Citizen participation matters. Bureaucratic discretion matters more

Sarah L. Young, Kennesaw State University
James Tanner, University of North Georgia


New Public Governance theory increases citizen participation and expands bureaucrats' roles in the work of government. Citizen participation creates new mechanisms for citizens to influence the policy process. Bureaucrats' expanded roles allow for broader bureaucratic discretion over policy implementation. When citizens' and bureaucrats' views on public management decisions collide, whose views prevail? Do citizen volunteers or bureaucrats have greater influence over public decisions? We answer this question by studying the U.S. Department of Energy's initiative to engage citizens in environmental clean-up decisions. We assess 10 years of meeting records and administrative decisions using a three-step, mixed-method analysis to identify, weigh, and test the influence of citizen participation and bureaucratic discretion. The results indicate that while citizen participation matters, bureaucratic discretion has a more significant influence over administrative decision-making. The findings expose holes in New Public Governance theory, which has implications for democracy and demands deeper thought into structuring citizen participation.