Who Participates in Public Participation? The Exclusionary Effects of Inclusionary Efforts

AuthorSierk Ybema,Ludo Glimmerveen,Henk Nies
Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(4) 543 –574
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211034137
Who Participates in
Public Participation? The
Exclusionary Effects of
Inclusionary Efforts
Ludo Glimmerveen1, Sierk Ybema1,2,
and Henk Nies1,3
Highlighting public-service actors’ deliberately tokenistic or self-serving
efforts, existing literature has shown that public participation often involves
the co-optation of sympathetic citizens. In contrast, our study demonstrates
that participatory advocates may discredit and marginalize critical voices
despite their own inclusive, democratic ideals. We analyze the entangled
legitimacy claims of participating citizens and “inviting” public-service
actors, capturing (a) the often-unintended dynamics through which the
inclusion of particular participants legitimizes the exclusion of others,
while illuminating (b) the tenacious propensity of participatory initiatives
to establish “constructive cooperation” as the norm for participation and,
subsequently, to normalize exclusionary practices.
public participation, citizen engagement, legitimacy, co-optation, participant
1Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, United Kingdom
3Vilans, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Ludo Glimmerveen, Department of Organization Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam,
De Boelelaan 1105, 1018 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Email: l.m.glimmerveen@vu.nl
1034137AAS0010.1177/00953997211034137Administration & SocietyGlimmerveen et al.
544 Administration & Society 54(4)
Promoted as a reform strategy for public services (Voorberg et al., 2015),
extant literature often portrays public participation as a way of incorporating
“community values into local decision-making processes” (Abelson et al.,
2003, p. 243). Just who is meant by “community,” however, often remains
ambiguous (Kenny et al., 2015). Within both policy and academic debates,
terms like “the public,” “civil society,” and “community” are often used
interchangeably to refer to “ordinary people” as a category distinct from offi-
cials, professionals and other so-called insiders to the health care system
(Contandriopoulos, 2004; Contandriopoulos et al., 2004). Research into par-
ticipatory efforts (e.g., Barnes et al., 2003; Martin, 2008) has examined how
the “public” within public participation is translated into a more demarcated
set of participants; that is, who actually participates?
When investigating how actors negotiate the concrete parameters of a par-
ticipating “public,” it is particularly interesting to consider the role of critical
voices within such processes. Paradoxically, while advocates tend to portray
public participation as a welcome democratizing counterpoise to managerial
and professional power (Harrison & Mort, 1998; Needham, 2008), research
shows that critical voices within participatory initiatives often tend to be mar-
ginalized, compromising public participation’s potential as a countervailing
power (e.g., Barnes et al., 2003). Particularly in the case of “invited” (i.e., as
opposed to “grassroots”) participation that is “orchestrated by an external
agency of some kind, be it state or non-governmental” (Cornwall, 2008,
p. 281), public service agencies tend to draw boundaries to delineate whom
they consider “appropriate” participants and what they see as the “proper”
scope of their engagement (Glimmerveen et al., 2018, 2020; Kenny et al.,
2015). Moreover, citizens themselves may also be unable or unwilling to
participate, especially when doubtful about whether their participation actu-
ally makes a difference (Abelson et al., 2003; Cornwall, 2008; Hodge, 2005).
As a result, participatory initiatives tend to attract “archetypally ‘active’ citi-
zens” (Martin, 2008, p. 50), characterized by a willingness to participate as
partners rather than as critical challengers (Croft et al., 2016). Existing stud-
ies thus show that public participation initiatives often exclude citizens who
take a more antagonistic stance.
For this reason, scholars have cast doubt on the democratic intentions
behind participatory efforts, highlighting instead organizational actors’ delib-
erate co-optation of citizens in order to advance their own positions (e.g.,
Hodge, 2005; Lee & Romano, 2013). By empirically investigating the entan-
glement of citizens’ and public-service actors’ efforts to justify who is and
who is not involved in a participatory process, we try to move beyond such
Glimmerveen et al. 545
cynical accounts. As of yet, the dynamics that help explain the marginaliza-
tion of democratic opposition have not received due empirical or theoretical
elaboration. Extant research displays a limited ability to explain exactly how
actors negotiate one another’s (il)legitimacy within processes of local service
governance. In particular, it pays limited attention to the micro-dynamics
through which critical outsiders are disqualified and excluded from such
processes—either by themselves, fellow citizens, or public-service actors.
Consequently, current literature tends to overlook the interactive and entan-
gled nature of actors’ disqualifying and legitimizing claims and how these
gradually shape participant selection. By building on a longitudinal, qualita-
tive case study of a professional care provider that solicited local citizen par-
ticipation for one of its elderly care homes, we demonstrate why—even when
their participation is invited from a “desire to pursue democratic ideals of
legitimacy, transparency and accountability” (Abelson et al., 2003, p. 239)—
critical citizens still tend to be marginalized. In short, our paper addresses the
following question:
How do citizens and public-service actors try to establish the legitimacy of
their mutual engagement and how does this affect the position of critical voices
within public participation practices?
Our paper’s main contribution is twofold. First, we provide an empirically
grounded analysis of participation’s intrinsic dynamics of inclusion and
exclusion. Although the question of “who participates” is often treated as a
design choice (e.g., Fung, 2006) or as the deliberate selection of “appropri-
ate” participants (e.g., El Enany et al., 2013), we illuminate the emergent,
often-unintended inclusionary and exclusionary dynamics that shape partici-
pant selection over time. This allows us to make a second contribution. Our
empirical analysis substantiates our claim that “exclusion” is part and parcel
of participatory efforts: in fact, it is built into its very design. Participatory
initiatives tend to normalize the undemocratic lockout of protesters—even
when the actors involved deliberately set out to be open to criticism and
opposition. In its critique of citizens’ co-optation, extant literature often pro-
poses strategies to achieve more “real and meaningful” participation (Durose
et al., 2013, p. 331) and to “more effectively [. . .] open opportunities for
influence” (Cornwall, 2004, p. 8). Without denying the potential of such
strategies, our analysis justifies more fundamental caution regarding the
assumption of participatory initiatives’ democratic counterpoise potential.
In what follows, we first explore how extant literature approaches the
question of “who participates in public participation.” We then conceptually
zoom in on the notion of legitimacy and its pursuance by actors involved in

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