Between radical aspirations and pragmatic challenges: Institutionalising participatory governance in Scotland

Oliver Escobar*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Participatory forms of governance are increasingly institutionalised in democracies around the world. Yet, we know surprisingly little about how public officials go about embedding participatory governance. This article draws on a decade of mixed methods research to share insights from the perspective of official public engagement practitioners working the frontlines of democratic innovation. Scotland is undergoing a period of democratic renewal resulting from the interplay between state and civil society initiatives around three policy agendas: public service reform, social justice and community empowerment. National legislation mandates local authorities to develop cross-sector partnerships, involving citizens and communities, through myriad participatory and deliberative processes. Scotland thus offers a fruitful site to study participatory governance and the agents working on its development. The analysis illuminates the tensions between radical aspirations and pragmatic challenges that emerge during the institutionalisation of participatory governance. Exploring the participatory activism of officials shows the liminal quality of institutionalisation processes, which troubles simplistic narratives about empowerment versus co-optation. The paper concludes that there has been significant but limited progress for participatory governance in Scotland. This is still work in progress, however, as activist officials across the country are finding ways of turning radical aspiration into critical pragmatism.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCritical Policy Studies
Early online date16 Dec 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Dec 2021


  • participatory governance
  • democratic innovation
  • practitioners
  • institutionalization
  • policy workers
  • mixed methods
  • public officials
  • social justice


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