It is widely argued that increased community participation in government decision- making produces many important benefits. Dissent is rare: It is difficult to envision anything but positive outcomes from citizens joining the policy process, collaborating with others, and reaching consensus to bring about positive social and environmental change. This article, motivated by contextual problems encountered in a participatory watershed management initiative, reviews the citizen participation literature and analyzes key considerations in determining whether community participation is an effective policy-making tool. We list conditions under which community participation may be costly and ineffective and when it can thrive and produce the greatest gains in effective citizen governance. From the detritus of an unsuccessful citizen-participation effort, we arrive at a more-informed approach to guide policy makers in choosing a decision-making process that is appropriate for a community’s particular needs.
The article first explores the potentially wide-ranging benefits of enhanced community participation. Drawbacks to community participation are evaluated next, including a brief discussion of relative costs of citizen participation versus representational decision-making. We then describe an attempt to incorporate community participation in a management program for a degraded urban watershed, and note the characteristics that made this project unusually challenging. We highlight place-based characteristics that serve as predictors for success or failure of community participation programs. In effect, we take a step back from the ‘how-to’ literature to determine ‘whether-to’ at all.