PARTICIPATORY ASSESSMENT AND THE POLICY FORMULATION PROCESS
In typologies of participatory tools (for example, van Asselt and Rijkens-Klomp 2002; Rowe and Frewer 2005), one theme has returned over time, which can probably be best labelled as 'opening-up' versus 'closing down' (Stirling 2008). This theme relates to the critical features of political rationality: differentiation and unification (Diesing 1962). Differentiation relates to problem structuring, that is, collecting as much (contradictory) information as possible on the issue at stake, and therefore requires a maximum degree of participation. Unification relates to choosing an intervention perspective based on at least part of the information available. Policy formulation heuristics normally echo this distinction in that they identify distinct stages. The first stages, namely agenda setting and problem conceptualization, normally show a degree of differentiation, whereas later in the process of policy formulation unification becomes prominent, especially through the ranking of policy alternatives and the final decision. However, neither in reality nor for Diesing (1962) is policy formulation a linear process, because differentiation and unification are in constant tension. Table 2.1 presents a simple four-stage model of policy formulation leading to decision making in the left-hand column and in the right-hand column a four-step model of participatory methodology. We pragmatically assume that both models are compatible, and that each step of the participatory methodology precedes, or provides input to, the related stage of the policy formulation process.
The decision heuristic works toward a final decision, narrowing down step-by-step the scope and focus of the issue under consideration (moving from differentiation to unification). As Table 2.1 also shows, each step in policy formulation allows for differentiation but is simultaneously aimed at reaching some form of unification. Stage 1 concludes with a
Table 2.1 A comparison of the different stages in the policy formulation process and the main steps in participatory methodology
conceptualization of the problem, stage 2 with a choice of policy objectives and stage 3 with a ranking of alternatives. Hence, Table 2.1 emphasizes the persistent tension between the two basic features of political rationality. The same is true for the steps in participatory assessment. In the course of the policy process, participatory assessment tools and methods are capable of opening-up to the extent allowed for by the constraints set in previous stages. The range of alternatives to be explored in stage 3 is highly dependent on the range of policy objectives specified in stage 2. And the range of policy objectives considered is constrained by the problem conceptualization in stage 1. The problem conceptualization, in turn, is largely dependent on the variety of stakeholders and perspectives identified.
The extent to which each step is covered by participatory methods and tools varies. A wide range of methods and tools is available that supports the articulation of perspectives (step 2) and the appraisal of alternative policy options (step 3). Notably few tools, however, focus on synthesis and follow-up, which suggests that participatory tools and methods are used mainly to open up policy appraisal (Stirling 2008) or, in the words of Diesing (1962), aim at differentiation rather than unification.