Promises and Pitfalls of Consultative Processes in Development

AUTHORS: Constantin Manuel Bosancianu, Ana Garcia-Hernandez and Macartan Humphreys


SUMMARY: In spite of their great promise, consultative and deliberative processes may fail to reflect community preferences faithfully. This can happen either because participation and engagement in consultations is skewed, or because the leaders in charge of managing them are able to influence the proceedings. We present findings from a recently-implemented project in Kampala, Uganda, that examines the effectiveness of these processes. We find evidence of inequality in engagement and also evidence of leader influence over outcomes but that, by and large, these do not spill over to create inequalities in whose views get reflected in meeting outcomes. This suggests that, under the right conditions, consultations are a valuable conduit of popular preferences.


Citizen consultations have become ever-present in recent decades. They range from multi-country discussions on the future of the EU, to country-wide participatory budgeting exercises, all the way to small-scale community decisions on development projects in rural Afghanistan. Proponents of such fora point to many benefits. These include gains from incorporating local knowledge, greater inclusion, as well as the potential for outcomes (decisions) to more closely match local priorities. In the long term, consultations might also build trust between communities and political actors, improve accountability, and increase citizen satisfaction with political processes. When properly structured and supported, they hold the promise of a flattening of inequalities in ‘voice’ that are common across an array of conventional political activities, such as turnout in elections.

As with any political process, though, there is also an inherent potential for ‘elite capture’ (Sheely, 2015). In such an instance, the political elites that sometimes manage the process act as gatekeepers: they shape consultation processes to ensure a specific outcome is reached (or is avoided). The risk of captures raises the question of whether such processes should continue to be promoted. Findings from research currently underway in the Institutions and Political Inequality unit suggest that the answer is a cautious “yes”.

The perils of consultations

We focus on two distinct challenges to consultations. The first is that the citizens who (actively) participate are not representative of broader populations. The second is that consultative processes are captured by the authorities in charge of running them.

The risk of unequal participation. Participating in consultations requires time, interest in community issues, and skill in arguing in public for one’s preferences. These attributes are unequally distributed in a community, and typically lead to an unrepresentative sample of participants. Among those who are in attendance, the same inequalities could emerge in terms of their extent of engagement (Parthasarathy et al., 2019). Through this dual process of self-selection, the concerns that decision-makers are exposed to could likely be a skewed subset of those held by the wider community. It’s hard to know a priori whether this is the case or not. For example, the size of the gap in policy preferences between men and women varies between domains: on average, men tend to care more about infrastructure and agriculture, while women care more about health and poverty. If participants to consultations are skewed more in favor of one group, we might reasonably expect this group’s preferences to have priority in the final decision. To what extent is this the case, though?

The risk of elite capture: Even if community consultations are designed to provide a voice to citizens, there is inevitable scope for influence by state authorities. The process used to develop the Local Authority Service Delivery Action Plans (LASDAP) in Kenya is illustrative (Rose & Omolo, 2013; Sheely, 2015). Each year, from September to December, ward-level meetings allow any citizen to propose projects for their local area. These proposals are gradually aggregated upward, and pass through both a vetting and voting process before being submitted to the Ministry for Local Government. The initial meeting is organized by a civil servant who plays the role of LASDAP Desk Officer. For this, local councillors mobilize populations to participate and manage the meeting itself.[1] With this type of interaction, elites hold the reins of the process at almost every stage. They control attendance but also participation among those attending. They have the ability to steer the discussion toward favored projects, or away from inconvenient ones, or at least to alter their scope (Humphreys et al., 2006). And even if they do not attempt to exert influence, citizens might anticipate their preferences and values, and respond to what they believe leaders want to hear. The influence is by no means absolute; well-organized citizens might always overcome such advantages, and place their proposals on the agenda, overriding the preferences of leaders. Nevertheless, over multiple iterations of the process this influence ought to be visible—like in a casino, in the long run the house always wins.

Kampala’s Citizen Charter consultations

In partnership with the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA)—the executive authority that manages service delivery in Kampala—we helped organize a set of consultations to inform the creation of a “Citizens’ Charter” for the city. The Citizens’ Charter would outline clear standards of service provision that citizens can expect to receive, along with the rights and responsibilities that citizens and KCCA have in their interactions. The data collection included a set of 188 consultative meetings, organized across parishes in the city; they were intended to gauge citizens’ preferences about the Charter. From among 2,300 participants to our project, 1,500 were randomly invited to attend the meetings. About half of the meetings were randomly selected to be chaired by a KCCA employee. The rest were led by moderators from an outside organization (our implementing partners, Innovations for Poverty Action Uganda), who underwent a separate training in neutral meeting facilitation.

This structure provided a relatively controlled environment in which citizens interact with discussion leaders. Preferences of citizens and leaders were recorded through surveys before and after the meetings, while behavior indicative of engagement was observed during the meetings. All in all, the meetings provided an excellent opportunity to examine the role of both citizens and discussion leaders in shaping meeting dynamics and in influencing meeting outcomes. They afford us the chance to answer our two core questions: Is there elite capture? Are there inequalities in participation? And, in turn, we can then ask: Do these translate into inequalities in outcomes?

Chart: Promises and Pitfalls of Consultative Processes in Development
Constantin Manuel Bosancianu


We first consider inequalities in participation. We can think of participation in two ways: first, who takes part and, second, how do they take part. The Figure above shows the effect of different socio-economic characteristics on attendance and engagement in our meetings. In all, about 800 of the 1,500 citizens we invited attended, but we see no clear difference in attendance rates in the left panel between men and women, more and less educated, or native skill in Luganda (the predominant language used during meetings). We do see differences for wealth but if anything, the poor attend at higher rates than the wealthy.

When turning to how much engagement these subgroups displayed in the meetings, though, we find inequalities emerging. The right panel of the figure shows, for those attending, whether we can detect any differences in the number of times individuals spoke during the meeting. We see that more privileged participants, men, and Luganda native speakers are more active during the proceedings: they speak more often. This is concerning if we consider that such groups differ in their preferences: for example, the poor are more likely to be against higher taxes in the city compared to the wealthy.

How about elite capture? Our results also show that discussion leaders indeed exert a measure of influence on the meeting outcomes. To assess this, we compare outcomes from meetings led by the same facilitator with outcomes from meetings led by the other discussion leaders. The more similar to each other the first batch of meetings are, the stronger the indication that this is due to the identity of the leader. This comparison shows a moderate degree of influence exerted across almost all discussion topics introduced during the meetings. On a number of discussion items one can explain between a sixth and a third of the variation in meeting outcomes just by knowing who led the discussions.

Who gets what? With such consistent evidence of inequalities within citizens, and between citizens and elites, in our consultative setting, you might expect that meeting outcomes also favor specific subgroups. However, we find very limited evidence of this. For a few of our discussion topics, we uncover that outcomes are different between meetings moderated by KCCA and by facilitators recruited from outside the agency. This pattern goes no further, though. No subgroup is better able to consistently get their preferred outcome from the meetings. In other words, despite inequalities in input (who participates) and throughput (who is influential), inequalities in outputs are not strong. Though surprising, this is consistent with processes that overcome inequalities in inputs, and in which elite capture does not systematically favor one or another social group.


Our results speak to the potential that consultations hold in conveying popular preferences to decision-makers despite the presence of political inequality. Even when exerting efforts to ensure equal participation and neutral meeting facilitation, we found that inequalities could not be eliminated. But the impact of inequalities, we found, is quite modest. Though wealthier citizens speak more, for example, they are not consistently more likely to get their preferred outcome in the meetings than poorer citizens. This means that consultations such as the ones we coordinated might still be a valid and valuable conduit for popular preferences. Our research also holds a bigger lesson—one that speaks to the way in which we evaluate deviations from political equality at one stage of the political process. We frequently detect such inequalities in inputs, such as in turnout, or access to institutions. Based on this, we proceed to a logical next step: that this likely produces similar inequalities downstream. Our experience in the Charter consultations shows that this might not always be the case. Citizen preferences and actions are recorded and responded to by political actors, and dynamics at this stage might enhance or neutralize the initial disparities at the input phase. It is the interaction between these different Eastonian stages that produces final disparities in who gets what. Only by examining dynamics along the length of the process might we be well-placed to assess its degree of political inequality.


Humphreys, M., Masters, W. A., & Sandbu, M. E. (2006). The Role of Leaders in Democratic Deliberations: Results from a Field Experiment in São Tomé and Príncipe. World Politics, 58(4), 583–622.

Parthasarathy, R., Rao, V., & Palaniswamy, N. (2019). Deliberative Democracy in an Unequal World: A Text-As-Data Study of South India’s Village Assemblies. American Political Science Review, 113(3), 623–640.

Rose, J., & Omolo, A. (2013). Six Case Studies of Local Participation in Kenya. The World Bank.

Sheely, R. (2015). Mobilization, Participatory Planning Institutions, and Elite Capture: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Rural Kenya. World Development, 67, 251–266.

[1] A similar process takes place in Uganda: the barazas ( These are community meetings where politicians and civil servants argue for how money from the previous year’s budget was spent on community projects.