Participation has become increasingly important in the rhetoric and practice of local government. As a method it can be used for two major kinds of political purposes. On one hand it can function as an information gathering exercise which better informs officials about the needs of citizens. On the other it allows people to engage government on the best ways of meeting social needs. This paper argues that democracy is advanced further by the second conception of participation. The purpose of the article is to develop five research questions that should be asked about participatory methods. Firstly, what benefits and pitfalls are linked to participation? A variety of benefits are said to arise from using participatory methodologies including better information about needs and the empowerment of the beneficiaries of development. The virtues expounded by those using participation should be located within these broader discourses about development and democracy. Secondly, does participation facilitate deliberation? Participation does not necessarily allow people to raise counter positions and often straitjackets discussion into consensus oriented outcomes. A more democratic kind of participation, it is argued, would not fear debate but rather encourage and facilitate it. Thirdly, how do scales of participation and scales of decision making intersect? With the advent of unicities in South Africa, decision making is not devolved to the most local scale. However, participation often happens at the local scale of the ward. The interaction between these scales is key to determining the degree to which people influence policy. Fourth, whose agendas are represented at ward meetings? It is argued that critical reflection on ward level participatory meetings is required in order to determine whether the most marginalised people are being accessed. Finally, are dissenting voices outside of participatory forums seen as valid? A danger of formal spaces of participation is that they effectively shut down other initiatives to engage the government critically. Together these questions are intended to allow for critical reflection on the democratic value of participation.


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pp. 168-188
Launched on MUSE
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