top of page

Consultants as intermediaries

Planning consultants are increasingly hired to organize participatory processes for urban development projects. In the article ‘Consultants as intermediaries’ we investigate how consultants perceive their role as organizers of participatory processes. In our study we have interviewed employees of two consultancy firms in the Netherlands. We propose a typology of how consultants engage with citizens in urban development.

Consultants are often considered to be neutral actors that work to fulfill the assignments of their principals. The involvement of planning consultants in public deliberation lays bare that the dichotomy between public and private spheres in society is more and more blurred. Planning consultants (private actors) are hired to set up participation (public processes) to give citizens (private actors) influence over urban development projects (public-private partnerships). The ways in which planning consultants engage in and perceive involvement of citizens in urban development remains relatively understudied.

There is a broader trend of using private tools - such as contracts and bond financing - for public goals in urban development. Consultants are both a product and accelerator of this process. Consultants act as mediators between actors by understanding their interests and organizational contexts. They are instrumental in combining public and private law and weaving together law and policy, because they have the ability to break through institutional boundaries. The increased involvement of consultants in urban politics can be linked to the images of an unresponsive bureaucratic government versus efficient market actors. Consultants work in different contexts and are therefore able to quickly disseminate new ideas and innovations.

However, as with all mediators, they change the processes in which they are involved. As prior research by Grijzen (2010), Prince (20120, Raco (2016) and Vogelpohl (2018) have shown, public authorities are becoming increasingly dependent on consultants. Public authorities hire consultants, public authorities have less practical and strategic knowledge about how to solve urban problems. This makes public authorities more dependent on consultants. In our research we investigated how consultants see their role vis-à-vis citizens in urban development processes. This gives insight in how consultants are changing public outreach.

In our article we propose three types of consultants; the citizen empowerer, the proceduralist and the balancer. The citizen empowerer sees its role as giving citizens as much influence over the development project as possible. In their perceptions, the involvement of citizens improves the quality of development projects. Moreover, it’s the right thing to do. The proceduralist aims to follow the legal and regulatory rules for participation. They do not aim to give citizens more influence than is prescribed. The proceduralist believes that some citizens tend to dominate participatory processes. Following regulations prevents them from having outsized influence over development projects. Finally, the balancer attempts to balance all the interest of actors involved in the project. Citizens should be involved, but shouldn’t be privileged above the interests of other actors.

There are obvious limitations of our study – we focused on interviewing consultants – but our research suggests that the increased involvement of consultants in the organization of participation does not necessarily lead to less influence of citizens. The research also shows that consultants are not neutral actors. They are own perceptions about what the role of citizens should be in development processes influences how they organize participation.

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page