To Make Both Ends Meet: A Comparison of Two Paradigms of Public Participation


In the discussion of public participation, two paradigms pay particular attention to the elaboration of rationality. The first is Mancur Olson’s rational choice theory and the second is what Judith Innes calls ‘the emerging paradigm of planning’, the communicative planning theory. Olson argues that people tend not to participate in the decision-making of public goods without external inducements and they choose not to do so probably for practical reasons, rather than because of normative considerations. Rational choice theory sees participation as a preference aggregation process, in which participant is regarded as utility maximiser who makes decision in accordance with a cost/benefit calculation. Olson’s logic of collective action and the phenomenon of the ‘free-rider’ demonstrate that the summation of individual preferences may prove to be harmful for the individuals as a whole. As a result, rational choice theory is best described as the pathology of public participation and provides answers to the common phenomenon, indifference. On the other hand, communicative planning theorists regard participation as a process of communication, where participants deliberate via a social learning process. Compared with the aggregation of individual preferences, communicative planning stresses the importance of group dynamic and it argues that participation should be interactive and socially constructed. The result of communicative participation should therefore be a legitimate and optimal consensus. The two theories make an interesting antithesis: the explanation of rational choice theory ends with when participation begins and provides no description of how participants interact with each other, while the rationale of communicative planning theory only begins with where rational choice theory ends and it cannot explain why people decide to participate. As a result, the former may only present a pathology of participation and the latter may present a bounded rationality and circular argument. The two theories happen to be inter-supplementary to each other. An infusion of the two will be very thought-provoking and is worth further elaboration. However, the paper will focus on the dialectical relationship of the two theories. Major attention will be paid to the discussion of the new paradigm of planning. The author points out that the reflection of publicness will play a significant part to improve the new paradigm for public participation in

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@inproceedings{Tang2003ToMB, title={To Make Both Ends Meet: A Comparison of Two Paradigms of Public Participation}, author={F. J. Tang}, year={2003} }