[Fifth and last post in a series presenting our “Participation Schemas”. The previous posts were: “Open Government beyond open data and transparency”, “Characterizing Collaborative Participation”, “Dimension WHAT – Intensity of Collaboration” and “Participation Schemas: Dimensions WHO, WHEN & WHERE”]
Dimension HOW – Transparency and deliberative intensity
In this dimension, which enquires about the ‘how’ of participation, we have included two elements that have a major importance: transparency and deliberation, which as illustrated in the figure below will be characterized in Participation Schemas with the levels: ‘high’, ‘medium’, ‘low‘ and ‘non-existent’.
Transparency does not constitute, as such, a form of participation but rather a prerequisite for genuine collaborative participation. To have real cooperation all participants should have access to all the relevant information that is available. This is why the maximum transparency in government action is considered as one of the essential components in Open Government models. Data should be available online, in machine readable format that adheres to open standards, so that anybody interested can create applications that reuse and combine the data in all possible ways. By having public information available for its inspection, citizens and citizen groups can work both proactively -e.g. developing projects and proposals for the government- or in a reactive way, after an incident occurs -e.g. to identify inefficiencies or even corruption within the administration.
In this sense, a participatory process is considered transparent according to the extent that the decision-maker –and, in general, all participants– share all information available to them, to enable the rest of participants to act on it. High quality participation requires high levels of institutional information transparency which “provide accurate and sufficient information to participants and inform them on the background and institutional context in which the decision has to be inserted, the alternatives available, the major interests at stake, etc.” . The participatory process should also enable and facilitate external scrutiny, and make sure that interested non-participants can follow its evolution and outcomes.
Opacity and lack of transparency promote arbitrariness, privilege, incompetence and corruption in the management of public affairs. This is why an increase in transparency levels does not necessarily increase, immediately, the trust of citizens in political representatives. In fact, it might have the opposite effect, affecting negatively the citizen’s perception of politicians and public administration . If no substantial changes are improve institutional structures and countervail the existing power relations within public administrations , transparency serves to evidence the gap between the public expectation of decisions being taken rationally and the reality of current decision-making processes, much more chaotic and arbitrary .
Transparency has thus a significant capacity to frame the behavioural incentives within public institutions. When an elected official or a public worker know that all their actions are visible and can be inspected at any time, present or future, they are more motivated to avoid any wrongdoing. In participatory processes, transparency makes more difficult to conceal the interests and private agendas of the actors and institutions involved in the process. As a result, the decision-making process may be more deliberative and more based on evidence and arguments, and participants are more motivated to pursue real ‘best solutions’ and win-win agreements. It is important to notice that, as illustrated by the ‘Transparency Cliff’ included in the figure, in order to move from the consultative levels towards a truly collaborative participation a substantial degree of transparency is needed.
The second component included in this dimension of the Participation Schemas is the deliberative intensity or deliberativiness. It reflects the extent to which the communicative interactions that happen as part of the participatory process allow an intense and worthy deliberation. Deliberation is a special form of reasoning and dialogue that weighes carefully the costs and consequences of the different policy options, taking into account the views of all concerned parties. According to Gutmann and Thompson  a deliberative space must meet the following criteria: (1) it is a place where reasons and arguments are exchanged, (2) all voices are represented in it and, therefore, constitutes an open, diverse and inclusive space, (3) communication and information are provided in an accessible and understandable, (4) it generates an economy of moral disagreement, prioritizing areas of agreement and cooperation and minimizing differences, and (5) is tied to a specific decision.
Depending on how the participatory process is configured, it will exhibit different deliberative characteristics, which in turn will determine the type of results and impacts that can be obtained. The quality and intensity of deliberation in a participation space will, additionally, depend on the participants’ behavioral patterns. For a good discussion to happen, participants and promoters must be willing to listen to each other, respect the different views and positions, empathize with the rest of participants and prioritize the search for agreements and cooperation .
9.2 Final considerations and an example
To end this chapter we will make some final remarks on the model and present an example of a Participation Schema that displays the five dimensions corresponding to a participatory budgeting experience, as shown in the next figure.
It should be noted that the purpose of Participation Schemas is eminently descriptive, not normative: not always more deliberativeness, or higher collaborative intensity, or an extreme level of institutionalization mean that the participation is ‘better’. Depending on is the concrete issue, the type of decisions to be taken and the circumstances in which a participatory process is performed, it may actually happen that participation forms with lower collaborative intensity or reduced deliberation are more convenient and effective. Our model explicitly recognizes that different situations require different approaches. What really matters is the quality and consistency of the participation, not the level at which it, supposedly, happens.
Participation Schemas are a tool that helps project managers, researchers and practitioners to describe what they are doing or planning to do, taking into account the most fundamental participatory dimensions and thus making it possible to compare different options and approaches. The objective of Participation Schemas is to provide a clear basis for the analysis and communication of the characteristics of participatory processes. As already mentioned in the ‘Actors’ section, Participation Schemas should be understood as an open and flexible tool: additions, changes and adjustments are welcome, whenever the circumstances demand it.
The model could thus be modified, extended or supplemented with other types of analyses to better meet the needs of its user. Everything depends on the dimensions you want to analyze and throw light upon. An addition that, for example, might be interesting would be to also consider the technological tools or methodologies used in participatory processes. The basic model presented in this chapter just includes some of the most important dimensions required to characterize the essence of a participatory experience. They answer what, who, when, where and how of participation, but still left unanswered two critical questions which, nonetheless, are difficult to display graphically: the “why” and “what for” of participation. A reflection on these two final dimensions should complement the graphic representation provided by a Participation Schema.
The example shown in the figure refers to an experience of participatory budgeting and its purpose is mainly illustrative. The graphical representation of a Participation Schema is composed of two main elements. The first is a star-shaped diagram, with so many arms as phases has been identified as relevant in the dimension ‘when’. Our example shows the general case, which considers the five phases of the traditional policy making cycle. For each of these phases the star exposes the information corresponding to the dimensions ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘where’. Each arm shows the maximum and minimum levels of collaborative intensity characterizing the phase. For example, the ‘policy formulation’ phase runs from the levels ‘Manipulation’ to ‘Advice’. The transparency and deliberativeness levels of each phase are reflected by means of the shading and the weave of the corresponding areas. Finally, each phase’s institutionalization level is displayed with a symbol at the end of the arms.
The second component of a Participation Schema’s representation is the “graphs of actors”, which contain the information about the dimension ‘who’: the actors affected and/or involved in the participatory process. Each relevant actor type has a fraction of the graph dedicated to him, where different aggregated information is superimposed: (1) actors ‘affected’ by the issue, weighted by their relevance regarding the process and its thematic, (2) actors ‘participating’ in the process, again weighted by their relevance, and (3) actors involved in the participatory process, but this time weighted by their relevance and also by their influence. Together, these tree measurements provide a broad representation of the inclusivity, representativeness and power relations within the process.
The patterns covering the graphs indicate, meanwhile, the different mechanisms used to select participants. Finally, the inclusion of small icons allows situating actors that play special roles in the process, like the ‘decision-maker’ or ‘facilitor’. The previous figure includes only a graph corresponding to the phase of ‘Policy formulation’, but a Participation Schema would normally include an actors graph for each phase.
Participation Schemas refer to complex contexts and processes that cannot be fully described within a single graph, no matter how complex it is. Therefore, a Participation Schema must be considered as formed by two components. On the one hand the graphic representation which aims to characterize the most important participatory dimensions. On the other hand, all background materials and analysis that substantiate and justify the values assigned to each of the dimensions. Examples of these materials include: mappings of actors, sociograms, surveys and intervies to participants and all kinds of complementary tools. The author of a Participation Schema should thus explain which assumptions, methods and instruments support its characterization of the collaborative strategy or process. Materials used identificaty and characterize the actors, their roles and their relationships within the process have an extraordinary importance and should always be considered part of the Participation Schema.
To illustrate the high levels of procedural and organizational complexity that participatory experiences and mechanisms can reach, we show below two figures about the experience we used to sketch our example of a “Participation Schema”: the participatory budgeting in Fortaleza (Brazil) in 2005 .
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