What is it about?

Involving people in policy-making is generally a good thing. Policy-makers themselves often pay at least lip-service to the importance of giving citizens a say. In the academic literature, participatory governance has been, with some exaggeration, almost universally hailed as a panacea to all ills in Western democracies. With this article, we want to inject a dose of healthy scepticism into the debate or, more precisely, to show that there are circumstances in which public consultations will achieve anything but greater legitimacy and better policy-outcomes. We do this partly by discussing the more questionable assumptions in the participatory governance literature, and partly by examining a recent, glaring example of the misuse, and abuse, of popular input: Viktor Orban’s national consultations in Hungary. We also propose five requirements to help deciding when consultations might be appropriate: posing questions that allow for citizens’ autonomous choice; strong procedural guarantees to ensure a balanced debate and verifiable outcomes; the result to at least have the potential to settle actual policy; cost-effectiveness; and political communication that is truthful about the aims and consequences of the vote.

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Why is it important?

We want to point out that consultative and participatory instruments have an important role when the conditions are right – but only then.


The observations in this piece are about a specific example in Hungary, governed by a populist party. However, our conclusions apply to a wide range of cases. While we differentiate between referendums and consultations in the article, at least one other prominent example comes to mind: ask an inappropriate question to under- or misinformed citizens, fail to ensure a healthy public debate, leave all policy options open, waste public resources, and finally use the ‘popular will’ as an excuse. Sound familiar?

Agnes Batory
Central European University

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This page is a summary of: The Use and Abuse of Participatory Governance by Populist Governments, Policy & Politics, April 2019, Policy Press, DOI: 10.1332/030557319x15487805848586.
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