Participatory assessment: tools for empowering, learning and legitimating?

Matthijs Hisschemoller and Eefje Cuppen


Since the 1960s, a large number of participatory assessment tools and methods have been developed for use in a wide variety of policy venues and fields. There are many opinions on what participatory tools are about. As will be explained, these relate in large part to ongoing debates about the goals of participation. Hence, there is no shared authoritative definition of participatory tools and this chapter has no intention of developing one. Rather pragmatically, it distinguishes between participatory methods, which refer to procedures, and participatory tools, which relate to steps in a procedure. Just as an authoritative definition of participatory assessment tools and methods is lacking, so too is consensus over the outcome they aim at. What they have in common and what makes them distinct from other (social) science methods and tools is that they assist in bringing people together at a specific location (which could include the Internet) and facilitate some sort of joint assessment (Hisschemoller 2005). Hence, the distinctive features of participatory methods and tools are that they facilitate dialogue as a way to come to grips with complex (unstructured) decision problems that cannot be addressed by scientific expertise alone. Given this definition, participatory tools overlap with some of the other policy formulation tools that also employ stakeholder involvement (for example, participatory modelling or participatory multi-criteria analysis (MCA)).

Participatory assessment needs to be distinguished from legal procedures for political participation that are mandatory in many countries and sometimes also prescribed by international law. Its use is broadly recommended and facilitated by international organizations, for example the World Bank (1996), UNHCR (2006) and the World Food Programme (2001).

Participatory assessment tools and methods are used to assist mandatory fact-finding procedures, such as social or environmental impact assessment, which inform decision makers and the public at large as to the consequences of policy choices. Much EU legislation, including for example the Water Framework Directive, assigns a key role to European citizens in the preparation of policy plans. However, participatory tools themselves are normally (see section 3) not prescribed by law.

This chapter cannot provide a complete overview of all participatory assessment tools and methods. It focuses on tools designed for facilitation of actual dialogue in a face-to-face setting. This means that the huge range of computer tools currently available for stakeholder participation is beyond its scope (but on this, see Chapter 5, this volume). This chapter is also unable to cover all venues where participatory tools are applied. Examples reflect the authors' expertise in environmental studies, but our discussion of participatory tools does have relevance well beyond this field.

Section 2 traces the various origins of participatory assessment tools and methods and discusses the basic rationales for participation. Section 3 presents a four-stage model of policy formulation and shows where participatory tools fit in. Section 4 then goes into more detail on methods and tools that are relevant for the four stages of the policy formulation process. Section 5 addresses the practice of participatory assessment. Section 6 then wraps up and concludes.

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