When austerity knocks, what happens to public participation?

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Pau Alarcón, Carol Galais, Joan Font and Graham Smith

The economic crisis has led to challenges across a whole host of policy areas. But what has been its effect on citizen participation in political decision making? 

When we think about the pros and cons of citizen involvement in political decision-makingquestions arise about competence and motivation. On the one hand, there is the question of the competence of citizens in making well-considered decisionsOn the other hand, will politicians implement or ignore citizens’ proposals? 

The Great Recession allows us to consider these questions in the context of changing economic circumstances. Do citizens adapt their political proposals to the context of austerity or do they demand more against this backdropAt the same time, are politicians keener to accept citizens’ ideas when there are more resources available? What kind of proposals are accepted or rejected during an economic crisis? 

We address these issues in our Policy & Politics article, considering 500 proposals that emerged from 34 local participatory processes in Spain between 2007 and 2011. These are formal processes in which citizens are involved in local decision making processes (like participatory budgeting or neighbourhood councils, for example). We apply four different but complementary analytical strategies for comparing what citizens propose before and after the effects of the economic crisis, and how politicians deal with these proposals. 

Our data suggest that citizens adapt their demands, suggesting less expensive proposals in a context of austerityThat said, during an economic crisis, more of these proposals challenge existing local government policies and practices. Overallwe found that citizens do seem to adapt to the crisis context in two ways: firstly by reducing their economic demands but also by proposing more innovative solutions. 

In addition to this, we found that economic context affects the performance of politicians: they implement fewer of the proposals they receive during an economic crisis. Instead they appear to engage more in ‘cherry-picking’ proposals, favouring those that are less costly. 

These differences following crisis, however, are nowhere near as profound when compared to the impact of austerity measures on other policy areas such as pensions, health, poverty or bankingor other political arenas such as the national or regional level where the Great Recession seems to have left a completely broken policy landscape. This difference may mostly indicate the comparatively marginal scope of local participatory governance versus other local or national policies. 

This paper represents a first step in understanding the effect of the financial crisis on institutions of participatory governance. It is one of the products of the Cherry-picking: the results of participatory processes project. 

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics: 

Alarcón, P., Galais, C., Font, J., Smith, G. (2018) ‘The effects of economic crises on participatory democracy‘, Policy & Politics, DOI: 10.1332/030557318X15407316045688 

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Beyond radicalism and resignation: the competing logics for public participation in policy decisions

Citizen participation and changing governance: cases of devolution in England

Depoliticising austerity: narratives of the Portuguese debt crisis 2011–15

Local governance under austerity: hybrid organisations and hybrid officers

Austerity in the making: reconfiguring social policy through social impact bonds

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