TLDR: Local politicians’ attitudes towards participatory initiatives: a Bulpittian perspective

tldrMcKenna, Dave. (2012). Local Politicians’ attitudes towards participatory initiatives: a Bulpittian perspective, Public Money & Management, 32:2, 103-110.

— shortened by Krista Maydew

This article explores how public participation initiatives may be viewed by local politicians in the United Kingdom, based on McKenna’s analysis of existing research on the topic. The author acknowledges potential for the applicability of the analysis to other local governments around the globe that are representative in nature.

McKenna outlines several reasons why the outcomes of public participation processes may not be included in policy decisions, including: lack of mechanisms to integrate the outcomes; lack of interest in change and perception that power will be eroded as a result; institutional “norms” that are supportive of inadequate resourcing of participatory initiatives and concern regarding “the validity and legitimacy” of such initiatives; penchant for elected officials to act as managers; and loyalty to the political party (pp. 103-104) .

The author focuses on the work of Jim Bulpitt to provide a ‘Bulpittian’ analysis to better understand local politics. The analysis requires focusing on three specific areas: 1) identifying the “élite at the centre of government” (p. 105) who are considered to be key influencers or holders of power; 2) understanding the “established rules, norms and beliefs that guide their behaviour” (p. 105); and 3) determining what issues are of greatest importance to the élite.

McKenna notes five negative perspectives through which local politicians may view public participatory initiatives:

  1. A potential source of conflict / division within a political party; e.g., the results may recommend a politician support a decision that is not generally upheld by his/her party.
  2. An “electoral liability” (p. 107) which could prove deleterious to a political campaign or politician.
  3. A challenge “to the system” (p. 107) that risks undermining the perceived competence of government.
  4. A potential means of “sidelining councillors” (p. 107) by finding a solution to an issue without involvement of the elected official.
  5. A perceived narrowing of decision-making authority.

Conversely, McKenna identifies three perspectives through which local politicians may perceive public participatory initiatives as constructive:

  1. An opportunity for “positive public relations” (p. 107).
  2. A means of enhancing legitimacy of decision-making when public participation outcomes and political interests align.
  3. An opportunity for politicians to “devolve responsibility” (p. 107) on specific matters, particularly those of least interest/importance to the individual, allowing politicians to focus their attention and energy on issues that are of greatest importance to them.

Lastly, the author describes four types of participatory initiatives: consultation (e.g., focus groups, survey panels), direct democracy (e.g., referendums), deliberative initiatives (e.g., policy juries) and co-governance initiatives (e.g., committees, participatory budgeting) (p. 108) which, like those outlined on the IAP2 Spectrum, allow for varying degrees of influence in the decision-making process. Each of these initiatives is considered from the perspective of the political élite, identifying perceived positive and negative attributes. McKenna concludes by noting the importance of understanding the political environment for those who are planning public participation initiatives and suggests that consultation and co-governance initiatives are likely to be the most successful approaches to public participation as they are less likely to be perceived as threatening to the political élite. 

 

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