contextual characteristics of the area, but also on types of participants. For example, a similar process of participatory budgeting may fail or succeed depending on the level of trust that citizens have on their respective municipalities. The organisational characteristics of the process (its institutional design), and how successful it is to incorporate different voices or to find the appropriate frame for the issue being discussed may also completely change the outcomes. The effects on participants are also likely to change: for some previously mobilised citizens the room to learn or to become more politicised is more limited, whereas the incorporation of citizens that were more external to political life has a higher likelihood of becoming influential in them.
Finally, we still need to learn almost everything about the causal mechanisms behind many of these effects. Why do policies change in participatory processes? Is it because more/less popular voices are mobilized or the result of deliberation and exposure to different opinions? Do burocrats change because they need to adapt to less sectorialised publics and demands or because politicians or high level administrators become convinced that this new organisational proposal will work better. More empirical research and more appropriate questions and methodologies are needed to fully understand the realities and dynamics of participation effects.