In 2009, the Slovenian government launched a website called “I Suggest to the Government” (predlagam.vladi.si) to open up a new communication channel between citizens and the state and among the citizens themselves. Its aim has been:
To achieve greater participation of individuals and civil society in the forming of governmental policies and to strengthen the dialog between civil society and the state. (Vlada 2018)
Five years later, the website had 12,891 registered users, who supported 1675 citizens’ proposals, which received 1455 responses from the ministries and government services. However, only 25 proposals out of these 1455—or 1.7%—received a positive response and even fewer proposals were actually implemented (Kajtazović 2014).
The numbers illustrate the main problems with participation. First, the mechanisms that provide a possibility for citizens’ engagement are neither sufficient to achieve greater participation nor address all citizens in the same way. Second, decision-makers are not necessarily motivated to accept participation as a method for better governance nor skillful enough to respond in an efficient way. Still, the political and professional public agree that the key global problems can only be solved with the active involvement of citizens or communities (Fakin Bajec and Poljak Istenič 2013). An increasing amount of time, efforts, and resources (Horizon 2020, Interreg programs, etc.) has been thus invested either into developing participatory methods and tools to achieve shared governance, into increasing the competences of public administrations to implement participatory decision-making, or into stimulating the passive, indifferent, disengaged but also marginalized citizens to communicate with the authorities and participate in public policy processes.
Democracy has been one of the crucial domains dealing with participation. The current debates took off in 1962 with the Port Huron Statement, a call (or manifesto) for participatory democracy in which individual citizens could help make decisions that affect their lives (see Hayden 2012). The central feature of participation in this line of studies is that it is political (White 1996; Legacy 2017); however, the scope of the politics cannot be confined only to the institutional politics. It has been broadened by interest groups, social movements, civil society, and activists, leading democratic theory to incorporate the analysis of their heterogeneous and multidirectional participatory practices to explore its dimensions (Carpentier 2011).
Participatory democracy has transformative potential, as it is believed that it can ensure a more egalitarian relationship between the state and society and that it can emancipate and empower citizens for dealing with political institutions, bureaucracy, work, school, family, or other spheres of their daily lives (Pateman 1970). But with a prevalence of the representative democracy, in which participation is limited to a selection of the elite through elections, participatory democracy is still believed to be in need of evolvement—a “political project” of sorts with the aim to “deepen democracy” (Fung and Wright 2001)—and has even been labeled a “political utopia” (Bherer et al. 2016, p. 228).
One of the actions toward “deeper” democracy has been participatory planning, an approach which emphasizes community involvement in the strategic and management processes of planning and makes use of its stakeholders’ knowledge, resources, and commitment (McTague and Jakubowski 2013). Generally, the term participation in the planning or development domain is used to denote very diverse actions, from civil debate and communication, consultation and the delegation of activities, to partnerships, communal meetings, and political decentralization (Davidson et al. 2007). The prevailing goal is to reach a consensual decision, although allowing citizens to confront and challenge the project in question might prove as a more efficient planning strategy (Legacy 2017). Indeed, the people involved are not always allowed to be active participants; instead, they are often limited to a passive role of data providers or informants, sometimes even manipulated into taking part in order to legitimize a decision (Chouinard and Milley 2018). Participation can thus be twisted into a mere instrument for reinforcing domination and control (Gaventa 2004) and is, in its current forms, failing to neutralize and transform power relations (Purcell 2009). For participation to be more transformative, a shift is needed from a vision of inclusion that conceptualizes the participants as data sources, as “representation,” to one that recognizes participants as equals in terms of power, resources, and voice (Chouinard and Milley 2018). Some even advocate participation through radical counterhegemonic mobilization, as participatory models based on consensus often silence a minority, especially less privileged groups (Purcell 2009), or a “democracy without participation” where a regime would satisfy the requirements of political equality in the absence of widespread citizens’ engagement (Parvin 2018). Besides the power inequalities, participatory planning is also often criticized as insufficiently addressing institutional inertia as well as the complexity of the geographical scale, temporality, and political context (Legacy 2017).
To overcome these obstacles, the bulk of works, beginning with Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation (1969), have discussed participatory methods, techniques, or models, explaining degrees, typologies, or approaches to this phenomenon and often outlined a toolbox for participatory planning or other actions. A study from 2012 focusing on youth outlining as many as 36 participation models (Creative Commons 2012), while a study from 2016 identified 18 new models developed after 2012, or 54 altogether (Hussey 2017), indicating an accelerated search for new mechanisms to encourage more active citizenship as well as a growing diversity of the forms of citizen participation.
However, the possibility of citizens’ engagement cannot be taken as a given, even if the mechanisms are created (Gaventa 2004). To increase the use of participatory processes, it is not important to merely teach the initiators how to include people but also to inform practitioners about participatory methods and techniques (Nared et al. 2015). Some people find it easier, more beneficial, or habitual not to participate. Participation is thus often only nominal (on paper) or, at best, instrumental (not valued in itself but needed to achieve some goal, even forcedly) (White 1996). This is especially characteristic for post-socialist countries with a lack of democratic tradition (Bole et al. 2017; Poljak Istenič 2019). While it is a fact that old and young democracies both face a decline of conventional political participation (voting, contacting government officials, etc.)—and the latter also lack nonconventional (protest) political participation (demonstrations, signing of petitions, etc.)—, younger democracies (i.e., post-socialist countries) lag behind older ones with a substantially lower level of participation (in elections and other political processes including participatory planning) (Teorell et al. 2007). Besides the weak democratic consolidation in ex-socialist countries, the reason may also lie in socialization under socialism, which instilled a set of values in the population that was more concerned with social and economic equality than political freedom (Finkel et al. 2001; Neundorf 2010). The extent of weak participation or even “nonparticipation” (Greenberg 2010) is also positively correlated with economic development, which is ordinarily lower in post-socialist countries (Hafner Fink 2012).
To assess how post-socialist cities and towns encourage the involvement of their citizens into decision-making outside electoral procedures, the chapter provides an analysis of the structures, mechanisms, and specificities related to participatory planning in five municipalities from Central and Eastern Europe: the municipal district Prague 9 (Czech Republic–CZ), the Municipality of Velenje (Slovenia–SI), the Municipality of Székesfehérvár (Hungary–HU), the Municipality of Blagoevgrad (Bulgaria–BG), and the Municipality of Vaslui (Romania–RO). It is based on the self-assessment of public administrators from selected municipalities providing their identification and evaluation of the mechanisms as well as their subjective perception of participatory planning at the strategic and neighborhood level. Having in mind the issues with participatory planning outlined above, we address the following research questions: Is participation in the selected municipalities generally a top-down or bottom-up initiative? Which mechanisms are used to allow citizen participation? Do the municipalities specifically address any marginalized groups that are generally excluded from decision-making processes? What is the experience of municipalities with any previous attempts of participatory planning? Are municipal officials sufficiently qualified to implement participation?