Discursive Democracy and New Labour: Five Ways in Which Decision-Makers Manage Citizen Agendas in Public Participation Initiatives

by Mike Williams
EIHMS, University of Surrey

Sociological Research Online, Volume 9, Issue 3,

Received: 17 Jun 2002     Accepted: 6 Jul 2004    Published: 31 Aug 2004


New Labour's conceptualisation of public participation in local government creates a tension in public participation practice. Government legislation and guidance require local authorities to develop and provide citizen-centred services, engage the public in policy-making and respond to the public's views. Seen in this light, New Labour policy draws from radical democratic discourse. However, local authority staff are also expected to act in accordance with the direction set by their line managers, the Council and the government and to inform, engage and persuade the public of the benefit of their authority's policies. In this respect, New Labour policy draws from the discursive model of civil society, conceptualising public participation as a method for engendering civil ownership of the formal structures of representative democracy. Tension is likely to arise when the ideas, opinions and values of the local authority differ from those expressed by the participating public. This paper uses a local 'public participation' initiative to investigate how the tension is managed in practice. The study shows how decision-makers dealt with the tension by using participatory initiatives to supply information, understand the views of the public and encourage public support around pre-existing organisational agendas. Problems occurred when citizens introduced new agendas by breaking or manipulating the rules of participation. Decision-makers responded by using a number of distinctive methods for managing citizens' agendas, some of which were accompanied by strategies for minimising the injury done to citizens' motivations for further participation. The paper concludes that New Labour policy fails to deal with the tensions between the radical and discursive models of participation and in the final analysis draws mainly from the discursive model of participation. Furthermore, whilst New Labour policy promotes dialogue between the public and local authority, it does not empower local authority staff to achieve the goal of citizen-centred policy-making.

Keywords: Public Participation, Governance, Partnership, New Labour, Citizen-Centred, Civil Society, Deliberative Democracy, Discursive Democracy, Modernisation Agenda, User Involvement.


1.1 New Labour's conceptualisation of public participation in local government creates a tension in public participation practice. Government legislation and guidance require local authorities to develop and provide citizen-centred services, engage the public in policy-making and respond to the public's views. Seen in this light, New Labour policy draws from radical democratic discourse. However, local authority staff are also expected to act in accordance with the direction set by their line managers, the Council and the government and to inform, engage and persuade the public of the benefit of their authority's policies. In this respect, New Labour policy draws from the discursive model of civil society, conceptualising public participation as a method for engendering civil ownership of the formal structures of representative democracy. Tension is likely to arise when the ideas, opinions and values of the local authority differ from those expressed by the participating public. Local authority staff will need to provide solutions that are acceptable to both groups.

1.2 This paper directs itself towards a study of the tension inherent in New Labour public participation policy and in local participation practice. It starts by considering public participation as a feature of state governance and as a tool for forwarding the position and interests of the state. New Labour policy is then framed within a discussion of modernisation, partnership and civil society. The paper then draws on a study of a local 'public participation' pilot to investigate how the tension is managed in practice. The study shows how decision-makers dealt with the tension by using participatory initiatives to supply information, understand the views of the public and encourage public support around pre-existing organisational agendas. Problems occurred when citizens introduced new agendas by breaking or manipulating the rules of participation. Decision-makers responded by using a number of distinctive methods for managing citizens' agendas, some of which were accompanied by strategies for minimising the injury done to citizens' motivations for further participation. The paper concludes that New Labour policy fails to deal with the tensions between the radical and discursive models of participation and in the final analysis draws mainly from the discursive model of participation. Furthermore, whilst New Labour policy promotes dialogue between the public and local authority, it does not empower local authority staff to achieve the goal of citizen-centred policy-making.

The State and Public Participation

2.1 The nation state is an association of departments, authorities and agencies working on behalf of a government within a geographically bound area. Its emergence and proliferation has been a defining feature of the last one hundred and fifty years of world history. The government of a nation state is often the most powerful group within a given area, one that is able to have itself recognised as the dominant and/or sovereign political authority (Taylor and Flint, 2000, p.172). Once established, the state is perpetually engaged in an attempt to consolidate its position and in some cases to absorb or control other territories (Bobbio, 1995; Held, 1996). It uses violence, along with technologies and resources secured by this violence, to impose organisational forms on people, realise its projects and reproduce its power base (Giddens, 1991, p.15). The imposition of these forms is not solely a matter of punishment; it is also an attempt to empower people in directions that also empower the state. This is encapsulated by governmentality - the process by which political institutions attempt to shape the desires of people so that they come to see alliance with the institutions as profitable (Clegg et al., 2002). This is not to suggest that everything the state does, is solely directed to maintaining its sovereignty. Dean (1999) argues that government practices cannot be reduced to a particular set of relations or a single set of problems. Instead, 'they should be approached as composed of heterogeneous elements having diverse trajectories...and as bearing upon a multiple and wider range of problems and issues' (p.29). Nevertheless, the state's need to maintain its sovereignty motivates it to ensure that its programmes are consistent with a strategy of self-sustainability and/or growth. Further, whilst the state is capable of developing 'political strategies' not necessarily reducible to any particular set of interests (Held, 1996, p.26), it inevitably depends on some groups and individuals to implement its projects and impositions. 'To the extent that the state rules it does so on the basis of an elaborate network of relations formed amongst the complex of institutions, organisations and apparatuses that makes it up' (Rose and Miller, 1992, p.176).

2.2 The state's need to co-opt motivates it to engage certain groups in dialogue and to make decisions in their favour. Recently, the term 'governance' has been used to coin this state of affairs. Participation as a feature of state governance can thus be seen as an attempt by government to strengthen its position and forward its interests. For example, the government may engage leading players in industry to ensure the continuing competitiveness of those industries. Unions are often engaged in discussions before public sector policies are finalised. The latter example brings our attention to the fact that the state may also engage those who are perceived to represent a threat to both itself and its projects.

2.3 Whilst governance may be thought of as a strategy for effecting change in an environment where there are a number of powerful players, partnership may be thought of as the institutional form through which much governance takes place. Mackintosh (1992) studied public-private and public-private-voluntary partnerships between 1989 and 1991 and found three organisational motives for entering partnerships. Hastings (1996) used a study of government led Scottish Urban Partnerships to extend and refine Mackintosh's framework. The first motive identified by Mackintosh was synergy, that is, partners believed that additional benefits would accrue from acting together rather than independently. Hastings (1996) identified two types of synergy: resource synergy, where 'added value' was gained from co-ordination of resources and efforts (p.259); and 'policy synergy' 'where new insights or solutions were produced out of the differences between partners' (p.259). The second motive was transformation, where partners attempted to enrol each other in their problems, visions and objectives. Again Hastings (p.262) identified two types: first, 'uni-directional', in which one partner was reformed against its will and the second was reformed to a lesser extent; and second, 'mutual transformation', characterised by partners aspiring to change others but also accepting the need for change in themselves. The third motive identified by Mackintosh was budget enlargement. Following Webb (1991) one might add a fourth: giving the appearance of being on board. This is often the case when partnership is a statutory obligation. Organisations may engage in partnership to show their allegiance to a certain project and its protagonists - without having any great wish to forward the project (Martin and Gaster, 1993). A fifth motive might be to seek legitimacy and symbolic support. In the area of urban renewal, the government has attempted to seek out 'community groups' to enact and support programmes so the government can implement its projects in the 'name of the community' (Rose, 1996, p.336).

New Labour

2.4 Participation under New Labour should be understood as part of a project to 'modernise government' (DETR, 1999d, p.6). Traditionally, the term modernisation has referred to the processes of rationalisation, bureaucratisation, specialisation, industrialisation and economic growth that western economies have undergone since the beginning of the industrial revolution (Held, 1996). Modernisation is closely linked with the term development where 'developed' countries are positioned at the forefront of the processes of modernisation, mapping the path that 'undeveloped' countries will inevitably have to follow. Under New Labour, to talk of the modernisation of political structures is 'to signal the need to bring the political world into line with changes conceived in other domains, principally society, economics and culture' (Kenny and Smith, 2001, p.238). New Labour has three aims in 'modernising' government (DETR, 1999d, p.6):

2.5 Benington (2000, p.3) has argued the government's modernisation programme is 'selective' because 'it is focussed particularly on key services with a direct relationship to the public'. The three aims of modernisation have been encapsulated by two key developments: the establishment of national standards in service delivery and the deliverance of services through partnerships.

2.6 The government has argued Councils need to drive up their performance standards (DETR, 1999c). A mixture of national and local performance indicators on efficiency, cost and quality have been established (DETR, 1999c). A number of programmes and initiatives have been developed to further this objective including the Best Value regime (DETR, 1999c, para. 7.1), Public Service Agreements and National Service Frameworks (CM 4169, 1998, para.3.14). Modernisation is therefore more than just about formulating policy - it is also about the details of implementation and instituting a culture of reflexivity and self-improvement (Benington, 2000).

2.7 A second theme of New Labour's modernisation programme is an increased emphasis on the role of partnership in effective service delivery (Newchurch and Company, 1999). It is worth putting this policy into its historical context. According to Rhodes (1997) governance emerged as a tool of the UK government in the early 1980s. This was as a response to the effects of the Conservative government's policy of institutional differentiation whereby a number of duties previously delegated to local authorities were handed to newly created institutions. There was also a drive to bring private and independent sector organisations into the delivery of welfare services. Partnerships became an essential tool for both central and local government in managing a multiplicity of local actors. Despite these changes, hierarchical methods of intervention remain a fundamental feature of British government (Murdoch et al., 2000). Indeed, a recent study by Harrison (2002) suggests such mechanisms are taking centre stage in the implementation of health policy. Certain institutionalised forms of governance reflect this hierarchy. Whilst some partnerships are based on voluntarism, many are in response to a central government mandate, or encouraged through joint finance mechanisms (Webb, 1991).

2.8 The government stresses the need for the public to have a central role in service planning partnerships. 'Extending public participation [is]... at the heart of the modernising agenda' (DETR, 1998a, para.1.2). To understand better the relationship that New Labour poses between the state, service providers and citizens, its public participation policy will be discussed in relation to different models of civil society. In drawing on classifications offered by Delanty (2000), Marquand (1997) and Barber (1999), I identify five broad types of civil society: liberal individualism, civic republicanism, conservative communitarianism, radical democracy and discursive democracy. These models correspond in some part to actual societies, past or present, but are also normative in character.

2.9 In liberal individualism, civil society is synonymous with the free market. Individuals are given the freedom to pursue their interests through the market (Delanty, 2000, p.14) and have no obligation to participate in extra-market or societal activity (Marquand, 1997). Consumerism as a variant of neo-liberalism emphasises the joys and benefits of consuming, the centrality of the consumer to the production process, the virtues of material ambition and the freedom and choice offered by the market. Past Conservative governments sought to mimic consumer-centred approaches to service delivery by encouraging user participation in decision-making processes. There are, however, limitations to the extent to which users can be expected to exercise the same type of influence as consumers. These limitations are related to important differences between the delivery of public services and the delivery of services and goods in the market place. Where private firms seek and respond to the 'voice' of consumers this is done precisely because consumers can exercise 'choice'. Although the provider retains the unique right to decide what it will offer people, its dependence upon customers' money means that it is driven to act on customers' preferences. However, in state welfare provision, consumers often lack a choice. They may not be able to afford other private options. Consequently, state providers are not compelled to respond to the needs of users in the same way that some private sector companies are. State providers may consult to fulfil central government requirements. Some may believe in designing services more appropriate to the needs of users. However, few will see response as essential to the short to medium term continuance of their organisation. A public sector analogy of the consumer model will not necessarily enable local people and users to influence policy-making or service planning decisions.

2.10 The second model is civic republicanism, based on American society in the first half of the nineteenth century (Delanty, 2000). Here, society is envisaged as people embedded in a nexus of self-governing communities and 'tied to one another by bonds that precede and condition their individuality' (Barber, 1999, p.13). Here, 'individualism reaches its highest expression in commitment to public life, as opposed to the... private pursuit of interest or personal autonomy' (Delanty, 2000, p.33). Citizenship is a duty to participate and share in the government of the city (Marquand, 1997). Lister (1997) faults civic republican models for neglecting the barriers to participation. Furthermore the interest of the community may contradict citizen interests or rights (Marquand, 1997).

2.11 The third model is conservative communitarianism, which is close to civic republicanism in that it stresses the importance of self-governing communities. However, according to Delanty (2000) the former tends to stress the importance of family, religion, policing, schooling, tradition and nation whereas the latter is focused on voluntary organisations, associations and occupational groups. Conservative communitarianism tends to neglect the role of the state in bringing about change. Delanty (2000, p.30) argues that it absolves the state from responsibility for society and 'suffers from a total neglect of democracy, being almost entirely a theory of citizenship as a self-empowering force.'

2.12 The fourth model is radical democracy (Delanty, 2000). The democratic movement shares the consumerist desire for user- or citizen-centred welfare services and government. However, it does not see expanding market-based practices into public service provision as the solution. Instead, the solution is seen as lying in the reform of formal structures underpinning government-citizen and provider-recipient relations. Radical democracy is an attempt to deepen citizenship in a more political manner. 'Rather than preserve the separation of state and society by confining citizenship to membership of the latter, it seeks to abolish the distinction by radically empowering citizenship as democratic participation' (Delanty, 2000, p.37). This paradigm emerged with the new social movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. User groups fought for services that secured each citizen's right to participate in society (Coote, 1991; Oliver and Barnes, 1991).

2.13 According to Delanty (2000), the new social movements have since declined and radical democracy has been displaced by 'discursive democracy'. Here, the emphasis is laid upon promoting discourse between society and the state, and enabling marginal groups to have a voice. Although discursive democracy seeks to increase the symbolic importance paid to the views of local citizens and communities, it offers no accompanying reform of the formal decision-making procedures that would guarantee those views more influence. Instead discursive democracy seeks to conserve the formal structures of representative democracy and engender a sense of civil ownership of those structures. Chandler (2001, p.11) calls this a 'therapeutic politics' because the aim of giving citizens a voice is to increase citizens' 'sense' of inclusion and community.

2.14 If one looks at New Labour's political philosophy one can see it draws from all five models of civil democracy. According to Delanty (2000) New Labour's political rhetoric has tended to embrace conservative communitarianism. This can be seen for example in New Labour's emphasis on strengthening the bonds within communities, and in New Labour's wish to use partnership as a mechanism for constructing and empowering community groups. However, it might also be argued that New Labour's philosophy links to civic republicanism, in which voluntary organisations and associations are bought into projects of local governance. There is also a strong sense of liberal individualism in New Labour's ideas, where civil society is reducible to a domain of preparation for and subsequent entry into the labour market. Sharman and Goss (2000, p.65) argue that the government's 'Neighbourhood Renewal' agenda seeks to strengthen relationships, networks and opportunities within neighbourhoods as a means of adding economic value.

2.15 Where New Labour has sought to involve local people in public policy-making, it has drawn rhetorically on a number of models of civil society. For example, in line with the consumerist perspective it has conceptualised public participation as a means of ensuring higher standards in service delivery (DoH, 1998a, para.1.19; DoH, 1998b, para.4). Taking from radical democratic discourse, it has implied democratic institutions can only be legitimate if they respond to the voice of local people (DETR, 1999c, para.2.13). However it is the model of discursive democracy that best describes participation under New Labour. The following discussion aims to corroborate this claim. Partnerships can take a number of different forms, and citizens tend to be involved in a certain type. To illustrate this point, I draw on Rhodes' (1997) continuum of 'policy networks'. Policy networks can for the purposes of this discussion, be taken to mean partnerships. At one end of Rhodes' policy networks continuum sit 'policy communities'. Policy communities are characterised by a limited number of members each in possession of significant resources, the conscious exclusion of other actors, frequent and high quality interaction between members and consistent and durable values. Participating groups are structured hierarchically so leaders can guarantee compliant members (Rhodes, 1997, p.44). Sustained membership of a policy community requires that groups forgo high profile campaigns and become insiders developing policy in private (Smith, 1997). At the other end of the continuum are 'issue networks'. These have many participants, fluctuating interaction between members, limited consensus, interaction based on consultation, and an unequal power relationship in which many participants have few resources and little access to policy communities (Rhodes, 1997, p.45). In between these two extremes, and moving from policy communities to issue networks, sit professional networks, intergovernmental networks and producer networks.

2.16 An analysis of government documentation suggests the government most often involves the public in issue networks, where the public is one of a large number of groups to be consulted by a 'lead authority' (Cm 4818-I, 2000; DETR, 1999c, para.2.19). For example the 1990 NHS and Community Care Act requires local authorities to consult representatives of the public and other authorities operating in the locality (DoH, 1990, para.46 (2)). Under the Best Value regime, local authorities have a duty to consult with local taxpayers, services users and the wider business community in the setting of new performance targets (DETR, 1999b; 1999c, para.7.13). Consistent with the discursive model of citizenship, the government assigns the right of taking decisions for and speaking on behalf of the public to the respective lead authority. Strategic health authorities for example are assigned the role of 'balancing the needs and concerns of local people' in creating a coherent strategic framework for service development (DoH, 2001, para.28). Paradoxically given the last example local authorities are regarded as being 'uniquely' placed to mediate between different interests and interpret the needs of people in their area (DETR, 2000, para.76).

2.17 Discursive democracy is a response to the decline in voting rates and apparent apathy for representative democratic politics. New Labour links its initiative on public participation with the decline in the public's interest for local politics and elections. It has stated 'We want to see any culture of indifference about local democracy dispersed, and local people taking a lively interest in their council and its affairs' (DETR, 1999c, para.1.21). Improving voter turn out is expected to bolster the legitimacy of government and local authorities (Cm2537, 2001, para.2.14). Voter turnout indicates the strength of an authority's support and decreases the chances of the authority and its projects being attacked or resisted, which allows the authority to lead communities more effectively (DETR, 1998b;para.2.1; DETR, 1999d; Cm2537, 2001, para.2.14). Consequently, the government has stated its intention to provide a framework of opportunities and incentives that would, 'reinforce and encourage local efforts to improve the quality of local democracy' (DETR, 1999c, para.4.2). The government identified three main elements to its framework. These were changes to the structure of local authorities, electoral reform and the development of arrangements for participation and consultation (DETR, 1999c, para.4.2).

2.18 The government acknowledges that improving the quality of democracy through public participation requires local authorities to cede some influence to the participating public. Or to put it another way, enrolling public support for the institution of democratically elected local government requires local government to be enrolled in the plans of the participating public. For example, local authorities will need to show that Best Value Review programmes have been drawn up from consultation with local people, business and employees (DETR, 1999b; 1999e, para.19). Here it might be argued that New Labour is drawing on radical democratic discourses. However, the government has not identified the issues on which local authorities should cede influence, nor have they clarified how local authorities should mediate the views of local people. Councils and partnerships have been left to resolve this issue themselves (DETR, 1999a, para.10.3; DETR 2000, para.55.). Given that political leaders are elected on their manifestos or general political beliefs, and that both local and health authorities must work within a government framework of legislation, policy and guidance, the government creates a tension by requiring local authorities to cede discretion to the participating public. This tension is likely to be felt most by those responsible for organising public participation initiatives and by those engaging with the participating public. On the one hand they must seek to involve and respond to the views of the public. On the other, they will seek to promote and fulfil central and local political and bureaucratic agendas.

2.19 The absence of a thought-through model of practice, which ensures providers act in line with the wishes of the participating public, suggests the government is tentatively exploring the meaning and consequences of citizen-centred government. Its tentativeness is manifest in double- or even triple-think around the issue of responsiveness. The government has encouraged local agencies to be responsive to the public but at the same time, it has reserved the right to speak on behalf of the public for the local authority and/or itself. This begs the question does responsiveness mean (local) government responding to its own priorities, local agencies responding to central government or government and local authorities responding to the participating public? When government documentation refers to the latter sometimes it takes responsiveness to mean state agencies acknowledging the viewpoint of the public (DETR, 1999d, pp.25-26), i.e. 'we have heard what you have said'. Other times, responsiveness means acknowledging what the public has said and agreeing to act in accordance with it. The next section explores how the tensions inherent in the government's conceptualisation of public participation were resolved in a Better Government for Older People pilot.

Background, Methods and Findings

3.1 The focus of this study is a Council led Better Government for Older People pilot - one of twenty-eight local pilots making up the Cabinet Office[1] led Better Government for Older People programme, which ran from May 1998 to December 2000. BGOP was intended to be 'a test bed for some of the key concepts and questions within the modernisation agenda' (BGOP Steering Group, 2000, p.10). The programme aimed to, 'improve public services for older people by better meeting their needs, listening to their views and encouraging and recognising their contribution' (BGOP Steering Group, 2000, p.10). Each of the twenty-eight local pilots was required to develop a local strategy for its ageing population, forward the pilot's themes and involve older people in its planning. Tensions inherent in New Labour's conceptualisation of participation were evident in the conceptualisation of the BGOP programme. For example, the Cabinet Office told prospective pilots 'The values and strategies [of the pilots]... must start from, and give weight to, older people's needs and aspirations, as well as the perspectives of providers, professionals and politicians' (Cabinet Office et al., 1997, p.10). The Cabinet Office started by putting older people's needs and aspirations at the centre of the pilot. However, this was followed by a restatement to 'give weight to' older people's needs. Furthermore, weight was also to be accorded to the perspectives of other stakeholders although clarification was not given on how pilots would deal with competing views. What started with a radical democratic discourse quickly developed into the conservative discourse of discursive democracy.

3.2 The Council successfully submitted proposals for pilot status in partnership with health and voluntary agencies in January 1998. It subsequently allocated and established pilot posts as required. The Project Director post was added to the responsibilities of an existing Council Officer. A Council funded Project Officer post was created anew. A Project Evaluator post was funded by the Council but supervised by a University. I took up this post in October 1998. A Network Forum and Partnership Steering Team were established to guide the pilot's work. The meetings of both groups had agendas, minutes and were usually chaired by a Councillor from the ruling political group. This paper draws from research on ten different participatory initiatives connected to the local BGOP pilot, where older people were invited to discuss issues pertaining to political and bureaucratic decision-making processes. The ten initiatives were:

  1. BGOP pilot Partnership Steering Team and Network Forum meetings during the year 2000.
  2. Fifty Plus group meetings during the year 2000. Fifty Plus was a group established for older people who attended pilot meetings.
  3. A 1999 Forum meeting on applying the principles of BGOP to the NHS.
  4. The development of a local Anti-Poverty Strategy.
  5. A public meeting on 'Transport For Elders' - where older participants were able to put their issues to a panel of Councillors and workers involved in local transport.
  6. A communications and consultation programme for the modernisation of social services for older people.
  7. Designing the Age Forward Program - a local project designed to increase the confidence of older people.
  8. An informal and ad hoc consultation programme concerning how the Council should take 'Better Government for Older People' beyond the pilot end date.
  9. The process through which the national BGOP Steering Group drew up its recommendations to government (BGOP Steering Group, 2000).
  10. The nation-wide 'Ministerial Listening To Older People' programme which constituted a series of meetings where older people could put their views to government ministers - this took place during the latter half of 1999.

3.3 This paper draws mostly from a study of the first two initiatives. A novel analysis was carried out on the transcriptions of conversation interaction in 9 Steering Team meetings, 4 Forum meetings and 12 Fifty Plus meetings during the year 2000. The analysis was built upon an understanding of conversation interaction informed by symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969; Denzin, 1970; Prus, 1991) and perspectives offered by conversational analysts (Psathas, 1995; Heritage 1997). According to Psathas (1995) conversation interaction takes place in sequences of utterances. The boundary of each utterance is given by the change of speaking subject. However I was primarily concerned with 'speech acts', that is the overall message given by a speaking subject. The speech act is not necessarily coterminous with the utterance and can be given by a sequence of utterances, a single utterance or part of an utterance. Whilst the meaning of the act is given by its relationship to what has been said previously (Heritage, 1997) it is also contingent upon the listener's interests. The researcher constructs the speech act, or the meaning of what somebody is saying as he or she scans the text to address his or her research questions and concerns (Chouliarak & Fairclough, 1999). The construction of the speech acts also draws upon personal assumptions drawn from the researcher's discipline and those of the field in which the conversation takes place (Fairclough, 1992). In the remaining eight initiatives, transcripts of conversational interaction were mostly unavailable. Instead, observational notes, focused interviews with decision-makers and official documentation were used to construct accounts of interaction.

3.4 The study was also concerned with the way in which pilot participants attempted to establish networks of support and position each other within those networks. To this end it drew on the perspectives and vocabulary of translation studies. According to Callon (1986) translation constitutes four moments. The first is problematisation, where the principal actor defines the problems of other actors and offers a programmatic solution. The second is interessement, where the principal actor maps a series of roles for the other actors, which locks them into the program. Concomitantly the principal actor builds devices, which can be placed between actors and other entities that want to define the actors' identities otherwise. The third is enrolment, a set of strategies designed to define and relate the various roles of the actors. Enrolment involves, 'multilateral negotiations, trials of strength and tricks that accompany the interessements and enable them to succeed' (p.210). The fourth is mobilisation, a set of methods to ensure spokespeople involved in the programme are able to represent their respective groups without being betrayed. A powerful agent is one who is able to translate others, that is, one who is able to enrol and mobilise them into the pursuit of his or her goals. In this case the actor becomes capable of speaking for all those that he or she translates:
Whenever an actor speaks of 'us' s/he is translating other actors into a single will, of which s/he becomes spirit and spokesman. S/he begins to act for several, no longer for one alone. S/he becomes stronger, s/he grows. (Callon and Latour, 1981, p.279)

3.5 During the BGOP pilot older people were encouraged to participate in the Partnership Steering Team and Network Forum alongside Councillors and workers from the local authority, health organisations, voluntary sector and University. Their participation was begun after the pilot's remit had been established. Consequently, there was a tendency for the Council and other local organisations to bring pre-formulated agendas to the table and seek support on and/or give information on them. The BGOP meetings and the meetings' protocols constituted a point through which local decision-makers had to pass if they were to gain the ascent of the BGOP network for their work. This applied to older citizens as well, in that so long as they wanted to translate the Council and other service providers into programmes for addressing their problems, they had to follow the protocols of BGOP meetings. Consequently, older people often participated as requested. In so doing, and as a result of rarely putting items on the agenda themselves, they represented their interests by relating them to the decision-makers' agendas. However, as identified by Few (2001, 2002), the use of participation provides an opportunity for both dissent and the introduction of alternative agendas. Sometimes older people broke or manipulated the rules of participation to bring up unrelated issues and agendas. In doing this, they blocked decision-makers' attempts to enrol the pilot into their programmes. Decision-makers responded with a number of distinctive methods for managing citizens' agendas. Some involved redefining the older participant's issue in a way that made it possible to co-opt the participant into the decision-maker's agenda. As most of these methods were aimed at halting discussion of the participant's issue they risked damaging the notion that older citizens' views were important and central to the partnership - and so threatened the future participation of older people. So to maintain the attendance of the participating public - a government requirement - decision-makers would concomitantly emphasise the importance of the public's views and the public's potential for influencing decision-making. Five methods of managing citizens' agenda were identified, each one representing what might be called 'repair' - a technique used to rebuild the engagement of participants around an agenda item. The five methods will now be presented.

Method one: the pledge

3.6 The first method involved the decision-maker halting the alternative agenda by committing him or herself to addressing the issue raised. For example in one Steering Team meeting, participants were discussing the development of an Older People's Council, when an older person intervened to talk about how people in residential homes were not informed when a change was made to their pension income. A Councillor responded by pledging to send a memo out to those responsible. Not long after this interaction had taken place, a Council Officer intervened to say:
Yes, yes, I mean, I myself think it would be even better if for each of you to receive a personal letter that tells you in advance through, rather than putting stuff on a notice board which may not apply to certain people, and, and we can do that.

3.7 In this example, the Councillor and Council Officer both managed to effectively speak for, that is translate, the Council. It has already been noted that a powerful agent is one who is able to translate others, that is, one who is able to enrol and mobilise them into the pursuit of his or her goals. However, this statement needs qualification. The situation in which the translation takes place and the effect of the translation is also of importance. In this example the importance of the 'translation' lay not so much in what it indicated about the speakers' positions or status within the Council - they had talked on behalf of the Council before. Instead, it lay in what it allowed the speakers to achieve in their negotiations. In this case it was to persuade the older person that the Council had been enrolled into a programme of action designed to resolve the problem. More importantly it was to halt any further talk on the matter and return conversation to the agenda item.

Method two: switching agendas

3.8 In the second method the decision-maker argued that the issue raised by the older participant was being addressed through what the agency was already doing or planning to do. In effect, the decision-maker switched the focus of the conversation, translating the participant into the pursuit of the agency's objectives. In the next example, taken from a Fifty Plus meeting, the group had taken up a Council Officer's suggestion to review the work of the pilot's working-groups. An older participant bought up the need to start up arts classes in his/her area. The Officer did not grant the older person his/her arts class. Instead, s/he tried to persuade the participant that the issue should be subsumed by the desire to develop a working group - the agenda item under consideration.

Older Person:

I've been agitating for more classes for Arts. Because I'm, I was a regular Arts Class attender until they cut the source of [inaudible]. I find it very difficult to go anywhere now.

Council Officer:

Do you want to get in touch with [a worker from the voluntary sector]? [S/he] was the officer who was involved in Arts and.

Older Person:

Yes I'd like us to get [the class running again] because there were 20 of us.

Council Officer:

You seem keen, as you volunteering here to keep this Arts thing ticking over until we get more people involved?

3.9 This is an example of what Callon (1986) refers to as problematisation, where the principal actor defines the problems of other actors and offers a programmatic solution. The older participant's issue was re-defined in a way that made it amenable to the programmatic solution of a working-group. Furthermore, the Officer's actions constituted two instances of what Callon called interessement. Here the principal actor maps a series of roles for the other actors, which locks them into the program. The Officer suggested that the participant keep things 'ticking over' locking him/her into the working group. Interessement also includes the placement of devices between actors and other entities that want to define the actors' identities otherwise. In moving the discussion back to how the participant could contribute to the working group the Officer effectively reduced the possibility of other participants being enrolled into the alternative agenda of restarting the arts class.

Method three: pledging to take the issue on board

3.10 In the third method the decision-maker pledged to take into account, take on board or think about the concern of the older person. In the following example an older participant argued that a lunch should have been provided for older participants who were in middle of attending two lengthy meetings that day. The comment was 'taken on board' by the Chair.

Older Person:

...when people...have meetings like today, ten till twelve thirty and two thirty, now I think there should be a lunch for the older people... When...you have a five hours meeting there should be a lunch.


I take your point, what you're saying [name of older person], I mean today was an exceptional one, the reason was it was my fault, because of [inaudible]. Well all I can say as Chair is that I'll look into it but I can't promise anything. But I hear what you're saying and I do take on board what you're saying.

3.11 To 'take on board' an issue is to cloak the fact that one is not prepared to do what is requested at that moment, in an acknowledgement of the speaker's importance through a recognition of his/her concern. In this example the Chair made a subtle distinction between the two types of responsiveness identified earlier. On the one hand, s/he responded to the citizen by acknowledging his/her issue, but on the other hand, s/he refrained from acting as desired - another way of responding. The notion of 'taking on board' is central to most consultations where the views put forward by the public are collected and processed by the responsible agency at a later date (DoH, 1989, para.5.7). Focus groups, interactive web sites and advisory boards set up by government also work in this way. Often 'the decisions' are made in settings from which the public is excluded or absent (Hoyes et al., 1993; Hastings et al., 1996, p.40; Harrison and Mort, 2000). During the pilot, a number of internal Council working-groups were established in the absence of older people. Groups were established to make suggestions and recommendations on the Council's Anti-Poverty Strategy (initiative 4); and on taking forward the modernisation of Social Services (initiative 6). Councillors and Officers held meetings regarding the future role of BGOP in the absence of older people (initiative 8). In such cases, the public is allowed to participate in discussions about the decisions the authority will take (issue networks). However, they are not allowed to participate in the discussions constituting those decisions (policy communities).

3.12 Sometimes when issues are 'taken on board', there is no conveyance of those issues into decision-making forums. This may be because no thought has gone into developing formalised channels and/or because decision-makers are not interested in the participating public's views. For example, the NHS representative responsible for consulting the Network Forum on the NHS was not able to deliver on a promise to draw up a report on the Forum's recommendations let alone secure a response from relevant health officials (initiative 3). The representative did not have enough time as his/her organisation's priorities lay elsewhere. Alternatively, the views of the public may influence the policy, but the policy itself may be scrapped before it is implemented. For example, the Network Forum was consulted on an Anti-Poverty strategy for the Council (initiative 4). Later, plans to produce the strategy were scrapped. A variant of the 'taking on board' response is 'passing the message on'. Here, the alternative agenda is bought to a halt when a decision-maker notes that the issue raised does not come within his or her remit but promises to pass it on to the relevant organisation.

Method four: ignorance

3.13 The fourth method is 'ignorance' or the 'passive acceptance of the displacement of the alternative agenda' (see also Penland and Fine, 1974, pp.24-25; Ng and Bradac, 1993). To explain this, one first needs to understand that often in meetings the next thing said after one has spoken does not always address what one has just said. This is usually acceptable conduct, providing the speaker converses in association with a topic previously mentioned in the meeting. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the first speaker, in reflecting on the relationship of the second speaker's utterance to his or her own, he or she may feel that his or her concern has been ignored or displaced. 'Ignorance' then can be a means of managing alternative agendas. On hearing the alternative agenda the decision-maker waits to see if someone will displace it with something more favourable before they weigh up other options of response. If the first speaker's utterance is displaced, the decision-maker can speak to the displacing concern without appearing to rudely ignore that which has been displaced. Alternatively the decision-maker can watch different members of the group successively build on the displacing utterance, as the initial utterance becomes a distant memory amongst participants. A third option for the decision-maker is to converse in association with something said previously in the meeting. The following example serves as an illustration. The preceding conversation was concerned with two topics: how the Partnership Steering Team could support a Resource Centres project and that a number of older people had been treated rudely in a recent presentation. The speaker we need to focus on here, Older Person 3, picked up on the notion of older people being treated badly, and started to talk about Home Care policy. This comment was ignored by successive speakers who attempted to converse in association with previous topics:

Older Person 1:

...I thought the way we were treated as elders was disgraceful.

Older Person 2:

Did you say, did you tell them?

Older Person 1:

I wasn't allowed to speak.


You are allowed to speak at Full Council when it is referred, if you so wish.

Older Person 3:

You talk about how they're treating Older People. I bumped into a friend this morning [inaudible] and I said ooh, I'd not seen him/her for donkey's years and s/he said ooh it is a good job you've left s/he says, you wouldn't have stuck it now and I said why, s/he says, I've got a 93 year old on my books, I'm not allowed to do anything for him/her... And s/he says and they've told me I don't need to go on Saturday and Sunday and s/he said what about if s/he falls, and if anything happens to him/her, do we have to leave him/her on the floor while Monday. That should be all right.

Council Officer:

But part of that presentation. It would have been great, rather...


Can I just say, Mike, Mike has been indicating for quite a while, so it'll be Mike first and then [the Council Officer].


I actually wanted to address [Older Person 4's] question [about the Resource Centres].

3.14 A second form of ignorance is selective recognition - where the views of the participating public are recognised only to the extent that they concur with the agency's agenda. For example, in a report on a consultation of the modernisation of Social Services for older people (initiative 6), a Council Officer wrote 'the majority of views expressed in the consultations reinforce the soundness of the strategic direction and specific proposals for service changes' (see also IMGOP, 2000 - initiative 10). This claim represented a subtle attempt at translating not just the will, but the support of those consulted. It implied that if a majority supported the ideas of the Council, then those ideas were in some way more legitimate. However, given that no vote was conducted, it was clear that the so-called majority was based on the perceptions of the author of the document. Therefore, the reader was invited to rely upon and/or trust the perceptions of the author, assume that the approval of the majority of views meant the proposals were sound, and in so doing forget the views of the unspecified minority who opposed the ideas. The ability of a lead agency to manage participation in this way is enhanced when the agency is able to represent the voice of the public without complaint. Such strategies are not always successful - but the game is always weighted in favour of the agency so long as it has a greater capacity for generating and distributing information. The agency cannot only effectively represent the views of the participating citizens to the public - it also has the ability to make a riposte to any claims that may damage its reputation. The participating public, on the other hand, is often a group of disparate individuals. The lead agency is often the only one who can effectively translate or represent the participating public.

3.15 The following example shows how a politician selectively recognised the views of those consulted during the Modernising Social Services project (initiative 6). It is an interview taken from a radio show. A Councillor and Council Officer were invited on to the show to talk about the Council's modernisation strategy. One of the end goals for agencies conducting participatory initiatives is to construct public support for their initiatives. They do this by attempting to black-box participation, to translate it as one single moment of support for their initiatives (Callon and Latour, 1981, p.297).

27 November, 2000


You did a big survey, didn't you, about twelve months ago to find out what people wanted from Social Services? What, what came out of that?


Yes, absolutely. We have, what, what is known as the five year strategy within the Council for Social Services. That means exactly what it says it is, it's a strategy for modernising social services over the next five years and part of that modernisation was transferring eight elderly persons homes into the independent sector. But it seemed very presumptious to do that without asking residents and relatives of residents more importantly, I suppose, exactly what they thought of our plans. So we did a massive months-long survey of residents and carers and relatives to see exactly what they thought of the plans and I'm very happy to say that it was a long arduous job but people were, were very approving of the plans we have for transferring the eight elderly persons homes into the independent sector.




Yes, yes.


Because its been the subject of quite some controversy hasn't it?


Uhm, well people have obviously wanted to know the detail, but I wouldn't say its been controversial. I would say its been a good robust process rather than controversial.

3.16 In this example, the Councillor drew upon the consultation programme using it as a resource in attempting to convince the listening public of the legitimacy of his/her policy. The portrayal of the consultation as a moment of support for the Council's plans was a means of persuading opponents that they would not be able to build the critical mass needed to halt the plans. However, the Councillor's summary of the consultation did not constitute the end of the issue. Callon notes that translation is only ever a moment, always capable of being dissolved. He contrasts translation with 'dissidence' where actors do not acknowledge their roles and position in the principal actor's story (Callon 1986, p.224). Consequently, provided participation is characterised by the introduction of alternative agendas, it can also be used as a resource to continue opposition to the lead agency's plans. In this case it was the presenter who used such conflict as a resource by asking 'Because, because its been the subject of quite some controversy hasn't it?' The listener was now presented with an alternative representation. However, despite the fact that participation offers space for resistance, some actors are in a stronger position to make successful translations than others. For example, the presenter asked a question rather than asserted a truth, implying that the Councillor had the ability to clarify the issue for him. After all, the Councillor was responsible for the consultation and had access to the results. The Councillor took the opportunity to neutralise the 'controversy' by conflating it with people's desire for information.

3.17 Selective recognition also occurs in situations where advocates are used to convey citizens' views to decision-making forums. Advocates may be needed because citizens are unable or not permitted to participate in decision-making forums. They can be commissioned researchers, voluntary sector representatives and lead agency workers. They may convey only those views of the participating public that are consistent with or not in direct conflict with the agency's agenda. This is done so as not to fall out of favour with the lead agency, i.e. to secure promotion and service and research contracts. This is especially likely to be the case where such advocates are members of policy communities (Smith, 1997).

Method five: attack

3.18 The fifth method is 'attack' where the need to emphasise the importance of the citizen's view is overridden by a desire to see the threat of their agenda reduced. The person introducing the new agenda or the agenda may be disparaged. A participant or number of participants holding a certain opinion may be challenged for being sectarian or anecdotal (Copus, 1999, p.88; Barnes, 2001, p.13; Meadowcroft, 2001, pp.38-39). Their partial knowledge of the issue in question may be contrasted with the legitimacy of the lead agency in being able to speak for or know the whole community (Harrison and Mort, 2000). That legitimacy may be justified in elected, technical (i.e. professionals having a view borne of statistical evidence or experience) (Harrison, 1993, p.168) or delegated terms. In the following example, an older person recommended the appointment of a Press Officer. However, the Council Officer - who had been working in a community development capacity with the Fifty Plus group - used 'we' to report that group members had decided to deal with press issues collectively. This representation was validated by the Chair's declaration of 'I think we've got a multiple press officer'. The validation of the Chair, in the absence of protest, allowed the Officer to translate Fifty Plus. The Officer's statements functioned to belittle the status of the claim of the older person. The older person's desire became a personal issue, i.e. it was shown to be against the will of Fifty Plus. The absence of any protest against the Officer's translation of Fifty Plus was made more likely by the group's recognition that its existence depended upon Council resources and the co-operation of the Officer. This example illustrates Vincent's (1999, p.15) notion that 'power is embedded in a pre-existing structure of relationships and it is this power that enables some definitions of the situation to be more readily accepted than others'.

Older Person:

Could I suggest, about, it's about time we have some sort of Press Officer isn't it? It would be a good idea, a Press Officer. A Press Officer to handle the radio, or director of newspapers. Somebody appoint a Press Officer.


Oh, well, we could call the [Council Officer] the Press Officer.

Council Officer:


Older Person:

There's a limit isn't there?


If people think a separate appointment is necessary, it would have to be a voluntary one of course.

Council Officer:

I think we've been steering away from having a Press Officer actually in the media group [a working group of Fifty Plus] because then that's one person's responsibility. We thought it would be better that the media group would take joint responsibility and people would be nominated to do particular tasks rather than it be one person's responsibility.


I think that sounds a very sensible thing. I mean I presume you have one person in the group who convenes it.

Council Officer:

Yeh. But then we share responsibility.


Yes, that, well I think that's. Any other comments on that? So thank-you very much for that. I think we've got a multiple, multiple press-officer.

Council Officer:

A collective press officer.


Yes. Fund-raising.

3.19 The manageability of citizens' claims is increased when the lead agency actively collects viewpoints from the participating public on an individual basis. Local agencies may operate a policy of 'divide and conquer', collecting individual viewpoints, monopolising the ability to make sense of the information, and assigning the denigrating labels of personal, anecdotal and unrepresentative to problematic viewpoints.

3.20 Other methods of attack include seeking to discredit the speaker by challenging their willingness to co-operate with the group's agenda and identifying them as a destructive force. The individual may be asked to leave the group, be missed out on mail-outs about future meetings or physically barred. Alternatively, the participant may be informed that their issue is not appropriately discussed within the meeting - or that there is not enough time, i.e. it is not a priority (Hastings et al, 1996, p.39).

Discussion and Conclusion

4.1 This paper identified 'discursive democracy' as the model of civil society best placed to describe public participation under New Labour. The model of discursive democracy promotes dialogue between the public and government, but maintains elected representatives' exclusive right to formulate and sanction public policy. Decision-makers invite participants to participatory initiatives in order to supply information, understand the views of the public and engender support on pre-existing agendas. Nevertheless, because participation constitutes a dialogic process, citizens can introduce new agendas by breaking or manipulating the rules of participation. In doing this, citizens block decision-makers' attempts to enrol participants into their programmes. In this study decision-makers were shown to utilise a number of methods for managing citizens' alternative agendas whilst minimising the injury done to citizens' motivations for maintaining their participation. Three methods involved a process of mutual translation, ie. decision-makers appeared to enrol themselves into the older person's programme, so as to enrol the older person back into the procedures of the meetings and his/her focus back on to the agenda item. Decision-makers did this by agreeing to address the citizen's issue, arguing that the agency was already forwarding the issue or 'taking the issue on board'. Other times, decision-makers would ignore the citizen's agenda or disparage it, refusing to enrol themselves into the older person's programme and encouraging others to do likewise. Often, the net effect of these methods was to repair or rebuild the programme temporarily damaged by the new agenda, i.e. to turn the focus of group discussion back on to the agenda item. Nevertheless, on a few occasions older citizens restated their concern. This might have been to embarrass the authorities, show their determination or engender support from other participants.

4.2 In effectively managing the introduction of alternative agendas, a lead agency or decision-maker is able to refocus participants around its own agenda. Where a lead agency is likely to command strong support, as was the case in the pilot, participants will perceive the likely success of asserting a new agenda or defeating the existing one to be low. Participants perceiving that their goals cannot be advanced through aligned participation, even if willing to gamble their group standing through non-aligned participation, are more likely to depart in silence and cease attendance. The net effect is that those participants remaining tend to be focused on or even in support of the authority's agenda. Rather than creating better government for citizens such processes filter and create better citizens for government. Participating individuals with no previous interest in supporting or becoming concerned with the government's agenda, undergo a shift, a change in what they identify as being a matter of concern. Furthermore, the realignment of participants' commitments to the government's agenda may take their attentions and energies away from other commitments (Forbes and Sashidharan, 1997). In expecting to be able to influence the government on a given issue, but in actual fact focussing on the government's agenda, participants may find participation a stumbling block rather than a catalyst to realising their goals (Bewley and Glendinning, 1994).

4.3 Individuals joining the partnership with the hope of articulating and engendering support for alternative agendas are through their participation unlikely to perceive that such support exists. The management of alternative agendas can therefore be thought of as interessement (Callon, 1986) - where the principal actor builds devices, which can be placed between the actors and those who want to define the actors' identities differently. The radio example showed how public participation can be part of an authority's ongoing attempts to legitimise its actions and pre-empt counter action through the construction and representation of pre-existing support. The greater the success of the local authority in managing dissent within the participatory initiative, the more useful a tool the initiative will be for convincing the wider public of the support behind the authority's plans.

4.4 None of this it to deny that it may be possible for participating local people to influence agency workers. In the BGOP pilot older people were able to influence decisions on the administration of the pilot and Fifty Plus meetings, and the development of a local project designed to improve the confidence of older people. It is possible that local authorities wishing to gain the support of the participating public for their policies may cede a small amount of discretion to the participating public in exchange for that overall support. From this point of view 'legitimacy' may be thought of as a resource that local participants can use as a bargaining tool within participatory initiatives. Furthermore, local participants may have expertise in an area that allows them to make a genuine contribution to improving the effectiveness of a project (see Abram, 2001). Alternatively it may be that the government's reference to the values of participatory democracy constitutes an authoritative basis for decision-makers to cede discretion to local citizens. However, in the absence of clear government guidance on how local people should exercise influence, such behaviour is risky. Ultimately, decision-makers will be held to account for fulfilling political agendas and bureaucratic initiatives addressing those agendas.


1 The Cabinet Office developed BGOP in partnership with the Warwick University Local Authorities Research Consortium, Age Concern, Anchor Trust and The Carnegie Third Age Programme (Cabinet Office et al., 1997).


This paper represents the views of the author. It does not represent the views of any organisations or individuals mentioned in the study. References to gender have been omitted or made ambiguous (by the use of s/he, his/her and him/her) to increase the anonymity of participants in this study.


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