Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet

Ohio State University Fact Sheet

Community Development

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Citizen Participation In Community Development



It is assumed that citizen participation is a desired and necessary part of community development activities. As Spiegel notes, "Citizen participation is the process that can meaningfully tie programs to people" (1968). It is the intent of this booklet to view citizen participation from the perspective of volunteer community development groups, organized to provide the structure for citizens to become involved in community betterment activities.

Citizen participation in community decision-making can be traced as far back as Plato's Republic. Plato's concepts of freedom of speech, assembly, voting, and equal representation have evolved through the years to form basic pillars upon which the United States was established. Citizen participation is the essence of democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America, observed nearly 175 years ago:

"Americans of all ages, all conditions, and dispositions constantly form associations.... The Americans make associations to give entertainment, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse boots, to send missionaries.... I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and inducing them voluntarily to pursue it. "

Volunteer citizen participation continues to be one of the key concepts in American society. Some historians support the notion that Americans have always wanted to be part of decisions affecting their lives. Jackson (1962) and Billington (1974), contend that freedom and the right to make decisions on the early American frontier was the shaping force in grass roots democracy, i.e., people's right to participate.

The town assembly, an American tradition, was also an early contributor to citizen participation. The town assembly was unique because all of the citizens in the community got together to decide on issues. Citizen participation was first used in Plymouth and Jamestown, but soon spread west as new settlements were established.

In time, many of these frontier villages began to grow and expand, both numerically and economically. This made it increasingly difficult for every citizen to actively participate in all community decisions. To fill this void in the decision making process, people began to delegate their involvement to a representative, either directly or through a community group. Examples of this delegation were seen in the establishment of our system of selecting officials by public elections, and the increase of volunteer associations and organizations. Bellah et al. (p. 283) asks the questions:

How does one explain groups concerned with interests of the public good ? What could lead such individuals to sacrifice their self interests to the public good and consciously link their destinies to those of their ancestors, contemporaries, and descendants?

In spite of the fact that direct citizen participation has declined, ample opportunities exist in most communities for citizens to get involved in their community's destiny. This booklet is designed to help community leaders and organizational specialists understand:

  1. The importance of participation.
  2. The conditions under which citizens will participate
  3. The approaches to involving citizens in community improvement programs and projects.

Citizen Participation

Citizen participation can be approached or defined in many ways. A citizen participates in community affairs when one pays taxes or obeys the law. This discussion is concerned with voluntary participation in betterment issues that involve community decision-making. Since involvement varies, a five point scale, pictorially shown as an inverted pyramid, visualizes the different participation levels.

Hyman and Wright (1971) estimate that over 40 percent of the population are engaged in volunteer activities during a given year. A recent survey of retired persons found 33 percent of the population over 55 years of age were involved in volunteer work (AARP 1984, Passewitz & Donnermeyer 1989). Despite these seemingly low numbers, volunteerism is regarded as a characteristic that distinguishes American society (Passewitz & Donnermeyer 1989). Volunteer rates of U.S. citizens compared to other countries vary sizably. Hyman and Wright (1971) theorize that Americans maybe more prone to volunteer memberships than other national groups (43%). Curtis (1971)compared the U.S. volunteer rate to other countries and found sizable differences: 34% for West Germany; 33% for Great Britain; 25% for Italy; and 15% for Mexico.

People become involved in community affairs only when certain conditions are present or deficiencies are noted (Wade 1989, Christensen and Robinson 1980).

The Importance of Citizen Participation

Citizen participation can be viewed from the perspective of benefits to be gained and costs to be borne. Implicit in this "penchant for getting involved" is the notion of the relationship between self and society (Bellah et al. 1985). Involvement on volunteer groups is an important science for individuals definitions of self esteem and self identity in American society (Dresbach 1992, Passewitz 1991).

Volunteer groups function as links between individuals and larger societal structures (Bellah et al. 1985, Kornhauser 1959). What are the benefits to the average citizen? Bridges (1974) cites five advantages to be gained from active participation in community affairs:

  1. The citizen can bring about desired change by expressing one's desire, either individually or through a community group.
  2. The individual learns how to make desired changes.
  3. The citizen learns to understand and appreciate the individual needs and interests of all community groups.
  4. The citizen learns how to resolve conflicting interests for the general welfare of the group.
  5. The individual begins to understand group dynamics as it applies to mixed groups.

Heberlein (1976) notes that public involvement results in better decisions. He argues that community decisions that involve citizens are more likely to be acceptable to the local people. Better community decisions, by definition, should be beneficial to the average citizen.

Citizen participation in community affairs serves to check and balance political activities. Participation allows fuller access to benefits of a democratic society (Wade 1989). Partisan political favors, pork barreling, and nepotism are negative examples of unchecked political behavior. A cross section of citizen participation in the decision-making process reduces the likelihood of community leaders making self-serving decisions.

Cahn and Camper (1968) suggest there are three rationales for citizen participation. First, they suggest that merely knowing that one can participate promotes dignity and self-sufficiency within the individual. Second, it taps the energies and resources of individual citizens within the community. Finally, citizen participation provides a source of special insight, information, knowledge, and experience, which contributes to the soundness of community solutions. The result is an emphasis on problem solving to eliminate deficiencies in the community (Christensen & Robinson 1980).

Cook (1975) notes that citizen participation can legitimize a program, its plans, actions, and leadership. To legitimize can often mean the difference between success and failure of community efforts. Unsupported leaders often become discouraged and drop activities that are potentially beneficial to community residents. Voluntary participation can also reduce the cost for personnel needed to carry out many of the duties associated with community action. Without this support, scores of worthwhile projects would never be achieved in many communities.

Additional reasons could be cited to emphasize why citizens should participate in community decisions. However, the case is rested with these. In summary, decision making that is delegated by others will not always be in the best interest of an individual and his or her neighbors. Community betterment is a product of citizen involvement.

Conditions of Citizen Participation

The concept of volunteering is widespread in American society. Five principles of citizen participation describe conditions that tend to encourage people to volunteer.

An Appropriate Organization

The discussion on benefits is based on the idea that a community organizational mechanism exists in which citizens can voluntarily participate. Sometimes this is the case. However, in many situations, there is no group available for a citizen to join and so become involved in the decision making process.

Citizen participation can be facilitated with an appropriate organizational structure. Sills (1966) notes that voluntary health associations were faced with the dilemma of excluding volunteer groups in the past. Health related activities were often carried out by professionals with employment status, rather than by volunteers. This example stresses the need for organizational structures appropriate for citizen participation.

Most citizens are only partially involved in a particular community interest area. They often feel incompetent to organize a community citizens' response unless the reasons are compelling to their community's interest. Thus, citizens will voluntarily participate in a community activity when they have an appropriate organizational structure available to them for expressing their interests. If they view the organization as cumbersome, time consuming, dictatorial, or grossly inefficient, they will not join, will withdraw after joining, or their dissatisfaction may be evidenced by high absenteeism, or a general unwillingness to be supportive or cooperative.

It should be noted that all community organizations will not get similar responses from citizens. Groups or organizations that exist over time develop behavior patterns that may or may not be conducive to open participation. Written or verbal expressions may speak of their willingness for participation. But, their behavior may be interpreted to the contrary.

By the same token, persons with stained reputations (dishonesty, questionable dealings, etc.) may have equal difficulty organizing a community-wide development group. Creditability is necessary for successful citizen participation.

Benefits To Be Gained

A former Extension community development agent, tells of an incident that illustrates a reason for citizen participation. Ms. Weber, owner of a local supply store, stood out in front of her establishment every morning, greeting passers-by until she had her first customer. Each morning on the way to the office, the agent was greeted by Ms. Weber. He didn't know Ms. Weber well, as the store owner was not active in community affairs. But, he saw her daily. On the way to work one morning, Ms. Weber approached the agent by asking, "You are associated with the county development committee, aren't you?" The agent answered that he was, and the store owner told of reading about the potential development of recreational facilities and tourist attractions in the county. The store owner was enthusiastic about what ought to be done and wanted the agent to convey her ideas to the committee. However, the agent persuaded her that it was impossible to reflect her ideas as accurately and with as much conviction as she herself demonstrated. The agent agreed to ask the committee to invite Ms. Weber to their next meeting to explain her ideas.

Ms. Weber became one of the committee's most active members. She worked vigorously to accomplish the group's goals because she believed they contributed to the betterment of the community. The principle illustrated in the event is: Citizens will voluntarily participate in a community activity when they see positive benefits to be gained.

The benefits can be of infinite variety. They can range from personal wants to desired ends sought by a group. They can be economic in nature or might include an activity to improve the morals of community residents. The key point is that people must view an activity, a proposed change, or an issue as beneficial (Blau 1964, Homans 1974, Coser & Rosenburg 1970).

Benefits, however, seldom come without costs, and a citizen usually participates when one sees the benefits will outweigh the costs (Blau 1964, Vanderwyst 1975). Costs can be personal or may be geared to a group to which one belongs. They involve such things as time, money, skills, hostility, loss of friends, shunning, and prestige. Using their own scale of values, citizens determine whether or not they will participate (Homans 1974). Many times, there are costs for not participating, as well as for being active. This, too, is a part of the trade-off each citizen must consider in deciding when and how to participate in one's community's decisions (Blau 1964, Emerson 1976, Kullberg 1977, Turner 1975).

Way-of-Life Threatened

Situations that may threaten people's life styles may elicit citizen participation. This is particularly true of issues that have particular impact on a community, such as the construction of a dam, the location of a solid waste facility, consolidation of schools, or the establishment of zoning ordinances.

Whether people's perceptions are accurate or inaccurate makes little difference. If they perceive to be threatened, they often organize volunteer groups to counter efforts to establish changes. This is citizen participation, and it is often spontaneous and extensive. Citizen participation can be on either or both sides of an issue. The principle involved is stated as follows: Citizens will voluntarily participate in a community activity when they see some aspect of their way-of-life threatened.

Threatening issues often seem morally, socially, economically, religiously, others unacceptable to a group. All of these issues are perceived as threatening by local citizens and therefore, citizen participation has been extensive.


Citizens frequently participate because they feel an obligation/commitment to respond (Babchuk and Booth 1969, Kreps and Donnermeyer 1987, Dresbach 1992). Passewitz and Donnermeyer (1989) state that "altruism is rarely sufficient by itself to sustain motivation for joining and remaining involved in volunteer associations." Their personal values compel them to support a particular activity.

Schools have traditionally been such an issue. Education is highly valued in American society. Research has shown that people who value education feel highly obligated to support reasonable activity relative to schools. (Phillips 1966) Many charities and youth organizations rely on this motive to gain support for their causes. This type of behavior may be summarized in the following generalization: Citizens will voluntarily participate in a community activity when they feel obligated to be supportive of that activity. Sills (1966), in a study of why people volunteer, found obligation to be a key factor

"In fact, it is generally difficult to persuade people to take any specific course of action, including joining a voluntary association, unless they view this action as a necessary component of the proper fulfillment of some role obligation.

Sills (1966) found that only 10 percent of the volunteers joined a particular group without a specific invitation. Fifty two percent of the volunteers were contacted by someone they knew personally. Twenty percent were contacted by someone from their community, while 18 percent were contacted by an organizational or occupational colleague. In essence, get a friend or a colleague to ask a person to join a group and you will often get a new member.

Better Knowledge

People are reluctant to participate in community activity when they do not have enough information to act responsibly. Issues such as fluoridation of water supplies or the establishment of nuclear power plants require knowledge that many people do not have. They simply do not know how to act. Thus, they will avoid participation as long as possible or until they have what they believe to be sufficient information. If forced, they will usually act negatively. This participatory action may be generalized as follows: Citizens will voluntarily participate in a community activity when they have better knowledge of an issue or situation.

It is not uncommon for leaders and professionals to spend months or even years, studying or debating an issue or complex problem. After forming what they consider to be a reasonable solution, it is thrust upon the citizens of a community with the expectation that they should immediately act upon it. Understanding does not come from information or knowledge alone. It comes from weighing information against previous knowledge and experience, as well as analyzing one's perception of the situation. People will act only after they have time to think about and discuss an issue.

Again, they will participate responsibly in community affairs if they understand the issue. When they do not understand, citizens act on limited information and opposition will occur. Wulflhorst and Mancl (1990) summarized a sewage facility controversy in Pennsylvania. The sewage facility controversy stemmed from perceived lack of input from the public during the decision-making process:

"The need for an area-wide sewer project was not clear. While the...public health survey showed failing septic systems in one small area,...the rest of the service area was not examined. If the problems were limited,...was it necessary to provide sewer service over the remainder of the area ? Could the existing septic systems be repaired or were other on-site alternatives available? These questions were not explored.

"The lack of consideration of alternatives for the area was an important oversight. From the beginning, a regional treatment plant was the only system considered. As costs began to escalate, the community responded by seeking more grant funds. Only once was the scale of the project reduced to eliminate 34 customers.

"Most important was the lack of public involvement in the decision-making portion of this project. The survey indicated that only 1.4% of those surveyed voiced an opinion at a public meeting. The public was informed and given an opportunity to comment. However, by the time the first public meeting was held, an engineer had been retained and the plans already developed. The response to the lack of public involvement in decision making was exhibited by the formation of two protest groups and some property owners' resistance to the granting of easements for sewer construction, resulting in property condemnation."

One of the recommendations from this study was that an organized effort to obtain input from citizens of the community at a very early stage be implemented and maintained.

Comfortable in the Group

Participating as a member of a community development group may present a variety of obstacles. Some of these invisible blocks make potential participants uncomfortable. Wright and Hyman (1966) examined data from two surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. Their findings note that membership in voluntary associations is not a characteristic of most Americans.

Membership is directly related to socio economic status (Lane 1959, Milbrath 1965, Defee et al. 1974, Harry et al. 1969, 1971, Stern and Noe 1973, Kelbert 1980, Passewitz 1991, Dresbach 1992). People with lower incomes, less education, less occupation status, and lower levels of living are less likely to participate in voluntary associations than persons of higher brackets. Defee et al. (1974) concluded that participation in organizations was disproportional to the upper occupational categories.

These differences are reflected in values, expectations, and life styles. As a rule, the differences tend to make people uncomfortable. Stated positively: Citizens will voluntarily participate in a community activity when they feel comfortable in the group.

Murray et. al. (1954) identifies "fear" as a condition that undermines citizen participation. Three conditions, associated with fear, often cause people to feel uncomfortable in group activities. First, they sometimes feel inferior. This is a fear of exposing one's ignorance, whether real or imaginary. Most people feel inferior under certain circumstances. The high value placed on education in this society sometimes causes people with less educational achievement to feel inferior.

Second, a newly organized group often attracts people of diverse backgrounds, experience, and training. While this diversity is often a good thing, it nevertheless casts people into unfamiliar roles and situations. Familiar situations make most people happy. Thus, when one cannot predict what is likely to occur, the volunteer usually experiences anxiety (fear of the unknown).

Finally, marked differences in style of dress and language bring apprehension and a fear of being ridiculed. If the differences are great enough, they may result in a loss of participation.

Facilitating Citizen Participation

The foregoing discussion does not exhaust the possible conditions which stimulate or impede participation in voluntary community development groups and activities. However, insight for increasing citizen involvement is suggested.

Citizen participation can be facilitated by stressing the benefits to be gained. This will work only so long then the benefits must become obvious. The intangible benefits as well as the tangible should be emphasized. These are frequently omitted and are, by far, the true gains of community action.

Citizen participation can be facilitated with an appropriate organizational structure available for expressing interest. This may require organizing a more neutral group than may be in existence in a community. However, in some situations, existing groups are adequate. Situation judgment is required by persons with appropriate experience and competency.

Citizen participation can be facilitated by helping citizens find positive ways to respond when their way-of life is threatened. Most people want to act responsibly. Use these situations to help people find positive ways to deal with threatening predicaments.

Citizen participation can be facilitated by stressing the commitment or obligation each of us have toward improving the community. However, people will not continue to participate unless the experience is rewarding, or at least not too distasteful.

Crisis situations have long been successfully used as a basis for gaining citizen participation. Crises should not be invented but, if they exist, they become powerful motivation. The closing of a major plant, closing of a school, loss of train service, and a major drug problem are examples of threats to a people's way-of-life that have served as rallying points for citizen participation.

The most positive of all approaches to facilitate greater participation is to provide citizens with better knowledge. Obviously, the knowledge has to be in their value system. When it is, experience shows they usually act accordingly. Adequate time and means of diffusing the new knowledge must be employed for satisfactory results.

Helping new or potential volunteers feel comfortable with the group probably has the greatest potential for getting and keeping citizens in community development work. This aspect is often overlooked because people are reluctant to say why they are uncomfortable. Reasons often given are that they are too busy or don't have time. But, they really are uncomfortable with the group. Careful consideration of these problems can greatly reduce these concerns.


Citizen participation in community betterment organizations and projects doesn't usually occur by chance alone. It happens because certain principles of organization are observed at an acceptable level to the participants. Six major principles were discussed:

Citizens will voluntarily participate in a community activity when they:

Further, citizen participation can be improved by:


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