The Tyranny of Participation in Information Systems: Learning from Development Projects

Richard Heeks


It often seems that use of participative approaches in the development of information systems (IS) has reached the status of a new orthodoxy: a 'magic bullet' technique that is always relevant, always beneficial in trying to overcome the high failure rate of information systems. Yet participation is clearly not so magical in practice and is often beset by problems. This paper sets out to investigate and understand some of these problems. It does so by recognising the parallels between debate on the role and value of participation in information systems development, and debate on the role and value of participation in development projects more generally. These projects aim to deliver development goals and they have frequently involved participation. They therefore provide fertile ground for learning about approaches to information systems development.

Participation is seen to fail in such projects because it ignores context; because it is itself ignored; because it ignores reality; and because it ignores other factors. Based on this analysis, a more critical approach to participation in IS projects is suggested, with three critical questions identified that must be answered before participation can be considered.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What problems arise in practice with participation as a technique? [all parts]
  2. How can we best address the problems with participation in information systems projects? [all parts]

Development questions

  1. What benefits can participation bring to IS development?
  2. Are there other 'magic bullet' techniques - apart from participation - that are almost universally recommended for IS development and operation? What could you conclude about such techniques?
  3. We are very keen to find simple solutions and 'magic bullets' to address organisational and social problems which are often highly complex. Is this helpful or harmful?
  4. What - if anything - can industrialised countries learn from developing countries about information and information systems?
  5. Why does so much knowledge flow from industrialised countries to developing countries, and so little flow in the reverse direction?