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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Reframing Public Participation: Strategies for the 21st Century


This article makes the case that legally required participation methods in the US not only do not meet most basic goals for public participation, but they are also counterproductive, causing anger and mistrust. Both theory and practice are dominated by ambivalence about the idea of participation itself. Both struggle with dilemmas that make the problems seem insoluble, such as the conflict between the individual and collective interest or between the ideal of democracy and the reality that many voices are never heard. Cases are used to draw on an emerging set of practices of collaborative public engagement from around the world to demonstrate how alternative methods can better meet public participation goals and how they make moot most of the dilemmas of more conventional practice. Research shows that collaborative participation can solve complex, contentious problems such as budget decision making and create an improved climate for future action when bitter disputes divide a community. Authentic dialogue, networks and institutional capacity are the key elements. The authors propose that participation should be understood as a multi-way set of interactions among citizens and other players who together produce outcomes. Next steps involve developing an alternative practice framework, creating forums and arenas, adapting agency decision processes, and providing training and financial support.

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