Understanding participation and power within collaborative processes: Jointly involving staff and citizens in changing public services

  • Michelle Farr

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This study assesses the extent to which employees and users of public services can develop collaborative partnerships that promote person-centred services within institutions. Both citizen and worker participation are currently advocated as a means to develop public services, yet academically they have been studied within distinctive disciplines. Drawing together different theories of participation alongside the analysis of the concepts and practices of co-production, co-design and co-creation, this thesis establishes an analytic framework, termed co-participation to explore processes of collaboration between public service staff and users. This framework then informs the analysis of two case studies in local government and the health service where both staff and service users are involved together in developing person-centred services. This empirical work is supplemented by expert interviews with people who have worked in a number of different collaborative projects, alongside a realist synthesis of other similar cases. Using a critical realist approach and retroductive analysis this study explores how agents act within their institutional and policy contexts, assessing the extent to which their actions can instigate changes through institutionally designed participatory projects. It is found that the projects facilitated processes of reflexivity and intersubjectivity which promoted a sense of embedded collectivism within institutional contexts. The projects enabled agents to make many localised changes which positively impacted people’s lived experiences. Collectivities and networks were developed, yet these operated within dominant hierarchies and could be limited by their structural and cultural environments. Wider social inequalities and power relations had an impact upon these participatory processes, although participatory processes could also be adapted to enable greater access and more equal voice. These projects and practices are analysed within the wider context of the continuing neo-liberal reform of public services, exploring how the state shapes the structural and policy context which sets situational logics and conditions of possibility for these practices.
Date of Award5 Jul 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorPeter Cressey (Supervisor)


  • participation
  • power
  • co-production
  • co-design
  • health services
  • Local government

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