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Fairness in Participatory Decision-making: the relationship between participation and deliberation in UK participatory budgeting processes

Heather Blakey*


Through participatory budgeting programmes in the UK, we can understand something of what people value and understand about democracy at a grassroots level. The implementation of deliberative mechanisms in particular reveals how community members, council officers and local councillors understand fair decision-making, and thus the basis of democratic legitimacy. This paper argues that, although there is confusion over issues of representation, and at times an arguably problematic emphasis on fair outcome rather than fair process, the practice of participatory budgeting offers fruitful opportunities for thinking differently about democratic process in the UK, in particular in facilitating a view of democracy as a process rather than an asset: something we do rather than something we have. This paper is not intended primarily as a contribution to the theoretical discussion. Rather it is about how concepts are employed at a very grassroots level, and thus the nature of public assumptions about and experiences of democracy.


In recent years the UK has seen an increase in mechanisms for both participatory and deliberative democracy. This is best understood as a response to the 'democratic deficit': trends of disengagement and alienation from formal politics which are occurring across the major Western industrial democracies (Stoker, 2006:35-40). Public confidence in leaders and the institutions of democratic government is seen to be at or near an all-time low (Pharr & Putnam, 2000:xv), and falling voter numbers (Clarke, 2002:13-21) mean that representative democracy delivers an increasingly equivocal mandate. There is a growing sense that the current scale of discontent about politics raises fundamental questions about the long-term health of democracy, and thus an increasing number of democrats are exploring alternative forms which they hope will reinvigorate democracy.

These experiments provide a rich opportunity to reflect on the contrast between the status quo, representative democracy, and alternative forms of democracy, and so come to understand both what people value about democracy as well as their culturally embedded assumptions about what democracy is. This includes understanding what people perceive to be the source of democratic legitimacy (the ‘fairness’ discussed in this paper), which in turn clearly connects to the sense that conventional politics is to some degree failing to reflect individual citizens’ intentions. This is vital in order to maximise the potential for democratic progress through new and different forms of democratic practice. We cannot hope to revitalise democracy unless we understand what it is that will help people truly feel that the system we call democracy is indeed ‘rule by the people’. I argue that this relates importantly to the question of whether we – theorists, public officials and citizens – share an understanding of democracy as fair process or fair outcome.

To this end, this paper explores one example of participatory democracy, and the deliberative decision-making within it: participatory budgeting in Newcastle, known locally as U-Decide. Initiated in 2004, U-Decide was one of the earliest UK PB processes. As such, it has seen a greater development of thinking around participatory democracy than more recent or shorter UK PB processes. Through this case study I explore implicit understandings of democratic legitimacy as revealed by participants’ notions of ‘fair’ decision-making, and their usage of deliberation. Because the programme is a site of democratic learning and development, it can point to new ways of thinking about participation and representation, and suggest ways of understanding democratic legitimacy which may be useful in addressing the democratic deficit. The roles of deliberation and participation in decision-making, and the representational relationships between different actors, are important here.


Participatory Budgeting (PB), described by Hilary Wainwright as ‘the nearest thing to a working example of participatory democracy’ (Wainwright, 2003:30), has in recent years generated a high degree of international, national and local interest. It originated as a project of the leftwing PT administration (Partido dos Trabalhadores or Worker’s Party) in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in the late 1980’s, with the aim of increasing the transparency and legitimacy of government decisions through the active participation of the population in managing public affairs, as well as embedding a redistributive shift in terms of quality of life outcomes. This combination of goals is often described as the ‘inversion of social priorities plus popular participation’ (Bruce, 2004:89). It is an annual system of direct democracy in which the city’s neighbourhoods collectively develop budget proposals for the municipal investment plan. In its original incarnation in Porto Alegre, it rested on the right of citizens to participate as individuals (rather than being represented by an organisation or an elected councillor), deliberation, the social contract (through their participation, citizens become co-responsible for project implementation) and accountability – shared and transparent management of resources.

Over the last two decades the Porto Alegre experience has inspired a wide variety of processes world-wide, and so has become an umbrella term for any system which directly involves citizens in decisions over the allocation of public finances. In the UK, local public officials began experimenting with PB around the mid 2000’s. To date, the primary focus has been participatory grant-giving processes, in which citizens make direct (typically one-off rather than annual) decisions on the allocation of public funds which are usually distributed to community and voluntary sector organisations. An early count of six UK pilots in 2007 has since grown to an estimated current total of over 100 local authority pilots or programmes. The pilots generated interest from the then New Labour government, which led to the publication of a national strategy in 2008: Giving more people a say in local spending; participatory budgeting: a national strategy, (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2008). The Conservative-led coalition government has maintained this interest through their ‘Big Society’ agenda; one of the Big Society Network’s first projects was to promote participatory budgeting.

In keeping with its international roots, participatory budgeting in the UK derived from a desire to 'do politics differently', to extend our political imaginations, and to experiment with more direct, participatory forms of democracy. The primary motivation for those involved at local level is to do with widening democratic engagement; PB is an attempt to increase the numbers of people actively involved in democratic processes. Proponents hope that this will enhance the quality of local democracy, improving relationships, trust and accountability between citizens, local representatives and the state. In the words of one PB participant: 'it's people taking control ... being able to make the decisions'. This is echoed in Lavan’s assessment that the transformatory potential of the process may be its strongest appeal for participants (2007:34) and in the UK PB Unit's belief in the potential of PB to 'rejuvenate local democracy' (Waters & Jackson, 2008:8). Within this, there is a growing interest in deliberative aspects of PB (very limited in the early examples) as a means of improving decision-making.

PB processes in this country are in general small-scale, and focus on a more equitable or efficient allocation of small grants. However, while these practices are too small to effect nationally significant democratic reform (and even at the local level it is hard to directly attribute causation for specific claims), PB in the UK deserves attention in terms of democratic theory and practice, for at least four reasons. Firstly, the scale of local ambitions: motivations for implementing PB go beyond the outcomes that can reasonably be expected of current practice. This has generated a clear trajectory towards the mainstream in terms of planning and intentions, and as a result offers insights into democratic practice and understandings beyond the scope of the processes themselves. Secondly, while PB in the UK is state-led in the sense that processes are predominantly initiated by Council officers, the primary impetus came from a non-governmental organisation, Church Action on Poverty, which in 2000 took a small group of UK community activists to observe the original participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre. The partnership of state and non-state actors is significant in terms of developing democratic practice.

Thirdly, there is unusual scope for democratic learning within PB processes compared to other UK empowerment programmes. This is because PB in the UK is not a national programme but a spreading local innovation. In a local authority environment remarkable for its limited room for manoeuvre (Stoker, 2004:45 & 74), PB is able to develop in less prescribed ways than nationally designed initiatives, and thus more easily reflects experiential democratic learning. Finally, PB provides an arena for the free expression of democratic values. In a long-established democracy such as the UK, many people assume that they know what democracy means. We are, after all, a 'democracy' and so our system of representation, voting and elite decision-making is therefore what people believe 'democracy' to be. Within PB processes, people are less constrained by what they are used to knowing about 'democracy', and accordingly freer to enact their own common sense about the relationship between people and decisions. This is illustrated by one community PB activist who is passionately inspired by the potential for PB to enable local people to shape and control their communities but, when this is described as improving democracy, he insists that “democracy is rubbish”, giving the ‘corruption’ and self-interest of politicians as his reasons.

The development of PB is fundamentally a journey about democracy, about who has the right to make the decisions that affect us, on what basis, and why. Thus, as people wrestle with learning about PB and about how to achieve their vision for the process, we are afforded an insight into what different actors value about democratic practice, as well as the assumptions about democracy that they bring with them. PB in the UK is therefore interesting not only as one attempt to address the democratic deficit, but as a lens through which to explore the current state of local democracy in this country.


Newcastle’s PB programme, known as U-Decide, was initiated by the then newly-elected Liberal Democrat local administration in 2004. It was one of the earliest in the UK, and arguably remains the most embedded process, with permanent council officer support for the programme. The Liberal Democrat administration is strongly committed to PB as part of its neighbourhood management reforms. At the time of my research (2008-2009), Newcastle council had supported 14 discrete, time-limited neighbourhood or themed PB processes. The programme is led by the Council officers who form the permanent U-Decide support team. Members of this team articulate three primary aims for the programme: community development, democratic renewal and improved services. While not attached to the permanent programme, citizens and councillors play important roles within each local process. For each process, citizens are either invited to form a local steering group (known as the working group), or to join a working group made up of officers, citizens and councillors. Newcastle is typical of many UK PB programmes in terms of the individual processes. It is unusual in terms of the depth of commitment to PB, exemplified by the ongoing officer support.

While the U-Decide team is fixed, the programme itself is shifting. There are no annual funds allocated for decision via U-Decide. Therefore each process begins with the identification of funds and a request from the fund-holder for support from the U-Decide team (the fund-holders are frequently councillors using dedicated ward funds, but sometimes theme-specific such as funds for carer-support or young people). From there, the processes usually take the following form. The U-Decide team hosts a community lunch (publicised to existing council contacts and community organisations) at which participants are invited to form or join a working group which will operate for the duration of the PB process in that locality. The working groups generally contain experienced local activists, though the voting event attracts a wider range of residents. They are self-selected, being open to any interested resident of the area. The role of the working group is to make process-planning decisions; they are not intended to make funding decisions, which are made by the wider public. This is an important principle of participatory budgeting: allocation of funds is made via a participatory process, not by a small group representing the community.

Thus, PB is qualitatively different from other community consultation processes, or ‘partnership working’ between the state and voluntary sector organisations. Once formed, the working group begins process planning, with support from local councillors, the U-Decide team and other relevant council officers. The group agrees the funding criteria (the theme may be pre-determined by the funder, if, for example, the funds are committed to a particular activity such as community safety; if not, the working group have on occasion selected a theme following presentations from council officers). The group then invites applications, which are mostly submitted by community organisations but individuals and service providers can also suggest ideas. This stage generally includes roadshows to publicise the process and generate ideas. The applications are then ‘sifted’ against the criteria by the working group (those deemed to meet the criteria are informed that they can present at the voting day; those deemed not to meet the criteria are given advice on alternative sources of funding). Applicants are supported by council officers to develop a 3-minute presentation of their idea, and given a number of tickets for the Grand Voting Event (Where space allows, additional tickets are given to groups whose ideas did not progress to the voting event and sometimes to other residents of the area). Finally, funds are allocated by these people (who must be resident in the area) at a ‘Grand Voting Event’ (Participants score each project from 1 - 9 in a vote taken electronically after each presentation, and money is allocated to the highest scoring projects until the available funds are committed). Turnout to Grand Voting Events is typically in the region of 70-80 participants.

The funds allocated through each process are generally in the range of £15,000-£30,000. The potential for ‘mainstreaming’ (i.e. the move from discrete processes towards PB becoming an integral part of the existing decision-making system) is much discussed by participants and organisers, illustrating a shared commitment to the bigger goals mentioned earlier. This is expressed variously by different participants and stakeholders as ‘bigger budgets’, moving beyond ‘extras’ to core budgets, and ‘having the right to U-Decide’. U-Decide typically funds activity and resources which would not be funded via mainstream Council budgets. Deliberation and participation intersect in two key places during the process: at the voting event and in the working group.

My research in Newcastle included 22 semi-structured interviews with working group members, council officers and elected members, 2 group interviews with working group members, 34 short interviews with voting-day participants, and participant observation (I was present in my capacity as a researcher over approximately a twelve-month period during 2008 and 2009). During this period I observed 5 separate PB processes across 3 geographical areas. The funding themes were as follows: two focused on community safety, one on culture, one titled ‘safer, cleaner, greener’ and one for young people. Research aims were agreed through discussion with the U-Decide team.

Participatory and deliberative democratic theory offers a lens through which to consider the democratic significance of PB practice in the UK. In the following sections, I consider some key principles and arguments of this body of theory, examine the case study of Newcastle and reflect on what this means in terms of democratic potential in the UK.

Participatory and Deliberative Democracy

PB originates from a tradition of participatory democracy but, within this framework, there is growing interest in developing opportunities for deliberation (This is linked to the emphasis on deliberation in Porto Alegre, see Avritzer, 2006). The insights of both bodies of theory can therefore provide a frame for exploring the practice of PB in the UK.

Participatory democratic theory advocates the idea that people should have the opportunity to engage directly in decision-making. Participatory democracy rests on a belief in the potential of people to be effectively political and capable of control, rather than the view that the masses are to be feared, and thus controlled (Barber, 1984; Wolin, 1996). Democracy in this conception is about human flourishing and expression, the maximisation of human potential, not the containment of human society. The sovereign people, deemed to have a right to shape the decisions that affect them, are the source of democratic legitimacy. Participatory democracy is often posed as an alternative to representative democracy, though in practice they are not necessarily in tension. Participatory and representative democracy can co-exist (as in the example of PB in Porto Alegre), with participatory democratic spaces supporting and increasing the legitimacy of elected representatives. However, participatory democratic practice and theory often stand as a critique of the limitations of representative democracy, which arguably developed in order to contain rather than facilitate the democratic power of the people. This is illustrated by James Madison, who argued for a system of representative government in the United States on the grounds that popular governments are prey to ‘instability, injustice, and confusion’ because ‘the latent causes of faction [conflict and division] are ... sown in the nature of man’ (The Federalist Papers, no 10).

Deliberative democratic theory plays a similar role in drawing attention to the limitations of conventional representative democracy. For deliberative democrats, legitimacy resides in the exercise of collective rationality (Dryzek, 1990:9-10). This makes ‘preferences and opinions earn legitimacy by forcing them to run the gauntlet of public deliberation and public judgement’ (Barber, 1984:136). The reflective quality of the decision-making process is of paramount importance. In particular, coercive or authoritarian power must not triumph over the free exercise of reason. Habermas refers to deliberation as based on persuasion, inclusive, public, free from coercion (except the ‘unforced force of the better argument’) and concerned with public issues (Habermas, 1996:305-6). Similarly, in Benhabib's formulation, all participants have equal opportunity to speak, all have the right to question the assigned topics, and all have the right to initiate reflexive conversations about the rules of the discourse procedure (Benhabib, 1996b:70).

There is a strong emphasis on impartiality within deliberative democratic theory. However, while developing a process, which enables people to consider the needs of others, is clearly an essential aspect of democratic decision-making, some deliberative theory suggests that it does not necessarily follow that participants should begin by laying aside their own desires. Arguably, the concept of an 'impartial' view is necessarily flawed, due to what Stoker (2006:5) calls the 'inevitable partiality of judgement', which reflects an individual's unique experience. Benhabib gives a useful description of how deliberation can help with the formulation of a wider view, without requiring participants to represent any preferences but their own:

This process of articulating good reasons in public forces the individual to think of what would count as a good reason for all others involved. One is thus forced to think from the standpoint of all involved for whose agreement one is “wooing” (Benhabib, 1996b:71-2).

She further suggests that the exchange of views makes us aware of conflicts between our wants and encourages us to undertake a 'coherent ordering' (op cit: p71). This issue is particularly relevant in considering how and why individual citizens choose to engage in participatory democratic processes such as PB. This issue illustrates how deliberative democracy, as participatory democracy, recognises that our preferences are not fixed, that we can grow and change through democracy.

The concept of 'fairness' captures something of what inspires about both participatory and deliberative democracy. Participatory democracy is understood to be fair because decisions are taken by the people affected (an idea often articulated by PB participants); deliberative democracy because it rests on reasoned argument by a cross-section of citizens. While there is a strand in the literature which articulates a tension between the two (whether large numbers of people can sustain the conditions for meaningful deliberation, see for example Fishkin, 1995), the two approaches are arguably complementary. Deliberation implies informed and collective decision-making, concepts which distinguish participatory democracy from a snapshot of unconsidered opinions. Deliberation in this way moves collective decisions, which could otherwise be taken by opinion poll or referenda, from choice to judgement, defined by Barber as the essence of democratic citizenship (Barber, 1984:158). For a participatory democrat, deliberation enhances the quality of decision-making; it does not generate a limit to participation. Thus deliberative democratic theory offers insights which can help us to assess the democratic attributes of participatory experiments such as PB.


Deliberation during the U-Decide programme occurred in two key locations: between participants at the voting event and during the planning stages within the working group. I discuss both these processes in turn, considering how the value of fairness has emerged through the practice of PB in Newcastle and public understandings of democratic legitimacy. These issues are closely connected to ideas of representation. The relationship between deliberation and participation in this context is particularly interesting: the ways in which deliberation is used illustrate understandings of democratic 'fairness'.

Fairness is instinctively a key concept for many participants: the idea that decision-making should be fair and that PB can help it be so. One working group member compared U-Decide to the existing process of allocating funding at ward-committee meetings: ‘who are on the committee of the money that’s spent for the Denton ward? … just three councillors? … never!’. Valuing the right to participate clearly goes beyond classic representative theory, in which participation is limited to electing a decision-making elite. For Mill, writing in Considerations on Representative Government (1998:271) ‘there is a radical distinction between controlling the business of government, and actually doing it’. For U-Decide organisers and participants, a much more active democratic process is understood to be fair. A local councillor stated that: ‘people who are affected by decisions … should take those decisions, because it affects their quality of life, how they live their lives, their community – they have an absolute right as far as I’m concerned’. For working group members, it ‘should be the people’ making the decisions. Actual participation in decision-making is a therefore a democratic value. This is unambiguously about the relationship to decision-making, not only the quality of the outcomes that result.

Deliberation and participation at the Voting Event

A formal deliberative element was introduced into the U-Decide processes in early 2009, with the aim of improving the quality of decision-making. Organisers and some participants were also interested in whether people vote in a 'fair' or partisan way (do they, for example, favour their own neighbourhood or age group). Organisers were interested in monitoring voting patterns to establish if this was the case, and hoped that deliberation would encourage people to consider the needs of others (echoing the view in deliberative theory that deliberation must be other-regarding) To this end, a three-minute period of discussion (named deliberation) was introduced prior to each vote.

The interview and observational evidence from this research strongly suggests that voting is generally 'fair' (in the above-mentioned sense of being non-partisan). One council officer described matching participants’ postcodes with the geographical locations of projects. In her view, this ‘showed … that people don’t actually vote on their postcode, they vote in terms of what they think will benefit the community’. While the research shows that ‘fair’ voting is very important to people, it is significant that only two specific examples of perceived ‘unfair’ voting were given over the course of five observed U-Decide processes (both mentioned by local councillors). These examples were: an overheard agreement between two groups to vote for one another, and one councillors’ belief that a project was unsuccessful because of its location. The bulk of the research evidence suggests that participants attend to the presentations, take the responsibility of voting seriously and, importantly, believe the process to be fair. However, the extent of the importance attached to the issue reveals something about public officials’ sense of the source of democratic legitimacy: that the process is not justifiable unless the outcomes are 'fair', deliberation being widely understood to increase the likelihood of fair outcomes (in particular by organisers). Deliberation was well-received by participants, who appreciated hearing other views and receiving new information, and in some cases adjusted their vote as a result. However, the concern with fairness of outcome meant that the deliberative element developed in a particular way.

The questions posed by council officers for the deliberative period suggest a view that participants should consider the needs of the whole community rather than consult their individual preferences (much as an elected councillor should consider the needs of the whole community), reflecting a general assumption that voting in your own interests is not 'fair'. Thus the questions posed for deliberation make no reference as to whether the voter personally approves of the scheme, in contrast to the previous voting system in which participants were asked simply to rate each proposal. Participants were asked whether they thought:

  1. the proposal would make a difference to community safety [the funding theme for the process].
  2. the proposal was value for money.

This strongly suggests a tacit sense on behalf of U-Decide organisers that self-interest in public deliberative processes is not legitimate. This reluctance to allow people to represent only themselves appears to stem from a sense that individuals should ‘represent’ the community as the whole community was not present. In other words, decisions made as non-representative participants would not be legitimate, suggesting a degree of confusion over the basis for legitimacy of participatory democracy. This issue is explored in more depth with regard to the working group in the following section.

Although the primary impetus for PB in the UK is widening participation, it is clear that opportunities for participation are affected by a desire to promote deliberation and relationship-building. Though this debate was often couched in practical terms, particularly venue size, the underlying issues relate to democracy. More people could vote if the seating were arranged in rows, but many working group members and council officers emphasized the importance of table layout in allowing discussion, demonstrating a commitment to better-informed decision-making over wider inclusion (though often valuing both).

Participation at the voting event was explicitly discussed in terms of fairness. Is it fairer to invite a fixed number of people per proposal, or to have an open invite to all residents? Organisers and some participants raised concerns about particular groups 'packing' PB processes with their supporters. This was thought to be 'unfair', a phenomenon to be managed by limiting invitations. Others, including some community working group members, felt strongly that participation should be open, that it was ‘not fair’ to exclude some residents. There is a clear difference between 'fairness' in the sense of views being equally represented (allocating each project a fixed number of places and therefore votes) and 'fairness' in the sense of equal opportunity to participate. With regard to the first idea, for some working group members (who were in most cases also funding applicants), an open invite to the community as a whole would allow projects to bring large numbers of supporters. This was seen as unfair to smaller or less well supported projects, rather than a function of the democratic process. By contrast, the few voting event participants not attached to a project were upset that there were not more ‘independent’ voters, arguing that the 'bias' of the projects would 'obviously' preclude them from voting fairly. The first approach excludes 'packing'; the second permits or encourages it, to the extent that groups will encourage residents who support their ideas to attend (canvassing for support). In some sense, this debate hinges on the idea of personal responsibility, the issue of whether your particular participation changes things (which it does not necessarily do if each group is allocated a fixed number of votes – if a group has 4 votes, it has 4 votes whether you are one of them or not). Without this incentive, there is arguably limited motivation to act as a citizen, to deliberate rather than assert your view, to take your responsibilities seriously.

Deliberation and participation in the working group

A second key location of deliberation is found in the working group. Deliberation here, though not given the name formally, tended to come closer to the deliberative ideal described earlier than the brief discussions at voting events. The working group process allowed for dialogue, relationship-building, the need to argue a case and opportunities for learning. Organisers and participants valued this deliberative forum highly, and many of the democratic outcomes attributed to U-Decide occurred via the working group structure. These included stronger relationships between officers, councillors and community members, increased trust, opportunities for learning about local democratic process, and an enhanced sense of involvement in local decision-making. Working group members valued the opportunity to get to know their councillors, referring to improved relationships and their sense of mutual support. It was not only about what their councillors could do for them but how they could support the work of the councillors. As one working group member said: ‘It’s not just the councillors backing us, we’re backing the councillors’. Thus many implicitly understood democracy as active – something which they did, not simply a set of procedures which they had access to.

In recognising the deliberative dimensions of working-group activity, I am not, of course, suggesting that the groups operated in ideal conditions. Many interviewees were strongly concerned about accountability within at least one working group. In the words of one working group member: ‘People don’t want to put their names to anything, and I have a problem with that … we should be like an open book.’ One much talked-about instance involved the rejection of applications from an organisation which some working-group members disliked. Conversely, the research evidence also shows clear examples of impressive decision-making by working groups: fair, consistent, transparent – and often compassionate as well. In one instance, a children’s group had been wrongly informed that it was through to the voting event and an officer asked if an exception could be made. The working group refused, on the grounds that the process had to be applied consistently. However, the group members attended the ward committee at which the children were asked to present instead, to ensure they had a good audience.

It is clear that much greater potential for meaningful deliberation exists within working-group meetings than within the named deliberation slot at voting events. However, this potential rests heavily on the approach of participants, mediated by the group norms and the design of the deliberative process. Fairness in this context cannot be assumed, but would need to be supported by accountability mechanisms. For some this means foregrounding the responsibilities of the working group in acting on behalf of the community. Thus fairness again relates back to representation.

The implementation of deliberation within U-Decide suggests a degree of uncertainty over the relationship between participatory and representative decision-making, revealed most clearly in the functioning of the working groups. The evidence from this research suggests that many of those involved in participatory processes such as PB retain what we might call ‘representative habits of mind’. In other words, many of us struggle to know how to understand wider participation as a fair means of decision-making if it is not in some sense representative.

Councillors in particular tended to treat working group members as representative, arguably because this is their instinctive understanding of legitimacy. To illustrate, a member of the Council executive referred to working group decisions as legitimate on the grounds that they were 'elected members of community groups'. This was simply not the case; the members of the working group were self-selected. However, the councillor struggled to express a sense of democratic legitimacy not based in representation. The widespread nature of this confusion was illustrated by repeated instances in which the term 'community' was used to refer to the working group, as in this extract from an interview with a local councillor:

R:There were tensions between the community’s views of what the process was, and officers’ and councillors’ views…

I: When you say the community’s views, do you mean, as expressed by the working group?

R: Yes, yeah.

In contrast, many officers clearly intended that working-group members should make decisions about process not substance; for them the process was about inclusive decision-making. However, the attempt to solve the problem of representation by keeping the group focused on process and not content is itself beset with difficulties, as illustrated by a community development officer’s concern that working group-involvement was tokenistic, because the decisions were limited. The deliberative process has its own dynamic. As members of the group find themselves in a meaningful deliberative space, it can be a struggle to limit decisions to relatively trivial issues. Some working- group members certainly found this distinction difficult, with a number suggesting that the future of U-Decide lay in the group making substantive funding decisions, rather than facilitating the wider community in making funding decisions via a participatory democratic process. For example, one suggested “It might be easier … next time, to get the same committee, and let the committee decide [what should be funded]”.

The relationship between the working group and wider participants was therefore somewhat confused. Working group members were frequently treated as if they were representative, yet at the same time there was a high level of consciousness that they were not. Councillors in particular referred to the fact that working-group members were ‘unelected’, while officers and working- group members were aware of gaps in ‘representation’, particularly the lack of young people on the working groups. This led to efforts to make the working group more inclusive: 'representative' in terms of identity (generally by age or neighbourhood). The desire to produce a working group that approximated to a microcosm of the wider community was magnified by the perception that the group 'stood in' for the community to some degree. This was directly referred to as representation on occasion: 'we need people to represent each of the parts of the ward'. This was seen to be a major benefit of U-Decide over conventional grant-making: ‘It’s not a fair representative of the community that goes to [ward committee], whereas the U-Decide was a better representative of the community’. The degree of importance attached to working group representativeness reflects an implicit understanding that presence is important, that representation of ideas by others is not a sufficient safeguard for inclusion (see Phillips, 1996 for a theoretical discussion of this issue).

In keeping with the participatory basis of U-Decide, the sense was that the process was fair because decisions were taken directly by those affected; for many working-group members it was important that councillors did not play a decision-making role within U-Decide. They stressed that councillors should give support and advice but not speak on behalf of the community: 'It's got to be the public that makes the decisions' (the public in this quote refers to citizen-members of the working group).

Despite asserting that they could not be ‘represented’ by councillors, many working-group members, used to being treated as spokespeople, had come to see themselves in this light – as spokespeople, asserting that working-group decisions should be 'made by the community' (i.e. themselves). Despite their own refusal to 'be spoken for', some (but by no means all) working- group members displayed a paradoxical willingness to 'speak for' the wider community. As I have suggested, there were corresponding issues of accountability and unequal opportunities for involvement. However, these difficulties arose at least in part from the assumption that working group members equated to representatives, rather than treating them as individual participants, despite the fact that they had volunteered as individuals, with no defined representational link to the wider community. The weakness of the link between understandings of 'representation' and the wider goals of participatory democracy thus constrained the democratic possibilities of the process.

Nevertheless, the variation and movement in views, both within and around the working groups, suggests that 'doing democracy' in this way can open up space for new ways of understanding it, for allowing people to think differently about democratic process. To illustrate, at one sifting day (the meeting at which the working group assesses proposals to ensure they meet U-Decide criteria), a councillor suggested that it would be possible to forego the voting event, because the group had rejected sufficient bids to enable all the remainder to be funded. He argued that their deliberation at the sifting day 'was' U-Decide. This caused consternation, though the working group had been insistent, moments before, that their decisions – as ‘community decisions’ – should stand. Most working-group members instinctively understood that the 'community' needed to speak for itself after all: 'There's only us here today ... there's no point if there's no voting – it's not U-Decide'. Participants learn democracy through doing it.

Thus far, I have suggested that the democratic potential of PB in the UK is affected by ‘representative habits of mind’, that legitimate participation as an individual may be conflated with the legitimacy of representation. However, I have further suggested that community members value direct involvement in decision-making, and that these ideas are not fixed, but that the practice of doing democracy is fertile ground for democratic learning. Thus, a closer understanding of people’s assumptions and understandings of democratic fairness and representation does not suggest that we are not capable of participatory democracy, but rather indicate the importance of viewing democracy as a learning journey: the need to maximise opportunities for people to reflect on how and why decisions should be taken. Involving people directly in the creation of a democratic process, as within PB, is one such opportunity.

I want to conclude this paper by drawing out one significant implication of these issues from my research which illustrates a key debate in democratic theory: can democracy be justified by its process or its outcomes? I argue that addressing the democratic deficit requires a view in relation to this question which takes account of citizen understandings. In the following section, I relate empirical evidence from the research to this debate, in order to understand more clearly the underlying logic of the democratic deficit in the UK, and the role that participation and deliberation play in addressing it.


This debate reflects an important question often unarticulated by practitioners: is participatory democracy only valid if it generates 'good' decisions according to a standard external to the process, or is it valid in and of itself? Thus, does democracy require that we have the opportunity to participate on an equal basis as individuals, or do we need the system to ensure ‘fair outcome’ through a more controlled process in which participants deliberate on behalf of the whole community, regardless of who attends?

A preoccupation with outcomes places an emphasis on participants making the ‘right’ decision. This is arguably problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the idea of a 'right answer' is predicated on one side being 'wrong' in any conflict. Secondly, it implies the existence of standards for judgement which lie outside the process itself.

Conflict in democratic process

If the 'right answer' mean the same outcome as representative democracy would have delivered, then there is no room for conflict between existing decision-makers and the people – yet many theorists believe that conflict is an essential part of democracy. For Barber (1984:120), the presence of conflict defines the political realm, the central condition of democracy being ‘a necessity for public action, and thus for reasonable public choice, in the presence of conflict and in the absence of private or independent grounds for judgement'. Honig (1996:258) argues that taking difference seriously (as U-Decide actors try to do through attention to partisan voting and identity representation) means affirming 'the inescapability of conflict', and thus the inevitable contestation and re-contestation of outcomes. Judging fairness by outcomes implies that the outcomes are a final resting place rather than a stepping stone. Mansbridge articulates the difficulties with this conception by arguing that power is always disrupted in ways which are not simply just: 'each balance of power creates a new underdog, each settlement a new group who would benefit from unsettling’ (Mansbridge, 1996:58).

There was a great deal of attention within the U-Decide process to the quality of decisions, not only to the quality of decision-making. Some officers defined good decision-making as generating the decisions officers would have made themselves: 'Look at the decisions that they've made, which mirror our senior officers’; I mean, that's phenomenal, isn't it?

By contrast, working-group members cared that outcomes were different; that was often their motivation for involvement. U-Decide participants wanted to change things. Working-group members repeatedly described the value of U-Decide in generating community outcomes which, in their view, would not have been funded without it. This does not diminish the importance of outcomes but it does require that outcomes are determined by the process, not in advance.

Thus, to conceptualise a democratic process as one in which participants are in some sense 'wrong' if they challenge the status quo is problematic, and likely to limit wider inclusion in the democratic process. Democracy demands that deliberation must include open dialogue between all actors; it cannot be understood as an instrumental means to producing particular outcomes.

External standards for judging democratic decisions

The idea of democracy as a process without end brings us to the second reason that ‘fairness by outcome’ is problematic: the difficulty of judging outcomes by standards outside the democratic process. Singer's (1973:32-35) discussion of fairness as compromise offers a helpful perspective here. He recognises that the merits of competing claims often cannot be ascertained, arguing that John Stuart Mill's suggestion of more votes for those ‘most qualified’ to decide assumes agreement on who is ‘most qualified’. In other words, in whose opinion is an outcome the ‘right’ outcome? Is it, as in the view of the officer quoted above, the opinion of existing power-holders that counts? Or might there be multiple views of what the ‘right’ outcome is?

If organisers allocate PB places (and therefore votes), perhaps to safeguard a minority which they deem worthy, or to ensure a geographical spread of participation, they retain the power to decide who ‘deserves’ disproportionate votes. The definition of ‘worth’ is therefore not allowed to be a democratic decision. For at least one working group member, this was problematic. For her, such judgments impacted on the community as whole: ‘It’s no wonder that you’ve got the ones that are undesirables, cos nobody wants them invited – well, I do … cos if they can see the difference that we’re making, they may not be undesirable … you know, it’s about engaging the community – so let’s engage them!

As Barber notes, and as the above quote illustrates, recognising that there is no independent ground for judgement does not mean that politics is value-free. On the contrary, participants bring their own values, which are accorded equal status within the process and must be defended within the process. This is the essence of the deliberation at the voting day. Participants sought to persuade one another of the merits of different funding proposals. For example, a proposal to fund equipment for a youth rap project generated a discussion amongst participants over individual concerns about noise versus the impact and value which the project might have for its participants.

Freeing ourselves of the hope that there is a 'right answer' underlines the need for deliberation, for judgement and not simply opinion. It strengthens the conceptualisation of democracy as active, which is more in tune with people’s instinctive understandings of democracy. It is the lack of such an 'answer' that gives us the impetus to act; we have to fight for our conception of the good because we cannot rely on others to provide it for us. Deliberation in PB practice, because organisers hold key ideas outside the democratic space, inevitably remains limited by the fear that the people will come to the 'wrong' conclusions.

This last objection suggests that one aspect of the desire to ensure outcomes relates to trust. Can the people be trusted to make the 'right' decisions – or do organisers have to provide safeguards against ‘wrong’ decisions? Freire (1972:36) remarks pithily that, when ‘members of the oppressor class … move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origins [including] a lack of confidence in the people's ability to think, to want, and to know'. While this would be harsh language to apply to deeply-committed council officers fighting for better democracy, it does direct our attention to the difficulties experienced by existing decision-makers in truly giving up control.

Arguably, the idea of the 'right answer' (fair outcome where 'fair' is defined outside the process) makes sense primarily to existing power-holders. By contrast, democracy as fair process is likely to make most sense to those currently without power – people who are only ever likely to have someone else's vision of the 'right answer' imposed upon them, who are not likely to have the opportunity to impose their own. The ‘right answer’ is a vision of democracy as about outcomes and government. However, democracy is also about being a citizen, an actor, a society-builder. Thus, working-group members typically described their reasons for getting involved as being able to make a difference, while the emphasis on demonstrating the quality of decisions came primarily from officers and councillors.


Understanding the democratic values and assumptions revealed through one example of PB in the UK can help us to understand an aspect of the democratic deficit as a tension between democracy as practised and the goals of would-be democrats. I have suggested that these values and assumptions cohere with a conceptualisation of democracy as active. Accordingly, dominant (static) conceptualisations of democracy as structure fail to meet people’s hopes and expectations in terms of democratic engagement. A close reading of people’s democratic practice is therefore essential in understanding how changed democratic process might realistically impact on the democratic deficit.

Fulfilling the potential of deliberative process within participatory democracy thus arguably requires a greater letting-go of control. Meaningful deliberation requires that your participation matters, that outcomes are not guaranteed. This allows democracy to be a mode of being, not a form – something we do, not something we have. It is, perhaps, the difference between deliberation as enabling informed participation, and the requirements of deliberation as imposing limits to participation.