Participatory decision-making is widely considered to increase the transparency, accountability, equity and efficiency with which public administration serves the least privileged in society. However, in the public arena, participatory decision-making processes often fail to bring about these outcomes. To address this issue, academics and practitioners have developed theories regarding how participatory decision-making processes can better empower marginalized groups.
This paper reviews this body of work and empirically grounds the associated debates by surveying 50 public engagement organisers and 25 participants about the participatory events they organize or attend. Success, as defined by organisers, was perceived to be influenced by context, including time and financial constraints, and the prevailing political economy. However, organisers sometimes fail to adapt their processes to socio-cultural contexts, potentially disadvantaging the already marginalised. Other important factors associated with processes perceived to be successful included feedback, accountability, equal power, freedom from fear, accessibility and inclusion.
These empirical findings were combined with insights from the theoretical literature to devise a conceptual model of emancipatory, inclusive and empowering participatory decision-making – the ‘Tree of Participation’ (ToP). The model may be useful to, both organisers of participatory processes as a check for empowering and inclusive practice, and to disadvantaged groups as a set of expectations and demands when engaging in public decision-making