The role of social science evidence in decisions on the design of participatory governance: Tentative findings from a German mixed-methods study

Activity: Talk or presentationConference PresentationsResearch

Michael Rose - Speaker

Jens Newig - Coauthor

In many Western democracies, public policymaking has increasingly been relying on public participation processes, particularly – but not exclusively – at the local and regional level. The ongoing trend towards involving citizens and organised stakeholders in (local) governance processes is associated with various expectations. These include better-informed decision-making through stakeholder expertise, increased acceptance of decisions or the resolution of conflicts. Under which conditions these expectations are met is studied by the social sciences in numerous case studies and few meta-analyses. However, little attention has been devoted to how competent officials and contracted consultants base their decisions on whether to conduct participation (and if yes, by what design) on scientific evidence provided by participation research.

So, how do decision-makers such as public servants and consultants decide on whether and how to design and conduct public participation processes? What information sources do they consult? Do they rely at all on social science evidence? And what are the obstacles and needs regarding the (potential) use of social science evidence, i.e. knowledge transfer? We asked civil servants at municipal, county and state level in Germany who have been involved in organising participation processes, as well as consultants and mediators of these processes. To this end, we combined a standardised online survey (n=67) with qualitative interviews (n=17) and two focus groups (four participants each).

Results show that most public servants and consultants have at least a basic interest in the use of social science evidence for design issues such as the choice of the participation format. However, a majority reports to rarely or never use social science research results for designing or implementing participation processes. Reasons are manifold, including a lack of time on their part and a lack of reliable and accessible evidence. Advice from external and internal colleagues and consultants, training courses, websites and guidelines are the dominant sources of information. Insofar as social science evidence is used, it is primarily utilised as a source of new ideas and concepts for participation, but also as a justification for decisions already taken, or as arguments to intensify participation, when negotiating with superordinate authorities, often at higher levels of governance.

Interviewees also reported that besides the occasional use of social science evidence, decisions on participation design issues are primarily driven by legal and political requirements of the different policy and politics levels, the local ‘participation culture’, resource constraints and personal intuition and experience. Nevertheless, public servants and consultants would welcome evidence at hand that is easy to understand and fast to access, illustrates findings through comparable practical examples, gives concrete recommendations for solving a problem and provides information on measures that have been effective in the past. Some interviewees specifically ask for evidence that does justice to their local context. In general, differences between (potential) evidence user groups are small regarding these questions. This also holds true for users from the different governance levels.


ECPR General Conference 2022


Insbruck, Austria

Event: Conference