When do public officials listen to citizens?

With CITADEL, we aim to develop instruments that help administrations and public sector organizations become more efficient, inclusive, and citizen-centric. Central to achieving this objective is finding out how public officials engage with citizens. Without public officials willing to engage with citizens it is hard to see how administrations and public organizations can become “more inclusive and citizen-centric”.

With CITADEL, we aim to develop instruments that help administrations and public sector organizations become more efficient, inclusive, and citizen-centric. Central to achieving this objective is finding out how public officials engage with citizens. Without public officials willing to engage with citizens it is hard to see how administrations and public organizations can become “more inclusive and citizen-centric”. Indeed, public administration research has identified public officials’ attitudes toward public engagement as one of the determining factors in explaining the success of involvement initiatives (Hatcher, 2015; Liao & Schachter, 2017; Yang & Callahan, 2007).

One of the main recurring objections against the engagement of citizens is that the citizens who participate are almost never representative of their community. In fact, the citizens who participate are often the same handful of male, well-educated, affluent elites who find in participation yet another method to press their advantages. Under those conditions it is hard to believe that public officials will take their input serious. In fact, some scholars have argued that “administrators tend to dismiss the input of usual suspects and perceive their regular involvement to be troublesome” (Yang & Callahan, 2007, p. 257). But though often uttered, the effects of participants’ representativeness on public officials’ willingness to engage with citizens is almost never studied empirically.

Using Fritz Scharpf´s democratic legitimacy approach (Scharpf, 1997, 2003), we studied why representative participants are important to public officials. Scharpf posited that democratic legitimacy consists of two elements: input legitimacy and output legitimacy. Input legitimacy refers to the extent to which policies and rules are based on the genuine preferences and interests of the community (government by the people) and output legitimacy refers to the effectiveness of those policies and rules (government for the people). When procedures, decisions, and rules are perceived to possess these elements, they are perceived to be legitimate. Importantly, legitimacy beliefs affect behavior. Social actors are inclined to act in accordance with what they believe to be legitimate (Scharpf, 2003; Tyler, 2006). In short, we posit that when public officials believe engagement to be legitimate, they will use its inputs in the decision-making process.

Using an experimental design in which respondents were asked to evaluate short and systematically manipulated descriptions of a public participation process, we assessed the effects of turnout and participants’ representativeness on public officials willingness to use citizens’ inputs in decision-making, perception of policy quality, and anticipation of popular support. The evaluations of 825 respondents from the city of Antwerp were used to assess these effects.   

The results show that higher input legitimacy in terms of turnout and participants’ representativeness makes public officials more willing to use citizens inputs in administrative decision making, increases their perception of policy quality, and raises their anticipation of popular support. Importantly, the results also showed that public officials were considerably more willing to engage with citizens when they had no information about turnout and participants representativeness than when either (or both) turnout and participants’ representativeness were low. The study seems to indicate that traditional democratic considerations remain important, also when directly involving citizens in the decision-making process.

We further found that the willingness of public officials to use citizen inputs is most strongly influenced by the representativeness of the participants, though turnout also plays an important role. The effects of both factors on public officials perception of policy quality and anticipated support were about the same. 

CITADEL is aimed at developing instruments that help administrations and public organizations become more inclusive and citizen-centric. Our research shows that these instruments should assess the representativeness of the people that are to be included in order for those organizations to be more inclusive and engaging.

References

  • Hatcher, W. (2015). The Effect of Public Participation in Municipal Budgeting: An Exploratory Survey of Officials in Government Finance Officers Association’s Award-winning Cities. Public Administration Quarterly, 39(4), 645–663.
  • Liao, Y., & Schachter, H. L. (2017). Exploring the antecedents of municipal mangers’ attitudes toward citizen participation. Public Management Review.
  • Scharpf, F. W. (1997). Games real actors play. Actor-centred Institutionalism in Policy Research. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Scharpf, F. W. (2003). Problem-solving effectiveness and democratic accountability in the EU. MPifG (Vol. 03).
  • Tyler, T. R. (2006). Psychological Perspectives on Legitimacy and Legitimation. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 375–400.
  • Yang, K., & Callahan, K. (2007). Citizen Involvement Efforts and Bureaucratic Responsiveness: Participatory Values, Stakeholder Pressures, and Administrative Practicality. Public Administration Review, 67(2), 249–264.