Participatory Administration

by James Hunter, 1977.11.30

The social space we share belongs to everybody. This fact should be reflected in the manner in which we administer the organizations within which we live and work. The idea of “participatory administration” is one effort to implement this principle in practice.

An Experiment in a Program For the Developmentally Delayed

The three women who shared the bed room were adamant. They liked the pictures of Donald Duck, Minney Mouse and other Walt Disney cartoons figures on their walls. The house mother objected on the grounds that this violated the principles of normalization theory. She had taken the training. Allowing these pictures on the wall was in the same category as driving full grown men and women to and from work in yellow school buses. Such procedures advertised their differentness from the rest of the population and identified them as having the status of children rather than adults. Our program subscribed to the basic tenets of normalization theory, and for good reason. In the seventies normalization theory was one of the primary forces for the de-institutionalization of people with developmental delays. It emphasized not only getting these people out of the total institutions where they were warehoused, but also providing them with normalized opportunities for work and socialization.  Our program was in the business of de-institutionalization, and our goals were largely the same as those articulated by normalization theory. But we were also committed to enabling people to choose for themselves where and how they wanted to live. The three women clearly wanted those particular pictures on their wall. And it was their bedroom.

Conceptually the residential program of the Frederick County Association For Retarded Citizens (FCARC) stood on two legs. The first was normalization theory. The second was participatory administration. Generally this worked pretty well, but occasionally, if I may stretch the metaphor, the two legs went walking off in opposite directions. A few slightly edited pages from the Program Manual should serve to indicate what participatory administration meant in the programs run by the FCARC. I apologize in advance for the lack of inclusive language at certain points. The experiment I am describing took place in the early seventies, and inclusive language was not yet standard practice.

The Philosophy of a Participatory Administration

A participatory system of administration affirms that life in our work-a-day world should be based upon the same democratic principles that provide the foundation for the country’s political system. The same arguments that can be, and have been, leveled against our political system can, and have been, leveled against the use of similar principles in our work-life. It is too cumbersome; it will lead to anarchy; only an expert can make informed decisions, etc. These arguments did not discourage the founders of our country, nor must they dissuade us from taking up the challenge to extend these same principles into a domain where all too often authoritarian and monarchist principles still apply. Participatory principles can be implemented in our social agencies in a manner that is both practical and effective.

The principles of participatory administration that this agency attempts to implement are as follows:

1.The norms guiding the social interaction of the members of a particular group are the concern of, and under the final authority of, that group.

2. The allocation and use of the resources available to a group are the concern of, and under the final authority of, the group.

3. Decisions made by the members of a group that have serious consequences for other group members must involve all affected group members.

These three general principles have a large number of ramifications and their effective implementation becomes, at times, a complicated matter. The central thrust of the program manual is to define procedures that implement and refine these principles in a fair and balanced manner. A few of the ramifications are so central as to merit some discussion in this introduction.

First, it should be observed that the above principles have very important implications in the role definition of the Residential Director. He or she becomes primarily the guide of an orderly and participatory decision-making process rather than a decision-maker him/herself. Obviously this is not his total role. There are many decisions which s/he continues to make. Nevertheless, a truly participatory process entails a significant shift in the “center of gravity” of the role of the residential director. With the lack of training that most people have had in working in a participatory social system, the “shift in the center of gravity” is hard for any residential director to make. It is also difficult for the staff to adjust to. Resistance and stumbling can be expected on both parts. Only a real dedication to making the social life in our work-world reflect in practical ways the democratic principles upon with our country was founded can provide the needed force to carry an agency to the point at which it can implement participatory principles in an orderly and effective manner.

It is impossible to anticipate all decisions that an agency might make and say how they should be made. Decision -making on some matters (e.g. IPPs , hiring, intake, etc.) are dealt with in various places in the procedures section of this manual. This delineation of the appropriate procedures for making the most common types of decisions naturally will need ongoing refinement as the agency grows and learns.

A second important consideration is that not just the immediate members of the residential program community need to be considered. The total community, for whom the service is created and by whom it is financed, must have input. The board of directors is responsible for representing this fact. Some of this is spelled out in more detail in the section on the formation of program and policy in the agency.

A third consideration that is important to keep in mind is that the group must not violate the rights of an individual. Each individual in the program reserves the right to make decisions for himself insofar as these decisions do not adversely affect other members of the community. This last point must be modified to some extent in dealing with individuals who may be limited in their capacity to appreciate the nature of a decision. However the error of saying, “These people are retarded and therefore not capable of making decisions,” must be avoided. A judgment must be made on the basis of a particular individual’s ability to understand the basic nature and consequences of a particular decision. Only then can the type and degree of impute that person should have either on an individual decision or on a group decision be fairly determined. Under no circumstances should individuals be deprived of their right and responsibility to make their own decisions or to fully participate in the life of the community simply because they are labeled “retarded.”


The women who wanted the Walt Disney cartoons on their bedroom walls presented us with a dilemma. Normalization theory and participatory democracy seemed to be walking off in different directions.

“Maybe you could talk to them,” I suggested, “and explain that most adults do not have Walt Disney cartoons in their walls.”

“I’ve tried talking to them,” she said. “They still want those pictures.”

“A Pass evaluation would mark us down for those pictures,” I said.

She nodded. The Pass evaluation was based on Normalization theory, and was the primary means by which the state evaluated the programs it paid for. And we were financed by a state grant.

“Still,” I said, “it is their bedroom. I think they have a right to decorate it as they wish.”

And the Pass evaluation?” she asked.

“I think we’ll just have to explain to them why we made the decision we did and take the demerits” I said. “We can discuss it more in the council meeting if you want to”

No,” she said. “I think you’re right.”


In general, the principles of normalization theory and those of participatory administration proved to be quite compatible. When, for example, one of the young men in our program wanted to get a job riding on the back of a trash truck, our program supported him whole-heartedly. It was a matter both of supporting his decision, and of helping him into the mainstream of society.

The idea was opposed by the head of the sheltered work-shop – a very powerful person in our young man’s life and in the community. She pointed to the dangers of working around the heavy machinery on the back of the truck. We did not argue that he should take the job (though many of us hoped he would) but that it was his choice. He had no physical or mental limitations that would make this job more dangerous than it would be for anyone else. And he was able to understand the nature of the risks and benefits associated with his decision. It was exactly the sort of situation that Perske talked about in his influential essay, The Dignity of Risk.

Ultimately the young man decided against the job, at least in part, I am sure, because the head of the work shop was able to talk him out of it. This felt like a defeat. Still, the decision was not made for him. If he had continued to say that he wanted the job, we would have made it possible for him to apply for it. The right to choose is the right to choose something other than what we would want someone to choose.

When conflicts arose between what normalization theory would seem to prescribe and what a participatory approach led to, it was not usually a matter of absolute contradiction, but of a creative tension. The programs policy on providing for and encouraging socialization was a case in point. A fair bit of socialization occurred between the two group homes and the various apartments. This was actively encouraged by the program. People liked the feeling of our being a community. Yet this seemed to go against the idea that socialization should be normalized – that is it should mainly be a matter of socialization with people who are not part of the program. We certainly had no problem with this as an ideal. But the fact was that very little real socialization of that sort actually happened, and there seemed to be little we could do about it. So we ended up with a both/and approach that encouraged socialization outside the program, but also provided for social support and activities within the program.

The basic goals of the residential program of the FCARC were essentially those defined by normalization theory. In this was we were similar to most programs in Maryland at that time. But we felt it was necessary to add a second fundamental principle – one that focused on the decision making processes that guided how we went about achieving our goals. We called this second principle “participatory administration.” What can I say that we learned from this small experiment in participatory administration?

Perhaps the most important thing that we learned was that by using a participatory approach we got the job done. A significant number of people were given the opportunity to get out of the dehumanizing total institutions where they had been warehoused for many years. We established a continuum of services that included two somewhat protected group homes, and a continuum of apartments that received varying degrees of social support. At the most normalized end of the continuum, people lived in their own apartments and worked in regular community jobs. Within this continuum we consistently encouraged people to move in the direction of greater independence, until it became clear that the person was at his or her optimal level of functioning. We carried out these tasks at least as well as any other program in the state, and I am sure, better than most.

I would grant that evaluating the “spirit” of a program is a bit subjective. Nevertheless I feel it is safe to say that our program was energized by the participatory approach. Together we planned the goals of the program and the means of achieving them. When our plans succeeded, we all felt proud. When an idea didn’t work out, there was no-one else to blame. It was “us” who did it. Not “him” or “her.” It was simply a matter of needing to go back to the drawing board. It seemed to me that this sharing of responsibility resulted in our having only a minimal amount of the sort of back-biting and complaining behind the scenes that characterizes most bureaucratic organizations.

I was surprised to find a fair bit of resistance to the idea of participatory administration from staff members. I had expected them to feel empowered by this approach, and to be unanimous and whole-hearted in their support. To a significant extent this was true. But there were also pockets of resistance. I remember one staff member coming to me to complain that in one of the homes they were serving wine with the meals. I already knew that this was the case, and had chosen to ignore it. I suggested to the staff member that she bring the issue up in our general council meeting, and that we could decide there what our policy about alcohol should be. I had no idea where the staff would go with this, but this seemed to be the right procedure to me. The staff member was quite upset. It was clear to her that the people we were serving had enough problems coping with life, without adding alcohol to the mix. As the program director it was my responsibility to simply lay down the law. She was quite frustrated with me when I insisted that it was a whole community decision. Eventually she left the program due to her discomfort with the participatory approach.

Perhaps my greatest weakness as an administrator in this program was that I was slow to understand that a participatory approach to decision making did not obviate the need for a traditional system of insuring accountability. I believed then, and still do, that most people most of the time will try to do a good job. They simply feel better when they do. However, there were exceptions. In one case the grocery money was being pilfered for private use. In another case one of the live-in staff members in an intermediate level apartment did virtually nothing to help the people who lived in the apartment with him. Experiences of this kind drove the point home to me: it was necessary to see that people were in fact doing the jobs that they had helped define.

I learned that it was necessary to define levels of decision making and specify who had primary responsibility on each level. The entire community did not need to spend time deliberating about what color of paper clips the secretary chose to use. (It is important, I might mention in passing, that one must include support staff in a participatory system.) The levels of decision making went from the individual to the whole community. On an individual level, it was the young man’s choice whether he applied for a job working on the trash truck. On the other hand the issue of the use of alcohol probably had so many ramifications that the whole community needed to examine it and decide what our policy should be. On an intermediate level, the women who shared the bedroom collectively had the final say as to what went on their walls. Without being clear about the levels of decision making a participatory approach can become cumbersome and inefficient.

Our program was relatively small, at least, say, in comparison with General Motors, or the U.S. Department of Health and Welfare. We were able to have meetings that included the whole staff, and it was fairly easy to get input from the residents. It may be easier to make a participatory system work in a small program. But ways can be found to introduce participatory principles into a system of any size. The structures and specific procedures have to take scale into account. But the underlying democratic principles to be implemented are the same regardless of the size of the program.

Finally, it was impressed on me how much staff education is needed to make a participatory system work. I think I had assumed that because we lived in a democracy, and gave verbal adherence to the principles of democracy, most people understood how a participatory system of administration would work. In reality most people have been educated in schools that teach the ideal of democracy while practicing the principle of authoritarian control. So they know very little about how a real participatory system would work, and often feel quite uncomfortable when the familiar authoritarian hierarchy is not firmly in control. Perhaps the most important point in need of ongoing clarification is how a participatory system differs both from an authoritarian one, and from mere chaos. The optimal educational model for providing this understanding will not be based on those who know teaching those who don’t, but on everybody learning together how we become both more participatory, and more effective. The program itself must embark on a voyage of discovery and learning. Perhaps that’s the bottom line. In a participatory program everybody must become involved in both teaching and learning.