Gaventa, J. (2004). Towards participatory governance: Assessing the transformative possibilities. In S. Hickey & G. Mohan (Eds.), Participation–From Tyranny to Transformation?: Exploring New Approaches to Participation in Development. Zed Books.

Beyond more opportunities to participate, Gaventa argues that we need to examine power relations that surround and imbue new democratic spaces for participation. People, especially the poor, increasingly find the state unaccountable, unresponsive. Some pose a tension between building a more vibrant and active civil society through processes of citizen participation on the one hand, and strengthening government institutions to be more accountable and responsive on the other. Gaventa believes that the solution is found in analyzing the space between these mutually supportive technocratic and anarcho-communicative visions.

In bringing the development literature with the political science literature, the field has begun to advocate for participatory citizenship. Newer approaches have moved to “recast citizenship as practice rather than given” (Gaventa, 2004, p. 29). By bringing the concept of participation into citizenship, it reframes participation as of right, that the exercise of one’s right to participate is a prior right in order to make other rights real. By making political participation a social and economic right, it politicizes participation by recasting citizens as agents in social and economic life.

Research has yielded evidence that projects in democratic decentralization often ends up  empowering local elites, and less so of the marginalized. Conversely, projects in democratic local governance has yielded greater gains in cross-cutting universal services that benefit both elites as well as the poor. Heller’s research points to three enabling conditions for transformative participatory governance: strong central state capacity, a well-developed civil society, and an organized political force with strong social movement characteristics. What then are mechanisms for scaffolding societies towards these conditions if they are not yet in place? This will require research and analysis of the mechanisms that connect local participatory governance with the broader context of political, social and economic forces.

Hearing Andrea Cornwall’s assertion that “spaces for participation are not neutral,” people will feel more free to participate in spaces where they feel empowered to define and shape the space of participation. Is this a cyclical paradox? Will only those who feel empowered to define and shape that space of participation feel free to participate in the space in the first place?

Gaventa names three spaces for participation: closed, invited, and claim/created spaces. He further reminds us that the spaces exist in dynamic relationship to one another, that they are constantly opening and closing through contestation, resistance, cooptation, and transformation with one another for legitimacy. Skills and resources gained through this struggle can be brought to another space, used to open/close, or transform other spaces.  Situated in the struggle for participation in “vertical” scales, Gaventa reminds us to consider how the local and global are connected, how the drive towards participation can be approached from both orientations. A third dimension Gaventa asks us to examine deals with whether power is visible, hidden, or invisible (constituted of internalized ideologies, values, and behavior).

All of this compels us to ask what the role of representation means. When many democracies use representatives as a way to connect citizens with the structure, how can representation open up spaces of participation, using global forces based on local knowledge, and make power transparent and equitable? Gaventa urges us to consider these complex tensions as we develop more participatory forms of democratic governance or risk erecting structures that mask undemocratic systems with the language of participation.