Research Articles

Participation in planning and governance: closing the gap between satisfaction and expectation

Participatory budgeting, Arnstein gap, Deliberative democracy, Participation, Trust

Background: Making and implementing decisions to improve long term sustainability, particularly in democratic countries, is a significant challenge. This is exacerbated when citizens’ expectations of their relationship with government is significantly at odds with what they experience, since this is likely to further reduce their already low trust in government and its decision-making. Research in the USA has demonstrated a clear gap between citizens’ expectations of their participation in government and their satisfaction with that participation. This finding inspired a research project in regional Western Australia to determine if a similar gap existed between citizens’ expectations and experience of their relationship with government. Additionally, a public participation intervention was devised to determine whether the gap between citizens’ expectations of, and experience with, governance could be reduced and whether the decisions made from such an intervention would be more implementable. To better reflect the partnership relationship citizens expected from government, ‘deliberative democracy’ initiatives were implemented to resolve the local government’s budgeting challenges.
Results: The results demonstrated that a similar gap to that in the USA was present in Western Australia community and the sample  populations used in the partnership interventions. Further, the citizens’ experience of deliberative democracy substantially reduced the gap between their expectations and experience of government participation. These case studies also revealed the existence and details of the nature of this partnership relationship between citizens and government as well as between the citizens themselves. Moreover, the tough budgetary decisions they made were implemented without public outcry.
Conclusions: These case studies show a promising route to close the gap between citizen expectations and satisfaction with participation in government, as well as having the potential to increase the trust in government so necessary for advances in sustainability. Future research directions have been outlined to improve understanding of how these results could impact on sustainability efforts.