The Potential for Public Empowerment through Government‐Organized Participation

Published date01 September 2014
Date01 September 2014
Neal D. Buckwalter is assistant profes-
sor in the School of Public, Nonprof‌i t and
Health Administration at Grand Valley State
University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His
research examines the interplay between
bureaucracy and democracy, with particular
interest in the impacts of administra-
tive decision processes on the perceived
legitimacy of governance structures. His
work focuses mainly on state and local
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, 573
the use is non-commercial and no modif‌i cations or adaptations are made.
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 5, pp. 573–584. © 2014
The Authors. Public Administration Review
published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on
behalf of The American Society for Public
Administration. DOI: 10.1111/puar.12217.
Neal D. Buckwalter
Grand Valley State University
is article develops a better theoretical understanding
of the linkage between the processes and outcomes associ-
ated with government-organized public participation,
including its potential to empower citizens in guiding
administrative decisions. Special focus is given to those
factors that shape the development
and maintenance of the citizen–
administrator relationship. To this
end, the research examines the
work of federally mandated citizen
review panels and their interac-
tions with state child protection
agency administrators. Based on
52 in-depth interviews conducted
with citizens and administrators
in three U.S. states, a grounded
theory approach is employed to derive a series of test-
able theoretical propositions.  e insights gained are of
importance not only to public administration scholars but
also to citizens and administrators who engage one another
through formally organized channels of participation.
Public administration scholars and practitioners
have long grappled with the prospects of bal-
ancing democracy’s aims at openness and public
inclusion with bureaucracy’s focus on ef‌f‌i ciency and
expertise. A better understanding of these tensions
has become increasingly important as a wide range of
citizen participation opportunities have emerged dur-
ing the past half century, many of which have sought
to bring citizens to a more inf‌l uential position relative
to administration (Arnstein 1969; Kweit and Kweit
1981; Roberts 2004;  omas 1995). Broadly speak-
ing, citizen participation mechanisms are categorized
as either citizen driven or government organized
(Simonsen and Robbins 2000; Wandersman 1984).
e latter is the focus of this article, and it is most
often the result of legislative mandate; thus, it is at
times referred to as mandated participation.
Under the auspices of a vast regime of intergov-
ernmental grants, the U.S. federal government has
over the past 50 years increasingly linked funding
eligibility, at least in part, to the recipient jurisdiction’s
willingness and ability to facilitate public involve-
ment. Even with such provisions for participation,
the recipient subnational government (i.e., state or
locality) often retains signif‌i cant discretion to interpret
and implement the provisions
for increased public inclusion.
In other words, once public par-
ticipation has been mandated,
the choice for administrators
is not necessarily whether to
include the public but rather
how inclusive to be in terms
of quality of interaction and
potential for impact.
Government-Mandated Citizen Participation
e modern origins of mandated participation in
the United States reach back to the mid-twentieth
century, a pivotal time in the development of direct
citizen inclusion in policy making and implementa-
tion (Roberts 2004). Two concurrent trends made
this possible. Not only was the scope of government
responsibility growing, but also a notable decline in
public trust in traditional governing institutions was
beginning.  ese conditions fueled the rising interest
in more direct citizen involvement, including dif‌f er-
ent varieties of government-sponsored participation
(Simonsen and Robbins 2000).
In the 1960s, the Community Action Programs of
Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty emphasized
“maximum feasible participation.” Mandated public
involvement was further institutionalized during
the 1970s with the expansion of federal grant-in-aid
programs to states and localities. By 1978, public
participation requirements were featured prominently
in 155 separate grant programs, which accounted
for more than four out of every f‌i ve dollars of federal
grant funds (ACIR 1979). Despite recognition of
the challenges to measuring its ef‌f ectiveness (Rosener
1978), the number of policy areas with direct citizen
involvement has ballooned far beyond community
e Potential for Public Empowerment through
Government-Organized Participation
e choice for administrators
is not necessarily whether to
include the public but rather
how inclusive to be in terms
of quality of interaction and
potential for impact.

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