Panel Paper: Improving Representation In Participatory Processes: What Does It Mean to Be A “Good” Representative?

Thursday, November 8, 2012 : 10:15 AM
Pratt B (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Theresa Anasti, Jennifer Mosley and Colleen Grogan, University of Chicago

Public participatory processes, such as community boards or task forces, are considered to be essential mechanisms through which affected communities can provide input on current or future government policies.  Nonprofit community-based organizations (CBOs) and religious congregations are often assumed to have good knowledge of community needs and thus are frequently chosen to represent the community in these processes.  However, little is known about whether these organizations carry out representation in a democratically legitimate way, e.g., one that accurately reflects community concerns.  For example, organizations may differ in the extent to which they actively communicate with residents about community needs and preferences and the manner by which the organization presents these concerns to government decision-makers. 

To help understand the representative role of these non-elected representatives, we addressed two research questions: (1) How do nonprofit and religious leaders conceptualize their representative role in public participatory processes? (2) How do different conceptions of what is “good” representation influence how they carry out representative activities?

A census of nonresidential establishments was used to identify the population of CBOs and congregations in three contiguous low-income communities in the South Side of Chicago.  From this population, we conducted 76 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with organizational leaders; the response rate was 60%.  Site visits showed that non-responders are predominantly low capacity organizations with little probability of playing a representative role.  Interviews were recorded and transcribed, and data was analyzed using NVIVO software.  Thematic analysis was the primary analytic approach.

Findings demonstrated that 92 percent of leaders were involved in some kind of representative activity.  However, representatives differed in their view of whom they actually represented.  Most religious leaders believed they were only responsible for voicing the needs of their congregation, while most CBO leaders believed they were obligated to articulate the concerns of the entire community. Leaders’ perceived representative role is related to their opinions about “good” representation, in which two models emerged: first, a delegate model, where ongoing communication with residents is believed to be vital for representation to be legitimate, and second, a trustee model, where firsthand experience in the community is believed to be of primary importance. CBO leaders typically subscribed to the delegate model, and thus were more apt to facilitate a collective approach to decision-making, gathering input from residents that they utilized to inform policymaking.  Religious leaders were more likely to prefer the trustee model, believing that firsthand experience in the community provided sufficient knowledge to understand community concerns and make decisions without directly engaging residents. 

For participatory processes to lead to effective public policy and foster a healthy civil society, CBOs and congregations must provide legitimate representation of the residents they serve.  Our findings suggest one cannot assume that representatives are in frequent communication with neighborhood residents, and may differ in the degree to which they can effectively represent the community.  As a result, government officials and other key stakeholders should look at the mechanisms by which organizations choose to represent residents when deciding who should be involved in participatory processes.