Public Value and Participation: A Literature Review for the Scottish Government

This paper provides a brief account of the theory of public value and outlines how public participation can contribute to the process of authorising what public managers do, establishing priorities and decision making and measuring the performance of public organisations.


This paper is aimed at public sector managers, policymakers and other stakeholders interested in increasing the democratic legitimacy of government and bringing public services closer to the citizens they serve. It provides a brief account of the theory of public value and outlines how public participation can contribute to the process of 'authorising' and legitimising what public managers do, establishing priorities and decision making, and measuring the performance of public organisations.

Public value theory has emerged in a context where consulting, engaging, involving or giving 'voice' to the public and to users of public services has become a near-ubiquitous term in policymaking over recent years. Against this background, the aim of this report is to explain how public value offers a new framework for thinking about public services and the role of public managers. Public participation is a tool for allowing public managers to identify the objectives that the public genuinely value and to engage in an ongoing process of listening, debating and responding to their interests - what is called refining public preferences. Public value is neutral about what method of participation is used: rather it focuses on placing responsiveness to the public's refined preferences at the heart of what public organisations do.

This report is based on an analysis of published articles and government reports identified using a list of key terms to search IDOX and other relevant databases, official websites and search engines. Participatory activities ranging from providing information to more deliberative forms of engagement were included in the search, although online engagement (about which there is a substantive literature) was deliberately excluded to limit the size of the review. The findings show that the evidence base is strong on how to 'do' participation and that there is a wealth of information available to anybody seeking information on what methods to use. However, the literature is rather short on how organisations can systematically assess the outputs of participation. The main issues identified by the review are summarised below:

Defining participation and putting public value into practice

  • The term public participation can broadly be defined as all activities by which members of the public (whether defined as citizens, users or consumers) contribute to shaping the decisions taken by public organisations.
  • The purpose and methods of fostering public participation can be classified according to a scale or spectrum, with consultation at one end and more deliberative techniques on the other. Public value promotes deliberative government but is not prescriptive about which method to use.
  • A lot of participatory activity is occurring in Scotland, both at government level and within local public services. Mapping of these activities suggests that in spite of the numerous new initiatives introduced since 2000, more traditional forms of engagement, such as conducting written consultations, continue to be the preferred approach. These are being used in conjunction with newer research methods such as focus groups and opinion polling.

Drivers and enablers of participation

  • Evidence of a public appetite for participating in the design and delivery of public services is mixed, although the literature does indicate that there is some support for more radical forms of engagement, such as lay involvement on the governing boards of public services.
  • However, demand for greater participation depends on a number of factors: whether it is a local or national issue at stake; how much input is required from the public; and proof that participation will 'make a difference'.
  • The reform of public services and the structures that govern them, which often go hand in hand, are key factors in the drive to increase the number of opportunities for the public to participate in decision making, although this has not been the sole, or even the principal goal of many reforms. There is, however, debate about the extent to which tensions may arise between the introduction of greater participatory processes in policymaking and the role of elected officials.
  • Enablers of public participation include the capacity and resources of the public, social capital and the attitudes of political, managerial and civil society leaders to participation.

Costs and benefits

  • Public participation can produce demonstrable benefits to both an organisation and to citizens by ensuring that the different perspectives of those involved are heard and understood. At its best, this process generates trust and fosters greater organisational transparency and accountability.
  • Successful public participation relies as much on those in power believing that this process is a valuable part of public service management, as it does on the willingness of members of the public to engage.
  • Evaluating the costs and barriers to successful participatory activities involves weighing up many different factors and understanding the trade-offs between them. The fundamental barriers to effective participation are: a lack of clarity of purpose; inconsistent use of terminology; the risk of participation overload; the difficulties of getting organisational backing; and the issues surrounding accountability.

Engaging 'hard to reach' groups

  • Re-interpreting traditional methods of engagement (such as holding meetings in places and times convenient to participants) is a simple way of accommodating the view-point and needs of those who are hardest to reach in society.
  • Many more innovative methods have also been developed to seek their views. Whilst much has been made of the emergence of new technologies which allow for greater ease of communication between organisations and members of the public (particularly the potential of the internet to allow people to make themselves heard), some of the most innovative and effective ways of reaching the hard to reach have been demonstrated by organisations building engagement processes into how they operate.
  • Initiatives, no matter how innovative, must be appropriate to their context and strive to target all socio-economic groups in society.
  • This can be done through full consideration of all issues relating to equality, the use of appropriate resources and support, and transparency about the participatory processes.

Lessons for public managers

  • Assess the tradeoffs of putting participatory processes in place and evaluate the best method to use.
  • Identify at which stage in the policy-making process the public should be engaged and what purpose this will serve.
  • Follow the principles for good practice by: having a clear and realistic role and remit; ensuring that adequate resources are available; supporting the project with appropriate management and evaluation; building on past experience and linking the project with other policies and initiatives; building in long term sustainability.


  • Much of the literature has focused on the relative merits of different forms of engagement, offering an account of where these methods sit on the participation 'scale' and how best to 'do' participation. There are numerous case studies, often dealing with local initiatives, which show what participation can achieve.
  • However, many of the far-reaching benefits claimed for the process of public participation - such as increasing public satisfaction with services, restoring trust in public institutions and politicians, reducing the 'democratic deficit' - are unlikely to be realised unless more fundamental issues are addressed. The question of how to develop accurate and meaningful measurement is one, particularly given the need for evidence to demonstrate the link between public participation, actions and outcomes. Other factors include; ensuring that the aims of consultation are communicated clearly and consistently both to participants and internally; building in sustainability; and ensuring that new processes are integrated into existing governance structures so that deliberative and representative forms of governance are not in conflict.
  • Politicians and public managers must therefore recognise that deliberative governance is not simply a matter of 'bolting on' public participation to existing models. Public value demands a reconsideration of planning processes, the relationships between politicians and public managers and the creation of internal cultures that encourage all public servants to see the world from a citizens' perspective.
  • There is no single route map to effective public participation that achieves the twin goals of revitalising democracy and developing better, more efficient and more responsive public services. Establishing where responsibility for decision making lies between elected politicians and participatory processes is crucial.
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