Presented as a panacea for the problems of environmental management, ‘participation’ conceals competing frames of meaning. ‘Ladders of participation’ explain insufficiently why public engagement is often limited to consultation even within ‘higher-level partnerships’. This paper distinguishes between: (1) Discourses/practices: (2) Frames and: (3) Power effects, to explain how participation is shaped by frames of reference to produce more or less symmetric exchanges in processes of deliberation. The paper’s empirical focus is the experience of participatory catchment organisations (PCOs) and their central, yet under-researched role in integrated catchment management. In addition to documentary analysis of policy statements, researchers facilitated an international participatory knowledge exchange between four PCOs (and various other agencies), using qualitative methods to record discussions. Results suggest that while statements about legislation promise symmetric engagements, mechanics of legislation frame participation as asymmetric consultation. In their own arenas, PCOs deploy participation within a framework of grassroots democracy, but when they engage in partnership with government, ‘participation’ is reshaped by at least four competing frames: (1) Representative democracy – which admits yet captures the public’s voice: (2) Professionalisation – which can crowd-out framings that facilitate more symmetric engagement: (3) Statutory requirements – which hybridise PCOs to deliver government agendas and: (4) Evidence-based decision-making – which tends to maintain knowledge hierarchies. Nevertheless, PCOs proved capable of reflecting on their capture so, we conclude, for participation to result in more symmetric forms of public engagement the coproduction of science/society, and the power effects of framing, must become explicit topics of discussion in processes of environmental policy deliberation.
- Participation, water, ICM, NGO, framing, developed world, catchment, governance, coproduction.