Participation vs representation: Councillor attitudes towards citizen engagement

Read online Plain text Epub Kindle .mobi PDF Data

Alex Parsons, Rebecca Rumbul

Citizen participation can be used by local and national public bodies to improve the quality, relevance and legitimacy of policies and services. The political backdrop to uses of citizen participation shapes the form and likelihood of success of the exercise, as elected decision makers can influence the result through decisions around the scope of the exercise, as well as less subtly through the ability to selectively accept or reject recommendations.

Using a survey of local councillors, this research explores how their awareness and perceptions of citizen participation is affected by political party or political situation. This includes a councillor's personal partisan identity, but also the political balance of the council. The survey identified partisan and structural factors that shape the perceptions of local representatives of citizen participation. Our findings include:

  • Councillors have diverse views toward citizen participation, with some supportive of more weight being put on this form of decision-making, while others arguing that if decisions are made by elected councillors there is someone to hold accountable.
  • Councillor awareness and support for these methods increase if a participatory exercise has previously taken place in the area.
  • There were high levels of acceptance of participatory processes being run by the current leadership of a council (86%), with this remaining quite high (76%) among councillors currently not part of a council majority.
  • 56% of councillors would give greater weight to their own views than the results of the process (with no details of what that process had been). This is higher in areas where there is no overall control, where 59% would give greater weight to exercise results.
  • Very few councillors favour approaches where the result is authoritative or binding.
  • Every policy area except Children's Social Care had over 50% acceptance that a participatory exercise could be appropriate. Programmes related to environment and cultural programmes rated highly, while programmes concerning social care scored lower. For all categories except planning and public health, councillors rated these activities as more appropriate if their council had previously engaged in such an exercise.

These findings show that councillors make personal evaluations of participatory exercises based on a mix of political and practical factors. While there is a tension between participatory and representative democratic structures, in practice this tension can lead to a variety of outcomes. Predicting the success or failure of future efforts in community participation requires understanding about how this tension affects not only the form of deliberative exercises, but how results will be interpreted and implemented.


  1. Summary
  2. Introduction
  3. Background
    1. Local councillors
    2. Deliberation, participation and representation
    3. Political circumstance
    4. Elite reaction
  4. Research questions and methodology
  5. Survey analysis
    1. Awareness of different activities
    2. Appropriateness of use for different policy areas
    3. Which aspects are more important to the process?
    4. Interactions with political circumstances
    5. The role of councillors
  6. Conclusion
  7. Discussion
  8. About mySociety
  9. About Public Square
  10. Creative Commons
  11. References

Related Items:

Research newsletter

Sign up to our mailing list for updates about new publications and events.

Cite this

Parsons, A. and Rumbul, R. (2021). Participation vs representation: Councillor attitudes towards citizen engagement. [online] mySociety Research. Available at: [Accessed 27 Nov 2021].