participation and legitimacy

Let me begin by offering my thanks to the OrgTheory team for inviting me to guest blog!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the growth of practices, found among a variety of types of organizations, in facilitating stakeholder participation and also in encouraging the adoption of participatory (or what some call “new”)  governance structures. It seems clear that this is linked to the rise of neoliberalism (and, indeed, institutional analysis itself). While there’s much that’s appealing about facilitating participation – more accountability in organizational processes, the potential for consensual deliberative processes, devolving decision-making to the bottom in order to overcome (some of) the rigidity of bureaucracies, and the potential for more meaningful engagement – there are also serious trade-offs to consider.

Much of this discussion is well established.  Most are familiar with Fung and Wright’s (2001) argument for the benefits of thick participatory governance, which provides examples of a number of reforms: local governance councils in Chicago, participatory budgets in Brazil (see also Baiocchi 2003), and the devolution of development decisions in India. They describe these as instances of Empowered Deliberative Democracy (EDD).

Consider also that nonprofits have been picking up what’s been left behind by a number of state agencies. Non-membership organizations like think tanks, institutes, policy centers, etc. often collaborate with member-based civic groups in order to make up for what they inherently lack in grassroots participation.  Disclosure and transparent governance continue to be hot buzzwords.  Increased stakeholder participation is encouraged on both the right and the left, although for quite different reasons. And it’s not just a question of voluntary compliance for organizations, but often one of mandated public participation (especially in the public sector through environmental review boards, zoning hearings, planning commissions, etc.).

What I find most interesting about the “new governance” and the augmented stakeholder focus of organizations is not just how it spans sectors (and encourages diffusion of practices between for- and non-profit organizations and public sector agencies), or even the somewhat surprising political coalitions that tend to advocate for these practices.  Instead, what stands out for me is something often overlooked: how participation is employed strategically from the top-down, and often channels participation in directions that suit elite agendas (even if done with progressivist aims in mind). Although others have already raised concerns about the role of power in empowerment and the democratic limitations of governance beyond the state, there’s another side to it.

There are, for example, now whole industries devoted to facilitating public participation, and their clients span sectors (although individual firms and industry associations make up the majority).  I’ve written about how the massive growth of civic organizations in the late 1970s and early 80s, in combination with increasing mobilization of industry associations, influenced the founding patterns of professional grassroots lobbying firms; these are groups that, for a fee, help to mobilize public participation on behalf of a corporation, industry group, government agency, or public interest group. The growth of this organizational population, as I see it, serves as a case in which outside organizing helped to facilitate the emergence of a new organizational form. These groups have been quite active in the recent health reform debate (a topic I’ll post about later), and have had their own legitimacy called into question quite prominently lately.  Although they focus most heavily, but not exclusively, on promoting forms of “thin” participation like form e-mailing, patch-through calls, advocacy advertising, and the like, there are also other formal organizations out there that attempt to facilitate “thicker” forms of participation and deliberation for clients (Caroline Lee has been doing great work on groups like the latter).

I find this important for org theory in getting us to think not only about how participation shapes organizational legitimacy, but also how elite organizations shape social movements and civil society. Thinking about the latter, the opposite has received a lot of much-deserved attention (movements shaping organizations), but we also need to think about how organizations are reshaping their civic and political environments through facilitating participation.  Organizations often take strategic action in response to institutional pressures and, although influenced by stakeholders, also engage in efforts to mobilize them from the top down.  Whether they can do so effectively, of course, depends on whether key stakeholders are already aligned (or can be brought into line) with an organization’s agenda.  Consumers of a particular pharmaceutical who depend on it for their survival may not be too difficult to mobilize in response to legislation that, the producer says, could threaten their product or its distribution (especially when participating “costs” so little).  Employees involved in a labor dispute, when asked to write letters on behalf of the firm’s broader political interests, on the other hand… notsomuch.  And there’s still the concern that organizational political activity often comes with costs, whether in contradicting a firm’s corporate social responsibility program or in threatening a nonprofit’s tax exemption.

I’m curious to hear what others make of the trend toward facilitating participation in organizations.


Written by etwalker

November 12, 2009 at 1:07 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Interesting post Ed. How different are professional grassroots organizations from other grassroots groups? Your discussion seems to be more about consequences of the two kinds of organizations, but I want to know if they are different in form (e.g., do they organize in unique ways?).

    We know from the resource mobilization literature that most grassroots groups depend on resources from somewhere, usually more established, professional organizations. Grassroots leaders are often professional organizers (e.g., Saul Alinsky). Even if the funders are not business corporations, it’s not as if powerful organizational allies don’t come to the aid of smaller grassroots organizations when they face resource constraints. If you take all of that into account, what are the key differences between this new form you’ve identified and more traditional grassroots organizations?



    November 12, 2009 at 8:05 pm

  2. Since we live in a democratic society, some believe that our organizational practices should reflect this. But, as many have pointed out, maintaining democratic/participatory practices is not easy. One difficulty of effectively implementing participatory practices is that people need to be familiarized, trained, and coached on how to use them, as most only have firsthand experiences with hierarchy and bureaucracy.

    As I mention in my book, some workplace organizations have also undergone a similar transformation that you describe above, with the implementation of practices designed to increase worker participation (i.e, teamwork, TQM, etc.). But unlike the original collectivist/democratic organizations studied by Rothschild and others, workplace organizations implemented participatory practices with the intent of enhancing managerial control without extending ownership to workers. See, for example,

    Hackman, J. Richard, and Ruth Wageman. 1995. “Total Quality Management: Empirical, Conceptual, and Practical Issues.” Administrative Science Quarterly 40(2): 309-42.

    Rothschild, Joyce, and Marjukka Ollilainen. 1999. “Obscuring but Not Reducing Managerial Control: Does TQM Measure Up to Democracy Standards?” Economic and Industrial Democracy 20(4): 583-623.

    Vallas, Steven P. 2006. “Empowerment Redux: Structure, Agency, and the Remaking of Managerial Authority.” American Journal of Sociology 111(6): 1677-1717.

    Just also wanted to point out a recent book on social movement, grassroots organizing that relies upon participatory practices. See:
    Su, Celina. 2009. Streetwise for Book Smarts: Grassroots Organizing and Education Reform in the Bronx. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.



    November 14, 2009 at 9:24 pm

  3. Hi Brayden- great question, and one that requires a longer response. I’m going to make a separate post about this.

    Katherine- I’m quite interested in checking out your book, especially given the ties you note between this discussion and your findings about employee participation. I also enjoyed your earlier posts on orgtheory. Thanks!
    — About your normative point on democracy in organizations, I’m in agreement, and hope my post doesn’t suggest otherwise. Whether forms of participation that are facilitated from the top down do (or don’t) lead to democratic outcomes – regardless of the intentions behind them – seems to be quite conditional. The Vallas piece you cite, for example, calls further attention to the delicate and highly contingent nature of empowerment projects. My own work suggests that top down campaigns often have the benefit of increasing engagement but restricting it to a limited number of forms and issue positions.



    November 15, 2009 at 7:13 pm

  4. Thanks for the plug, Ed, and thanks for the interesting citations everyone! I notice that Grassroots Enterprise, linked in your post, has just been acquired by Edelman. When you post on Brayden’s comment, can you speak to the dynamics you are observing in the GLI right now? Have you seen any other evidence that public affairs and pr firms are trying to move in on the unique territory carved out by grassroots lobbyists?

    Incidentally, Katherine (hi!), I agree with you that “maintaining democratic/participatory practices is not easy,” but I wonder about the statement that “people need to be familiarized, trained, and coached on how to use them.” I think this has to be established empirically– especially when such a claim is also the sales pitch employed by participation consultants. I would argue that some versions of participatory practices (team-building exercises like ropes courses, e.g.) have diffused widely and are all too familiar for veterans of corporate/church/club/high school retreats, etc., so “retraining” in the participatory habitus du jour might be more like it. Not least, training and coaching invoke disciplinary intentions of the sort described in the pieces you cite, which may mitigate against their potential to produce sustained empowerment, however well-meaning their proponents or effective their short term outcomes. It is here that Ed and I– in very different contexts– start asking who is underwriting participatory solutions, for what purposes, and to what long-term effects. Incidentally, Esra Ozkan has a fascinating dissertation (MIT 2008) on executive coaching and the retraining of a “versatile self” in response to contemporary corporate volatility. It may seem far afield of the original post, but as long as we’re suggesting references on top-down participation and neoliberalism… Cheers, Caroline



    November 15, 2009 at 9:58 pm

  5. […] a comment » Last week I posted about my interest in the apparently increasing interest of many formal organizations in encouraging […]


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