• White Paper

Public Participation and Local Government: An Analysis of Four U.S. Models


Linton, B. L. (1998). Public Participation and Local Government: An Analysis of Four U.S. Models.


Countries moving toward democracy are inevitably confronted with a primary question: how to encourage constructive public participation in government decisions, particularly at the local level. Governments need such public input, for example, to make sure that resources are employed where they are most wanted and needed, services are distributed equitably, and funds collected in the form of taxes and fees are properly accounted for.Often with the assistance of international donors, many of these countries have designed programs with the participation goal in mind; however, they have run across a host of problems. Difficulties range from a lack of local, experienced non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to poor or nonexistent systems for public education, to resistance of local government administrators and elected officials to opening up decision-making processes to public scrutiny.Despite such problems, can developing countries look to the U.S. for successful models of local public participation? The experience of public participation in the U.S. is complex and dynamic and, as such, defies wholesale transfer to other contexts. At the same time, the rich literature and research on the topic yield a smorgasbord of solutions, many achieved through trial and error, from which lessons can be drawn for use in program design internationally.At the local level, public participation has centered around the allocation of resources to competing groups, particularly regarding infrastructure and basic services. However, because local governments do not operate as independent entities, it is also important to consider how they are affected by changes in regional, state, and national policies and programs.This paper examines the ways in which the experience of public participation in the U.S. has evolved over the last three decades from reliance on federally-mandated legislation to more cooperative, multi-sectoral alliances. The paper reviews four models of public participation (Decentralization of Federal Grants Administration; Political Empowerment/Grassroots Organizing; Local Government as Community Development Catalyst; and Community Development Coalitions/Partnerships), and includes a comparative analysis of the four models.