Power(less) participation

Doing a lot of reading about democracy, transition and planning, I have to admit that “participatory planning” does my head in, in particular relation to transport planning. What is it? What are its principles? Where is the start point for participatory planning? I can go as far as understanding that it wants to better define (and improve) connectivity between

  • Citizens and experts
  • Various levels of decision making
  • Different processes of democratic enactment

But then it gets murky, in my view. Something appears to be missing. And as much as I can see it (or rather can not), it’s the usual power aspect that’s vanishing along the participatorially planned way. It seems to forget that power naturally concentrates; left by itself it simply and automatically gravitates towards an epicentre. That means power needs constant rebalancing; it needs constant attention and a careful watch. The participatory planning process is laden, loaded even, with power. It’s that factor in participatory planning, that we must pinpoint and overcome. How can that power be balanced? What negotiations are needed to avoid power concentration and accumulation?

Too often I hear from my local councillors “We simply do what the people want” but with no further concept of

  • Their own cognitive biases (confirmation bias)
  • Representativeness (how valid is what some people say in wider context, how many people did they speak to, and how, who)
  • Policy (their wider reference frame)

Local councillors, and senior councillors too, are hung up on “the people”, but have little concept of who these people are they are referring to, or how people express their wishes. This is particularly difficult when there is no reference frame to connect to. When there is no reference frame – such as vision or a policy – democratic process swiftly leaves the room and it opens the field to political footballs to get kicked around.

So it is not surprising that people leave, when they suffer engagement fatigue. If you are constantly asked, but you do not get much in the way of feedback and reasoning or see things change, it’s only human to leave the thing to its own devices. That also results in a vicious circle, as councillors and officers may think nobody is interested, despondency sets in on all levels. And pseudo consultation zombies roam the surface of the earth. Tumbleweed blows past on the deserted plains of public participation.

The saddest thing is that all this is a product of council’s own making. By missing to inform citizens adequately, nurture local groups and work with community leaders, a council fails on the community building aspect of creating a lively involved engaged civic society. However the most missing thing of all is clear vision. What does Newcastle council want? What really is their plan, their idea for Newcastle’s future? There is nothing to critique and debate. We are often led into a room with a too many disconnected items lying around in them. What are you supposed to do in that space, make up your own story?

Of course not. It is important that council provides some structure and order in the room before inviting comment. With too many items the room is cluttered and it becomes arduous to navigate around the space. This item-ordering process is work that must happen inside local authorities. It’s a bit of soul searching. But mostly it consists of scanning through policies extracting the essence, plans, future trajectories and directions. Checking with politicians if directions are unclear. Policy statements provide the bigger boxes, that smaller things can then relate to. Policies provide a necessary order. Here is a sketch of what I am trying to explain.


Promising everything to everyone all of the time, is not a display of good oversight or leadership. I still have no idea what the council wishes for Newcastle’s future. Even after six years as a community leader advocating better urban designs I am still left in the dark.

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