16 December 2022

You’ve done your research on best practices. You’ve familiarised yourself with the tools available, weighing up the advantages against the costs. Bit by bit, your new participation project is taking shape before your eyes.  

Now all you need to do is to get the rest of the administration on board. How hard can that be?

Whenever we start working with a city, we use a diagnostic tool to give them an in-depth look at their own institution, mapping experiences across different departments. The core of this approach is a series of interviews. We talk to head of departments, administrators, and key political figures, gathering together the various pieces of the jigsaw until we have a complete picture.

Over the years, we have found that we often see the same problems cropping up again and again. Things about the administration that hinder successful participation projects. Some of them are surprising, some involve misunderstandings – and some are simply a matter of good old-fashioned bureaucracy getting in the way. Here are some of the highlights.

1. Lack of Cooperation Between Departments

It’s no secret that in government, inter-departmental communication often leaves a lot to be desired. Yet being confronted with the concrete details is enough to leave a lot of city administrators shouting out in desperation or shaking their heads in disbelief.

With individual departments acting as independent silos, and channels between them fragmentary or non-existent, the result is staggering inefficiency. One of our interviewees told us: “I think there is poor information-sharing, and quite frankly, poor communication. I mean this self-critically as well – everybody is doing their own thing, we don’t complement each other in terms of content, it’s very clear.”

A successful participation project requires cooperation throughout the entire administration. It’s important to talk to one another right from the start – or your project will never see the light of day.

2. Fragmentation of digital tools

This is closely related to the first point: every individual department has its own favourite tools. In a single city or municipal administration, there are often multiple civic tech or communication tools in use. Every team leader, every department, and sometimes even every individual uses whichever tools they happen to like best.

Equally, when one team introduces a new tool, other departments often aren’t offered training on how to use it. As a result, tools end up not being used properly – or people simply stick to using the old, familiar tools.

3. “What is Participation, exactly?”

Participation and deliberation may be buzzwords these days – but the fact is that a lot of confusion remains as to what they actually mean, and how they should be used. Sometimes, we encounter resistance to the very idea of participation in any form. One interviewee told us that they think the whole thing is over the top, and amounts to spoiling citizens, adding: “They get a say in everything, everybody thinks they’re an expert.”

This kind of all-out skepticism isn’t that common. Yet we often find that people only have a vague grasp of what participation really involves. This can make participation a hard sell – after all, would you devote time and resources to a project you don’t really understand? Equally, where projects do go ahead, a lack of understanding can lead administrators to make promises to the public that can’t be kept. It’s important that everyone has a clear grasp of both the potential and the limitations of participation before a project starts. 

4. Bureaucracy and hierarchy

It’s an old one, but a classic. One of the things that city administrators mentioned again and again was the heavy burden of bureaucratic processes. Participation projects mean a whole lot of paperwork, and getting the approval of heads of department. We’ve spoken to a lot of people who are full of enthusiasm for new kinds of participation – but it can be difficult to maintain this enthusiasm in the face of bureaucracy and hierarchy.

The lack of horizontal structures means that in the end, decisions often end up getting made by individuals. If the head of department takes participation seriously, projects tend to succeed. If not, change becomes all but impossible, and all of the issues listed above end up even more problematic.

Overall, a successful participation project doesn’t just mean finding the right tools and implementing them. Your own enthusiasm is essential – but it won’t get you far if you don’t get the rest of the administration onboard. This means getting everybody in the administration on board with the idea – by educating them on the idea behind participation, through training, by including them in the process, and by making sure that you aren’t working at cross-purposes.

This article was produced in cooperation with Participation Factory. Participation Factory is a social enterprise that mainstreams participation and data-driven approaches into governance and process design. Our experts support local governments in designing participation driven processes and systems, building capacities of their team, and implementing digital participation tools and Civic Tech. To learn more, refer to our website or contact us at info@participationfactory.com.

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