The Paradox of Procedural Justice

The old adage goes, you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Likewise, you can register someone to vote, but you can’t make them to turn out on election day. Or send a survey, but can’t make them fill it out. Or even hold a protest, but can’t make every affected individual or group attend. Efforts towards inclusion in civil society and policy-making can only go so far. At some point the responsibility for achieving justice is transferred to citizens who choose to vote, respond, march – or not.

No matter the attempts at genuine participation or the influence afforded those participating, there will be always be some who stay at home. And they might be people who never participate, who belong to marginalised groups, who have values, experiences, rights and needs that are often ignored. This can result in policies being perpetuated that are not only procedurally unjust, but also result in the misrepresentation of these groups, maldistribution of interventions intended to help them, and ongoing exclusion.

But what can one do? Elected representatives, local government officers, or neighbourhood activists can all try to make policy and govern justly, but cannot justly force people to get involved. Therein lies the paradox of procedural justice. It is limited by not only the level of participation offered, but also who decides to participate.

Nonetheless, it is too easy to blame apathy and hide behind the excuse that an opportunity was offered but ignored. Decision-makers can take responsibility for offering multiple ways to participate at multiple levels of involvement. Variety will increase inclusion by virtue of the likelihood that different techniques will attract different people who will feel more or less comfortable getting involved at that intensity.

‘Consultation’ is one of the most traditional techniques for involving individuals and groups, which we have found referred to again and again in our analysis of policy documents in Bristol and the UK for the ITEM project. Yet even this technique can be applied in various ways. Publishing and advertising policy in a ‘consultation draft’ on a website with pre-set questions or headline objectives and asking the extent to which respondents agree offers neither a high level of participation nor is likely to attract a high number of participants.

Instead, consultation on the 2020 Joint Local Transport Plan strategy for the West of England combined authority (WECA) used multiple different media – social media, websites, paper, in person – to solicit feedback on the policy in a variety of ways: a survey; an interactive tool to prioritise policy; and during discussions at stakeholder workshops. There were also opportunities for open answers, to raise concerns or suggestions that may have been excluded.

This multiplicity of techniques can enhance procedural justice, but that potential is diminished by focusing on the response to the policy-makers’ pre-set questions over more open responses; generalising the reported response so individual participants have little influence; and not paying attention to who did not respond or was otherwise missing.

Despite the paradox previously described, state-centric decision-makers and even society-centric grass-roots organisers should take responsibility for finding out who doesn’t participate and, ideally, why, without making assumptions. This is challenging at scale, so proposals in the city’s Bristol Transport Strategy or WECA’s Future Mobility Zone application focus on the smallest geographic scale when proposing more procedurally just techniques – co-design and co-production.

From neighbourhood plans to proposals for mobility hubs as local community assets, at this scale, reaching out to a greater number of individuals from more diverse groups through more channels is more possible, having more of them respond is more likely, and enabling their response to influence the decisions made is more manageable. Our next step is to find out if this has actually happened.

Either way, not everyone will get involved nor will the policies implemented meet every need, desire or expectation. The paradox still persists and procedural justice may not be fully achieved, but at least such an approach, if carried through, improves the chances of social justice.