Participatory public governance: why we need it, what it is, and how to do it (in that order)

By Pia Andrews

Friday October 18, 2019

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THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is a Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.

For everything we do in public sectors, it is when we collaborate and draw on broader expertise and experiences that we get better outcomes. Indeed, the characteristics that most significantly contributed to the rise and rise of homo sapiens is our capacity for cumulative learning and cooperative competition. Individuals inherit and engage with knowledge, and then build upon that foundation to develop new knowledge, continually exchanging, enhancing and improving.

So, if is it such a biological imperative, why does participatory public governance seem so alien or novel to so many? Some of it is habits from increasingly top-down instruction on day-to-day programs, and some of the barriers are similar to those for broader collaboration, so please also see the article on enabling greater collaboration in public sectors. But in a modern democracy, public participation in governance provides both the key to better policy and services, and also a means to understanding the changing needs and values of those we serve so our public sectors can be continuously responsive, resilient and relevant.

For the purpose of this piece, I will focus on what participatory public governance means to me, why it is so important, and some tips for how to support more public participation in your daily work. I also want to acknowledge the contributions of Amelia Loye, who kindly provided feedback and comments for the first draft of this article.


I could start with what, but let me first give you some reasons to spend your time reading about participatory public governance.

Firstly, if you involve in the process some people or organisations who will be affected by your policy, legislation or service, you have a better chance of your work being successful by bringing in the experience, expertise and natural motivations of the communities you serve. Getting diverse voices in the room means your work will naturally be more inclusively designed and more likely to help more people, noting that ‘diverse’ necessarily means going outside of your organisation and outside of the your stakeholders. Stakeholders are more likely to think in terms of self-oriented interests (family, property, business needs), whereas diversity is more likely to result in more inclusive design and better public interest or common good. In service delivery, this is often done through user research, but why not in policy or legislation? And why not include users in governance rather than just research? In New Zealand, the SmartStart life journey service (for birth of a child) has a highly effective advisory group that includes the national midwives organisation and a child health organisation (Plunket) to help inform and prioritise the program and service design around real community needs.

Secondly, participatory public governance provides a means of scaling impact, particularly given the constant and unrelenting pressures on resources. There will always be people or organisations who are naturally (systemically) motivated to do things being done by the public sector. Consider also those who are under- or unemployed, ‘retired’, on parental leave, or just looking for new experiences. Opening up regulatory approaches by deshrouding markets or publishing compliance self-assessments would be picked up by the clients, staff and competitors of companies, to drive institutional nudging towards the regulatory outcome rather than just increasing efforts to prioritise which decreasing percentage of regulated entities  we can afford to assess. New Zealand used to have a citizen policy jury, which was a paid demographically balanced group of citizens who contributed to major policy development. “Many eyes make all bugs shallow” is an idiom for the tech community that is relevant here, and participatory governance provides many more eyes.

Thirdly, participatory public governance helps maintain a more evidence- and outcomes-based focus on the work. All projects in government are subject to the same intrinsic pressures of any other organisation: politics, competing budgets, restructures, prioritisation, egos, etc. It is sometimes deeply frustrating to see great ideas be de-prioritised, especially when the long-term or public benefits are demonstrably significant. If you build participatory governance into your work and program, you have a powerful mechanism to build genuine evidence and prioritise what is most needed in the community. You can only get so far in tweaking existing systems, and analysis of the data you already have from systems already in place generally only provides a basis for minor tweaks or nudges that may not get the intended policy outcomes. When you develop policy positions through participatory processes, you get more test-driven, evidence-based, values-based and also more highly trusted outcomes.

Finally, public sectors play a special role in many societies, including Australia, to serve the community and promote greater public good. Public good is also a core value or tenet for most public servants. So it is both interesting and important to consider the idea that ‘good’ may be different for different people. What is ‘public good’, and how does it change as societal norms evolve over time? If you don’t keep your finger on the pulse, how do you know when change occurs? To deliver ‘public good’ necessarily requires continual engagement with the public we serve, in all its diversity, to understand what good means, especially in an increasingly and continually changing national and global context. Taking a values-driven approach to public management isn’t about just defining core values, but also understanding and reflecting the values of the people we serve.

Personally, I believe participatory governance is critical for public sectors to be responsive, resilient and effective in serving the community, and in ensuring greater transparency, accountability and appropriately incentivised work programs.


So, what does participatory public governance look like? There are many, many different ideas on this. Many people seem to assume public participation in governance means voting every three years or requests for information, but to me, I am most interested in how the public sector engages with and includes the public in the processes and decision-making of public sector governance.

I have outlined four broad levels of practical participation in public governance that might be helpful if you are new to this. Hopefully it helps you consider the differing value and options for public participation in your work, and to recognise potential new opportunities. Please leave a comment if I have missed something critical.

Please also note that nothing can be participatory if people can’t find it. Public visibility, including to relevant organisations and community groups, enables discovery, and people can only participate in what they know about. In a heavily time-poor society, you also need to create space, opportunity and put serious effort into getting diverse views into the room in a way that is equitable.

Level 0: request for comment. This is where we are at today. Departments release discussion papers for comment or feedback, which usually means there is substantial work done to shape a direction in a paper that is published for feedback, and then people are effectively invited to just tweak what has been created. Engagement varies, with some consultations just publishing online, and some going all out to proactively engage with stakeholders and community groups.

  • Pros: easy to do, tends to focus feedback in a pre-defined direction.
  • Cons: normative outcomes, tends to focus feedback in a pre-defined direction.

Level 1: user centered practices. Any form of early engagement with ‘end users’ of a strategy, policy, program, service or piece of regulation is helpful as a form of participatory design, but isn’t really participatory governance. I include it here because a) it is still a useful form of getting more participation in public sector processes, but b) many people think it is more than sufficient as a form of public engagement in the work of government. More on that later. When you engage with the end users of your work, be it a service or policy, you have a better chance of meeting their actual needs. If you don’t engage with end users, understand them and test different approaches with them, then you are simply imagining or hoping people will use/interact with your work in the way you intend. For service delivery, we have all seen user-centred design (UCD) becoming mainstream in many public sectors, resulting in better-designed and more intuitive service delivery. Sometimes UCD also includes observing user behaviours (the lawn experiment). The Life Journey approach takes this even further to understand end user journeys across organisations and sectors around complex events. In the policy profession there has been some early adoption of UCD and agile methods for policy (eg, NSW Policy Lab)  to develop policy artefacts that are easier for policy consumers to understand and implement. In legislation and regulation design, we’ve seen bringing end users into the room result in profoundly better rules and outcomes (Better Rules work, NZ).

  • Pros: work gets shaped around actual user needs and the testing approach assures a better quality output with more predictable implementation. There are well understood methods with many skilled professionals available. Usually participation is equitable because diversity is necessarily sought and compensated for inclusive design.
  • Cons: even though the work output is better shaped, you still get a somewhat normative outcome because the broad direction is largely set in that you are engaging people only as end users which assumes the product is necessary. There is a subtle power imbalance to be careful of as it can too easily focus feedback in a pre-defined direction, eg., “which design is better” as opposed to “is this the right thing to be doing at all”?

Level 2: participatory drafting. This is where something is still in an early formative phase, and you engage publicly or externally in helping shape it from the start, which is quite different to user centred practices, where you engage with end users primarily to just understand and test their needs. Participatory drafting can draw out some profound ideas, assumptions and experience very early, to help shape something from the start. It requires strong support for getting the right outcome and an appetite for having flexibility in the direction of the thing. This approach creates a little more work up front, and can lead to quite a different direction than first anticipated, but gets something that is likely faster to implement, with greater public support, and results that are more durable and sustainable. Good examples of participatory drafting include the vTaiwan approach taken to co-draft Uber legislation in Taiwan (2015), the New Zealand Police wiki for participatory legislation (2009), the Australian Public Spheres done by Senator Kate Lundy to co-draft policy recommendations (2008-2009) which included public contributions to the Gov 2.0 Taskforce Report of 2009 and citizen Policy Juries in Canada (2010-13) which were also used in New Zealand for a time. Other examples of participatory drafting could include public proposal systems, which aren’t just about feedback, but that enable completely new ideas, like public ideation or participatory budgeting projects. Ideation work and participatory drafting work has been done in Australia for years with local examples including work by engage2, Democracy 2025, Bang the Table and many many more community or company led participatory programs. The question to my mind is why we haven’t yet seen this become normal public sector process, something worth unpacking for your organisation. Participatory budgeting examples include Porte Alegre, Brazil since 1989,  NSW’s My Community Dividend and Iceland’s Iceland’s Better Reykjavik. Service examples are trickier because even internally, the scope of a service is often defined by policy, legislation or strategy, so it is in these early phases where participatory drafting is most powerful. Although a lot of public servants seek external feedback for their work (policy, legislation, services, etc) through subject matter experts, industry engagement, stakeholder engagement or consultants, the value of public participation in drafting or designing is that you get a perspective from the people who will be affected by the work, not just those with a subject matter expertise, business or contractual imperative.

  • Pros: much more formative method for overall direction, gains greater public trust and support through their participation, better quality outcomes informed by public values as well as a broad range of experience and expertise.
  • Cons: unless the coordinators make an explicit effort to enable equitable and diverse participation, this method can too easily create over representation of privileged groups who have time and skills, and who aren’t intimidated by government. Extra effort needs to be made to ensure representative and inclusive participation.

Level 3: system co-design or ‘walking together’ through to co-delivery. All the methods above involved people at different levels of influence in the work, with increasing levels of flexibility in direction. Genuine co-design is rare as it necessarily involves bringing two or more parties together on an equal footing to determine shared goals, methods and values, and actually design and decide the way forward together. This means being very flexible on all aspects of the work, including perhaps the idea it isn’t appropriate at all. It is the most disruptive to a centralised or top down way of working, but does yield the best results, especially for wicked problems. It is also the best at avoiding potential or even accidental exclusive (single purpose or homogenous) design by the people responsive for the policy or services. This approach is rare in the public sector for many reasons, but could be used more to provide better outcomes for systemic challenges or opportunities. A few good examples I’ve seen include the ‘Walk Together’ design methodology more information here) which is a culturally responsive design approach, the participatory action research work done for the ‘Both Ways’ report (2004), and great work done by Old Ways, New in bringing design, culture and technology together. When initiatives are then co-delivered, you get a profound impact through systemically motivated partners collaboratively delivering around shared or common goals. Amelia mentioned her favourite example of co-design and co-delivery as the work done in South East Queensland during the 2005 floods where government co-designed and co-delivered a work program to respond to the crisis. Indeed, a lot of great co-design and co-delivery seems to happen when there is a crisis, the question is how we can bring it into business as usual.

  • Pros: is the best path for working through complexity or ‘wicked problems’ and for getting to design sustainable solutions that don’t just include people in the process, but enables them to genuinely shape it in accordance with their values.
  • Cons: requires the most commitment, flexibility and support. Requires time, skills, relationship building and longer term deadlines to get to a point of genuine consensus through engagement and co-design, noting this isn’t a con, but makes it harder unless teams in government are supported to take time to do this kind of work properly.

Level 4: shared oversight or co-governance. All the methods above get you to a point in time,  the highest level of participatory public governance is where you have public transparency, oversight and participation in the ongoing governance of your work. Sometimes this is ostensibly achieved through independent advisory or steering groups, but to operate properly these groups should have their minutes and decisions publicly available to avoid creating unaccountable or self-serving governance. To reflect back to SmartStart in NZ, having independent groups on the project governance (in this case, via a steering group) provides a balancing force that tips in the favour of the citizens needs amidst the ongoing tensions of budget constraints and competitive projects in public sectors. If we had citizens or citizen groups involved in policy governance, I believe we would see greater public outcomes. This is also reflected in the work of Collaboration for Impact. This of course requires ways to support equitable an inclusive representation on such governance groups, which then requires either persistent funded roles or some other funding mechanism. Given so many things in government are funded as projects with start and end dates, it would take some significant work to make this normal in many public sectors, but I suggest it is worth the effort as it sets programs up with oversight and pressures that are well balanced and aligned towards best public outcomes.


So how do we bring about participatory public governance? Here are a few things I think are useful enablers to consider, but I also urge all public servants to look at how you can engage the communities your serve in the work you do, and how you can build trust and persistent relationships along the way.

  • Internal demand: it needs to be usual practice to engage people and communities, and not just ‘stakeholders’ in public policy design. This means a top down commitment and genuine valuing of public contributions into the process.
  • Internal capacity/capability: internal capability is critical to enabling meaningful participatory approaches to the work of our public sectors. It is worth noting that although capability development is critical, if you don’t have a genuine demand for public participation, then capability will wither over time. If you have genuine and persistent demand, then capability development will pay dividends in driving better public sectors and better public outcomes. Internal capacity isn’t just the skills required, but also the building of persistent data and evidence bases that can inform work, strategic directions and programs on an ongoing basis, with the benefit of hindsight and institutional memory kept intact.
  • Citizen capacity: the biggest challenge to participatory public governance, to my mind, is that most people are full time at work then full time at home, dropping kids off early and picking them up late to then be rushing around all hours of the day. We need ways to free up and fund people’s time. Again, see the collaboration article for more ideas on this.
  • Systemic motivation for better human outcomes: in spite of the personal values of many public servants, the core drivers of action in Australian public sectors has become time, budgets or top down directives. Not only does this create a systemic disincentive to engage the public in genuine codesign, but until we have systemic and holistic drivers that value human outcomes, we will continue to see primarily politically and financially incentivised policies, services and general activities of our public sectors. To improve things we could adopt explicitly human outcomes success measures like the Living Standards Framework in NZ, or the NSW Government Human Services Outcomes Framework.
  • Independence: if public service is only politically directed, then it can’t or won’t be incentivised to engage the public in policy. When public policy is informed from a genuinely apolitical professional perspective, you get more evidence based policies. So some political independence is crucial to genuine participatory public governance.

I hope this article has provided some food for thought and tips for constructively engaging with the public on your work.

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