Nordic Journal of Urban Studies
“Let usbeledby the residents”: Swedish
dialogue experts’ stories about power,
Researcher, Division of Environmental Communication, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Researcher, Division of Environmental Communication, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Researcher, Division of Environmental Communication, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Specialist, SWEDESD – The Swedish International Centre of Education for Sustainable Development, Uppsala University
This paper focuses on the practices of an emerging group of practitioners in Swedish urban governance: dialogue
experts. As dialogical ideals have been mainstreamed in planning policies, civil servants and governance consultants
have been increasingly commissioned to engage in dialogue with citizens within public deliberation, planning con-
sultations or citizens budgeting. Even though these practitioners influence the whys, whats and hows of urban devel-
opment, their practices remain curiously under-explored in Nordic urban studies. Dialogue experts experience the
practical dilemma of being experts in a practice that has developed as a reaction to expert-rule and top-down power.
We inquire into this dilemma together with a group of dialogue experts who work within an urban development
scheme in the district of Gottsunda in Uppsala, Sweden. We ask: how do dialogue experts make sense of their use of
power in dialogues with citizens? We explore whether analysing dialogue practice through the concepts of power and
justification might explain the practical dilemmas confronted by dialogue experts. By engaging in joint inquiry with
the practitioners in a series of focus groups, we learn that the practitioners are inclined to critique power relations that
exclude marginalised voices from urban planning but find it more difficult to justify their own use of power in pursuit
of a more inclusive governance system. The dialogue experts employ two types of justification for their use of power:
an advocative justification, which revolves around aspirations to change the planning system to include marginalised
voices, and a more conventional bureaucratic justification, by which they merely execute the will of elected politicians
and follow established planning procedures. Even so, the practitioners remain ambivalent about their use of power.
Hence, we demonstrate how power theory and joint inquiry between practitioners and researchers can shed new light
on the practical dilemmas in dialogue practice.
Dialogue practitioners, justification, power, urban governance, urban planning, planners
Copyright © 2021 Author(s). This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons CC BY-NC 4.0 License
Volume 1, No. 2-2021, p. 113–130
ISSN online: 2703-8866
Policy makers and scholars promote citizen participation and public deliberation as key
strategies for urban transformations. The rationale is that the inclusion of citizens in urban
governance can revitalise democracy, lead urban dwellers to accept contested decisions and
make their everyday practices more sustainable (see Lindholm et al., 2015; Sager, 2012;
Jodoin et al., 2015). Based on such assumptions, dialogical ideals have been mainstreamed
in Swedish governance frameworks as well as on the European and Global level (SFS, 2018:
1370; UNECE, 1998; UN, 2015).
The mainstreaming of dialogical ideals has given rise to an emerging category of gov-
ernance practitioners: “dialogue experts” (Bherer et al., 2017; Chilvers, 2008, 2013; Ernits,
2018). They design deliberation and participation by making choices about the whys,
wheres, whens and hows of dialogues; they facilitate communication between actors with
diverging worldviews; and they evaluate dialogues and filter out which inputs reach
decision-making (see Chilvers & Kearnes, 2020; Escobar, 2015; Svensson, 2017). Dialogue
experts work in different sectors and organisations (such as NGOs, the government and con-
sulting firms) and often play an influential role in urban transformations (Westin, 2019), yet
their practices remain under explored in urban studies (Bherer et al., 2017). The emerging
nature of this governance profession makes our study timely and potentially enables us to
contribute to developing the conceptual underpinnings of Nordic dialogue practice in urban
Urban transformations are characterised by struggles over meaning and power asymme-
tries. Even so, dialogue practices are most often conceptualised as consensual and egalitar-
ian, and the role of the dialogue expert is described as a neutral facilitator rather than a
governance professional in a position of power (McGuirk, 2001; Westin, 2019). This concep-
tual gap between the ideals of dialogue and the reality of urban governance has led critics to
claim that dialogues are naïve and power-blind (Purcell, 2009; Richardson, 1996). Instead
of renewed democracy and sustainability, critical scholars claim that the result of delibera-
tion and participation may, in fact, be depoliticisation and false consensus (e.g., Franzén et
The purpose of this paper is to analyse how Swedish dialogue experts make sense of
power relations with citizens and how they justify their use of power. We elicit and analyse
practitioners’ stories about practical dilemmas they faced in dialogues with citizens during
the transformation of the Gottsunda district in Uppsala. Our intention is not to repeat the
well-rehearsed power critique but to explore whether conceptualising dialogue practice in
terms of power might strengthen the conceptual underpinnings of the emerging profession
of dialogue expert. With that intention in mind, we employ recent thinking about power and
justification (Forst, 2017; Haugaard, 2018) to shed light on the practitioners’ stories. The
overarching research question is: how do dialogue experts make sense of their use of power in
dialogues with citizens?
We lay out our argument by first explaining how dialogue experts have problems with
power due to being professionals in a practice that has at its core the aim of deconstructing
authority. We seek to address the problem by introducing novel thinking about the links
between power and better or worse justification. Section 3 presents our approach: to inquire
into practice stories from dialogue experts via a series of focus groups. Section 4 describes
how the dialogue experts are inclined to critique the use of power but find it difficult to
justify their own use of it in making the governance system more inclusive. In Section 5, we
explain how the findings shed new light on a core dilemma for dialogue experts: how to be
professionals in a practice grounded in the critique of professional forms of knowledge.
114 AMELIA MUTTER, MARTIN WESTIN, CAMILO CALDERON AND ALEXANDER HELLQUIST
Dialogue experts, power andjustification
Dialogue is an ambiguous, yet positively loaded, term. In theories of communicative
planning and deliberative democracy, dialogue most often signifies communication that
approximates Habermasian (Habermas, 1984; 1985) criteria of openness, comprehensive-
ness, trustworthiness, and honesty (Bächtiger et al., 2007; Sager, 2018). In Swedish urban
governance policy and practice, actors tend to use dialogue more loosely as a positively
loaded term referring to communication that is distinctively different from everyday speech.
Dialogue is used as a Swiss army knife in Swedish governance: a tool capable of solving many
different kinds of problems, ranging from conflict management and renewal of democracy
to technical and social innovation (Hertting & Hellquist, 2021; Hallgren et al., 2018).
The mainstreaming of dialogical ideals in urban governance has resulted in increased
demand for dialogue competence. Such competence includes the skills to design, facilitate
and evaluate communicative processes capable of establishing trust and mutual understand-
ing between actors with divergent world views (Bherer et al., 2017; Forester, 1999; Westin
et al., 2020). Hence, a category of dialogue practitioners who possess, develop, and use dia-
logue competence is emerging in Sweden. This kind of practitioner is known by many names
in governance literature, such as facilitator (Moore, 2012; Westin et al., 2014), deliberative
practitioner (Forester, 1999), public participation professional (Bherer et al., 2017), delibera-
tive bureaucrat (Puustinen, Mäntysalo, Hytönen, et al., 2017) or cross-sector strategist (Svens-
son, 2017). In this paper, we chose to call them “dialogue experts”. Dialog (dialogue) is the
key governance concept that gives these actors their “reason to be” in Swedish governance.
Calling them “experts” draws attention to the central dilemma of being a professional in a
practice that is grounded in the critique of professional expertise (see Allmendinger, 2009;
Mik-Meyer & Haugaard, 2019; Moore, 2017). Currently, the meaning of dialogue practice
in Sweden is far from stabilised and settled. Even so, dialogue competence is in the process
of being institutionalised, for example through the establishment of professional positions
in the public and private sector as well as within academia and civil society and through the
development of university courses, in-service training and professional networks.
Dialogue experts work in the public sector as well as civil society and consultancies.
Although these practitioners share similarities, their methods differ depending on their
position and the institutional settings they operate in. In this paper, we inquire into the
practices of public sector practitioners within urban planning. Studying public sector prac-
titioners suits our purpose because their position as representatives of the local government
activates dialogue experts’ core dilemma. These dialogue experts operate from positions
inside the urban planning machinery as representatives of the local government, yet they are
also supposed to facilitate dialogue practices that are based on critiquing top-down planning
and professional forms of knowledge (see Allmendinger, 2009; Westin & Hellquist, 2018).
Moore (2012) usefully terms this dilemma “following from the front” to underscore the way
that these practitioners work by following the lead of other actors despite being in leadership
In this paper, we apply recent thinking within power theory to conceptualise this
dilemma. We problematise the tendency in dialogue practice to merely view conflictual,
hierarchical power as undesirable and instead stress the links between the use of power and
justifications, which can be normatively assessed as better or worse (Forst, 2017; Haugaard,
2015; Haugaard, 2018).
115NORDIC JOURNAL OF URBAN STUDIES | VOLUME 1 | No. 2-2021
Power over constitutes a duality whereby the very same process which leads to domination also
constitutes the conditions of possibility for democracy, and thus is normatively desirable. … It
is not sufficient to identify processes of domination and try to deconstruct them. Rather, the
task is the more complex one of deciding when the very same process of power is desirable and
when it constitutes domination.
Haugaard, 2015, p. 147
In our view, a core problem in dialogue practice is the over-reliance on, often unspoken,
notions of power with (Westin, 2019). When power is understood in terms of power with,
the emphasis is on agreement – or even consensus – and concerted action. The preference
for power with in dialogue might lead advocates of dialogue-based governance to attempt to
do away with conflictual power over altogether (e.g. Booher & Innes, 2002; Innes & Booher,
2015). In this paper, we instead zoom in on power over as being an inherent part of social
interactions — as well as in dialogical practices within urban governance — and, hence, a
phenomenon which carries both negative and positive normative potential (see Haugaard,
2015; Mansbridge, 2012). We explore how a more nuanced understanding of power relations
in dialogue practice might shed light on dialogue experts’ practical dilemmas. For these
reasons, our inquiry focuses on relations of power over rather than power with.
In line with this reasoning, the kind of power over relations we are interested in occurs, á la
Robert Dahl (1957), when actor A motivates actor B to think or do something that B would
otherwise not have thought or done (see Forst, 2015). Given the emphasis on reason in dia-
logue practice and participatory theories, it is suitable for our purposes to see power over as
a cognitive phenomenon that includes justification (Haugaard, 2018, p. 93). To be a subject
of power is, then, “to be moved by reasons that others have given me and that motivate me
to think or act in a certain way intended by the reason-giver” (Forst, 2015, p. 112). Hence,
according to this view, power is the ability to “influence, use, determine, occupy, or even
seal off the space of reasons for others” (Forst, 2015, p. 112–117). Cognitive justification is
thereby central to understanding and normatively appraising relations of power.
The success of an attempt by actor A to exercise power over actor B hinges on the extent to
which the justification provided by A is, tacitly or explicitly, accepted by B. The effectiveness
of justifications is determined by how they resonate with deeply embedded ideas about social
relations that have assumed a taken-for-granted status through historical interactions in a
specific practice, such as urban governance (see Forst, 2017; Healey, 2012). The power of jus-
tification — the reasons for how urban governance relations are performed — can be consid-
ered as social facts that can be normatively appraised as better or worse. Hence, power over is
not inherently good or bad but is an integral part of human relations, and of dialogue practice.
We conceptualise power over as operating in three dimensions based on the classic power
debates from the 1950s to the 1970s and further developed and applied by many in the power
and planning literature (Bachrach & Baratz, 1962; Dahl, 1957; Forester, 1989; Haugaard,
2018; Lukes, 1974, 2005; Schmidt-Thomé & Mäntysalo, 2014).
116 AMELIA MUTTER, MARTIN WESTIN, CAMILO CALDERON AND ALEXANDER HELLQUIST
Table 1 The dimensions of power over applied to dialogue practice (see Gaventa, 2006;
Dimension of power over Definition
1-D power over Visible exercises of power where actors get other actors to do what they
otherwise would not have done.
2-D power over Hidden processes of power, which determine who gets into the participatory
process and what gets on the agenda.
3-D power over “Invisible” processes of power, which shape the psychological and ideological
boundaries of participation.
We utilise these three dimensions of power to interpret practical dilemmas in dialogue prac-
tice together with a group of dialogue experts in the district of Gottsunda in Uppsala.
Approach to researching dialogue experts’ dilemmas
The Gottsunda neighbourhood is of significant relevance to the development of Uppsala,
Sweden’s fourth largest city. It was first developed in the 1960s as part of a large nationwide
project to address housing shortages (The Million Programme) and is a strategically rele-
vant neighbourhood as current plans aim at developing it into a major hub in the south of
the city. Gottsunda is also a somewhat challenged neighbourhood, as identified by national
classifications, which describe it as an area with a high level of exclusion and segregation. 60
percent of the residents of Gottsunda have an immigrant background, and one-third of resi-
dents are under the age of 24, contributing to a population demographic with specific needs.
Another aspect that contributes to feelings of exclusion is the fact that there is a notable dis-
parity between Gottsunda and its surrounding areas in terms of income, wealth and educa-
tion (Uppsala Municipality, 2018). These specific challenges serve as a backdrop for the work
of a group of dialogue experts and make this an interesting case for urban studies.
In the past decade, development in Gottsunda culminated in the approval of plans to
build 7000 housing units in the area. As part of the process of approving this programme,
planners in the municipality’s planning department began to experiment with implement-
ing innovative forms of participatory planning. Our analysis focuses on the activities of
practitioners in a team of dialogue experts working within the larger planning process.
The local government mandated this team to innovate dialogue practices. The practitioners
developed methods and approaches intended to renew local democracy by including groups
of residents who rarely participate in the planning process. Within mainstream Swedish
urban planning, participation is realised through formalised and highly structured consul-
tations with those living in the area subject to planning. The dialogue experts are commis-
sioned to develop more informal and less structured forms of dialogue. They experiment
with alternative agendas and novel forms of conversation and engage in interactions with
residents in the social settings where they lead their everyday lives.
The research process started when one of the dialogue experts contacted the main author
with the intention of initiating a joint learning process between municipal civil servants
and researchers. Through conversations over the course of the spring 2020, we started to
jointly inquire about the practitioners’ stories of meaningful interactions with residents in
Gottsunda. This paper presents the findings from the analysis of the stories shared by two
of the dialogue experts, who have been given the pseudonyms Anna and Cecilia. Both are
early-career civil servants in Uppsala municipality. Anna is educated in urban planning and
117NORDIC JOURNAL OF URBAN STUDIES | VOLUME 1 | No. 2-2021
Cecilia in political science. As such, their sense-making can provide insights into contem-
porary perceptions of power relations among Swedish dialogue experts. One of the stories
originates from a semi-formal dialogue with youths in Gottsunda and the other from attend-
ing an informal party with local residents. The two stories provide possibilities for analysing
dialogue practices in different social settings.
As researchers, we took the already identified general dilemma of “following from the
front” (see Moore, 2012 and Section 2) as our starting point for inquiry into the practi-
tioners’ specific stories. We wished to explore if analysing their experiences in terms of power
and justification might shed light on a core dilemma in dialogue practice. Inspired by For-
ester’s (1999; 2009) practitioner profiles and reflective practice (Gibbs, 1988; Schön, 1983;
Yanow & Tsoukas, 2009), we engaged in joint inquiry with the practitioners, guided by the
following research question: how do dialogue experts make sense of their use of power in dia-
logues with citizens? In pursuit of an answer to the question, we first asked Anna and Cecilia
to recall a meaningful situation they had recently confronted in a dialogue.
the story, the practitioners (in written form) described (1) what happened, (2) what they
thought and felt, (3) what was good and what was bad in this situation, (4) what they could
have done differently and (5) what they would do if they ended up in a similar situation
again. Following this initial reflection, the research team held three focus group discussions
where the practitioners’ stories were interpreted.
The first focus group discussed why these stories might be meaningful to these dialogue
experts. The conversation was facilitated by the lead author and one of the co-authors and
was attended by additional members of the research team and five members of the team of
dialogue practitioners (including Anna and Cecilia). At this focus group, the researchers did
not supply theoretical power concepts to interpret the stories but rather focused the discus-
sion on the meaning that the practitioners attached to them.
The second focus group took place a couple of months later and was facilitated by the
same researchers. This focus group was organised within a research and development pro-
gramme, and a wider group of 14 participants attended, including the team of Gottsunda
dialogue practitioners, practitioners from other Swedish municipalities, professional facili-
tators, and researchers. The facilitators structured the conversation according to the three
dimensions of power and moved the conversation from the empirical explanation of power
towards justification of the use of power in accordance with the theoretical ideas in Section 2.
Following the second focus group, the video recordings from the sessions were tran-
scribed and analysed by the research team, and the preliminary findings were identified.
We followed interpretive research methodology and paid attention to how the practi-
tioners used definitions, narratives, metaphors, terms of praise, and belittling and recurrent
vocabulary (Schwartz-Shea & Yanow, 2013; Westin, 2019). The analysis of the first work-
shop was guided by the analytical question: how is the dilemma of “following from the front”
expressed in the stories and during the focus group? The analysis of the second workshop was
guided by the analytical question: how do the practitioners understand the three dimensions
of power over and how do they justify their use of power?
The purpose of the third focus group was to validate and modify the research team’s pre-
liminary findings. The research team presented and discussed these findings together with
1. Initially, this process also included the story of a third practitioner; however, he later went on paternity leave and
could not attend the second and third focus groups. Hence, we focus the analysis on the two remaining practi-
118 AMELIA MUTTER, MARTIN WESTIN, CAMILO CALDERON AND ALEXANDER HELLQUIST
Anna, Cecilia and an additional practitioner who belongs to the dialogue team working in
Gottsunda. This focus group was facilitated by the lead author and the second author. Based
on the discussions, we revisited and modified our preliminary interpretations based on the
feedback from the dialogue experts.
Findings: ambivalence towards power relations
Focus group 1: how is the dilemma of “following from the front” expressed?
• In focus group 1, the practitioners discuss the meaning of the stories without an explicit theory of power.
We analyse how the general dilemma of “following from the front” is expressed in the stories and during the focus
Anna:astory aboutyouth resistance
This story takes place during a workshop with pupils at one of the schools in Gottsunda.
The team of dialogue experts planned and facilitated the workshop. Their intention was to
provide opportunities for youths in Gottsunda to discuss plans for their area prior to the
formal consultation meetings that were due to take place at a later date. Anna’s story revolves
around an episode that took place during the workshop. She explains, “We were holding a
workshop for kids, and during the short introduction, one of the kids protested ‘Don’t ruin
During the first focus group, the practitioners expressed ambivalence when discussing the
story. Anna says:
At first, I thought it was great that she had heard about [the plans for Gottsunda] and had
opinions about them, and that she was brave enough to say right out what she thought. Then,
I started to reflect. It is hard for someone of her age to know what this is really about. Did
she understand, or was this just something she had heard at home or elsewhere and repeated
without understanding? Kids can be like that.
In the continued conversations about the story, the practitioners reflected critically on the
habitual ways they performed dialogues. They paid attention to how they, as representatives
from the municipality, steer the dialogues by structuring the conversations and problemat-
ised how they might thereby influence them too much.
It got me thinking that maybe we sometimes need to carry out dialogues without actively steer-
ing them but rather letting them be steered by the dialogue itself. We are really focused on asking
questions and getting answers to them. So that is sort of what I was reflecting upon: that I would
want to take time to consider her question, but it felt like I could have sabotaged the whole
The practitioners agreed that they think the story taught them that they should take a
step back and let citizens influence the dialogues more often. One of Anna’s colleagues
But I think, the layout is ours and the question that I have is this: can we actually fail? ...[We
think] ‘Oh now we have 44 minutes left, how should we solve this?’ But [the residents] don’t
even know that we have a plan. How can we be more adaptable in such situations?
119NORDIC JOURNAL OF URBAN STUDIES | VOLUME 1 | No. 2-2021
Anna continued her critical reflection by problematising her habit of justifying the direction
of the plan to develop Gottsunda when challenged by residents.
I caught myself thinking directly that I should argue for why we are doing this, instead of just
accepting what [the girl said]. … Then it isn’t really a dialogue because you are putting the
other person in a position where they must either take back something or acknowledge what we
In our interpretation, the conversations about this story show how the dilemma of “follow-
ing from the front” takes shape in the interactions with the pupil at a semi-structured work-
shop. The dialogue experts acknowledge that they are professionals with the responsibility
of planning and facilitating the workshop with the pupils. As such, they inevitably occupy
leadership positions, which involves making choices about the purpose and agenda of the
workshop. At the same time, the practitioners also acknowledge the necessity of being open
to changing the agenda and allowing participants to express their views, influence the topics
and the ways dialogue is conducted. This dual positioning of the dialogue experts explains
Anna’s ambivalence when the pupil voices her criticism of the plans for Gottsunda.
Cecilia:astory aboutbuilding trust atalocalparty
Cecilia’s story is about an episode where she joined a local party attended by residents of
We were a pair [of practitioners] who were invited to a private event/party for women. The event
was being held for a woman who had completed a pilgrimage to Mecca and was celebrating by
having a Hajj party for her female friends. We had the benefit of having a dialogue station at
the party. About 100 women and children attended. We had put up paper on the walls by our
station [where opinions and comments from the guests could be collected and displayed] and
could carry out conversations, but we also sat at different tables, had conversations and took
Attending the party was something outside of the mould of conventional consultation meet-
ings and the kind of semi-structured dialogue activities described in Anna’s story. The party
brought together women and children living in Gottsunda. In this instance, however, the
role of the practitioners had shifted compared to Anna’s story because, although they were
given room to present themselves and ask questions, they were not the hosts of the event and
therefore did not have the same type of role as in typical dialogue activities.
What I was thinking about was: we are now meeting with a target group that we often discuss
having difficulty in reaching. … It was not our context but rather we were invited guests, which
was quite generous.
Cecilia reflected on the fact that she was outside of her usual domain as practitioner and,
instead, performing the role of an invited guest. This influenced her behaviour and led her
to question how much space she could take.
We started to question how much space we could take up in this situation. … But I thought that
it was really good to be in these everyday situations and to have a different type of conversation.
That was my main reflection: that it became more of a relationship-building opportunity. …
120 AMELIA MUTTER, MARTIN WESTIN, CAMILO CALDERON AND ALEXANDER HELLQUIST
How often do we pick up on these everyday stories and, like, meet at eye level rather than doing
a workshop where we collect different positions and rework them?
Cecilia expressed that she appreciated how operating outside of the structured planning
process provides opportunities for building trustful relationships with residents. On the
other hand, she also experienced tension between her professional persona and the informal
nature of the party.
I think that it can be such that a bit of relationship building can also, in some way, even out the
information/power balance. … I have in any event not considered them to be personal relation-
ships, but they are of course. … But I thought about it more as my representing the municipal-
ity and sharing our reasoning on how we think about different things and different choices, and
which processes we are now in.
Cecilia also felt ambivalent about her role in this interaction – particularly in light of the
emphasis on relationship building – and questioned the use of traditional facilitation tools,
including post-it notes and managed discussions. As with the story about the school pupil,
this leads to critical consideration of her habitual practices. She reflected upon how the
practitioners’ use of bureaucratic language might work to create barriers in dialogues with
It is difficult to find a good way to simply and quickly explain what we are doing so that people
can understand without using concepts such as ‘dialogue’ and ‘city development’. We might
think that those terms are basic, but, in reality, it is not obvious what they mean.
The practitioners are self-critical in that they are aware that the type of language it is normal
for them to use can make it more difficult for residents to participate in dialogues. Cecilia
expressed an interest in altering practices that may build barriers in favour of being more
accessible in their conversations. Yet, the conversations also demonstrate that there is an
ambivalence caused by the dual positioning of the dialogue experts as both “guests” at the
party and as representatives of the municipality in charge of a planning process which will
greatly affect the everyday lives of the party’s attendees. As a result, we find that the dilemma
of “following from the front” is also present in this story.
Focus group 2: how do the practitioners understand the three dimensions of
power over and how do they justify their use of power?
• The researchers facilitate the discussion around the three dimensions of power over. The practitioners identify
how they used all three dimensions of power over in the stories. The practitioners employ two different kinds of
justification for their use of power: one where they claim to operate within a democratic structured planning system
and one where they use their agency to change these planning structures in order to make dialogues more inclusive.
When discussing how to explain the use of power in the two stories, the practitioners agreed
that these stories exemplified how they use power over in all three dimensions: “When I saw
those three dimensions, I thought that they are present in almost all of our dialogues” (Anna).
We decide the occasions, arrange the conversations and invite people, so we are already deciding
if we should be open to anyone who might want to come and see us. Otherwise, they don’t have
121NORDIC JOURNAL OF URBAN STUDIES | VOLUME 1 | No. 2-2021
the same opportunities, or they don’t know that they have the opportunity to do it. And then
with the questions we ask because we can’t handle everything that comes in. And we always set
the agenda. That is all three dimensions. (Anna)
Anna reflected upon the situation with the girl during the workshop at the school and sees
it as an example of how the practitioners exercise power based on well-established assump-
tions about what is good and desirable (see 3D power in Chapter 2).
We talk about ‘development’ and not ‘destruction’, but it could be experienced completely dif-
ferently by the citizens. And we always look at these types of comments through the eyes of city
planners. … We try to always show [the citizens] the good side.
Hence, the conversation about the three dimensions of power indicates that the practitioners
found it useful to reflect on their practical dilemmas in the two stories based on power
theory. Distinguishing between direct use of 1D power over and less agent-specific 2- and
3D power over has explanatory value in both stories. Importantly, introducing these ideas
from power theory draws the practitioners’ attention to how power is always present during
dialogues and underscores how their dilemmas cannot be resolved by “escaping from power
over”, even if the emphasis on power with in dialogue practice seems to lead to that mistaken
After the discussions about three-dimensional power over, the researchers intervened in
the conversation to point out that the practitioners’ use of power raises normative ques-
tions about legitimacy and justification. One researcher pointed out that when there is a dis-
agreement, someone needs to decide what to do while another suggested that it is inevitable
that the municipality and the planners use power and questions when this use of power is
Following these interventions from the researchers, the conversation turned towards jus-
tifications of the use of power. In our interpretation, two different kinds of justification
(see Chapter 2) were present in the practitioners’ conversation: dialogue experts use power
over within structured planning processes in order to fulfil their positions within a demo-
cratic system or dialogue experts use power over to change the planning system in order to
make dialogues more inclusive. The first bureaucratic justification was expressed when Anna
talked about her role in the beginning of the planning process (when the dialogue with the
school pupils took place).
In this specific project, I was the one who compiled the ideas and opinions. I didn’t think that
I should do any interpreting. For example, there were some kids who wanted to have a zoo in
Gottsunda centre. We already knew that it was impossible, but I thought I should write it down
in my report anyway. It is not my job to judge when I compile opinions. Maybe, when I am
answering them, it is my job to say that it is not possible because [the zoo would not be] eco-
nomically sustainable for the municipality. But in the report, I shouldn’t edit out what I think …
it is a different role to report than to answer.
Furthermore, still employing the bureaucratic justification, Anna explained how she follows
a structured process when she uses agenda-setting power (2D power).
Then come the opinions on, for example, social services or health care: things that we aren’t even
responsible for. As a planning architect, I have a hard time passing such opinions onto where
122 AMELIA MUTTER, MARTIN WESTIN, CAMILO CALDERON AND ALEXANDER HELLQUIST
they should go. … I think that when we organise [the dialogue] in a specific way it is because
we think that it will make it more legitimate. We talk about what is topical. And, in that way, we
inform the citizens: ‘Oh, so we are talking about this because it is this subject that we are able to
influence in our work now.’ That is what is open.
Besides the bureaucratic justification, the practitioners justified their power with reference
to changing the planning structures: making the planning process more inclusive. The prac-
titioners thought that the formal consultation meetings were mainly attended by privileged
people. Hence, they justified use of power advocatively.
We have even thought about raising and giving legitimacy to the perspectives that came in
during early dialogues. We take these up in the consultation report so that the politicians actually
see them and so that those perspectives don’t … get left to one side; it forces us to give answers
even on those views. … It is about trying to broaden the participation in the planning process
in some way. (Anna)
This quote exemplifies an advocative justification that goes beyond the established consul-
tation processes to change the structures. No longer is the practitioner’s role solely that of a
bureaucrat who implements already established planning structures and procedures. When
they employ this justification, the practitioners emphasise that they want to include alter-
native voices in the dialogues. They are, then, expressing a desire to change the dialogues in
order to deal with the problem of the majority of participants “[being in a better] a better
socioeconomic position and such. It is our job to include all the others more. Then, I think
[the dialogue] becomes more legitimate” (Anna).
Even if the practitioners, prompted by the researchers’ questions, explicitly discussed and
sought to justify their use of power, towards the end of the workshop Anna returned to the
core theme of focus group 1 by toying with the idea of doing away with power altogether.
The three dimensions of power; they are really interesting. How would it be if we let go of all
of the three dimensions? What is a dialogue then? What is needed for it? That is something to
Turning to the discussion of Cecilia’s story, we note that the advocative justification is ini-
tially emphasised as Cecilia explains her use of power with reference to how it helps to make
the planning process more inclusive:
Yes, well I think that … there is, in a way, a visible power dimension because we came [to the
party], and were representing the municipality, and we talked about things that are going to
happen, and … we would like to have a conversation about it. So that is the visible part, but
I don’t think that it is normal practice to meet municipal representatives or civil servants in this
way in other cultures. It may not be normal practice to meet civil servants so often at all.
Cecilia emphasised that not all residents may be equally aware of their ability to influence
municipal development by participating in dialogues. Residents who have never had this
type of contact with civil servants might not understand that dialogues are regular stages in
such developments. In this way, Cecilia evokes the advocative justification by emphasising
how this specific outreach activity helps to level the playing field between actors who regu-
larly attend conventional consultation meetings and those who do not know they have the
opportunity to do so.
123NORDIC JOURNAL OF URBAN STUDIES | VOLUME 1 | No. 2-2021
Later on in the conversation, Cecilia also employed the bureaucratic justification for
Yeah, I think that we are in an exploratory phase of dialogues. We notice when we fall back into
doing dialogues in a traditional way. We have, of course, strong political directives to conduct a
lot of dialogue and participation.
Hence, this focus group displays how the dialogue experts are ambivalent towards their use
of power over and how they seek to justify their wielding of power through bureaucratic and
advocative justification. The application of the three dimensions of power over explains how
the practitioners’ dilemma of following from the front cannot be resolved once and for all.
Their use of power to structure dialogues and set agendas might be loosened but cannot be
“given away”. In terms of the three dimensions, it is inevitable that the practitioners use 1-
and 2D power over due to their positioning in the third dimension of power as representa-
tives of the local planning authority. Hence, the question for these practitioners is not only
how can we empower the citizens but also how can we justify our use of power in pursuit of
empowering the citizens?
Focus group 3: validating and nuancing the findings
• The researchers present preliminary findings, and these are validated and further nuanced by the practitioners.
It is confirmed that the dilemma of “following from the front” can be conceptualised in terms of power. The
practitioners also validate the identified bureaucratic and advocative justifications but are still ambivalent towards
their own use of power.
First, one of the researchers explored why the practitioners seem to want to let go of power by
asking, “why are you curious about what would happen if the municipality let go of its power
in all three dimensions?” Anna responded by drawing attention to certain inequalities.
When you look at the other participants, they are not all in the same situation. It is not always
equal. We have started reflecting quite a lot upon power in this way. We often receive negative
opinions from citizens at the meetings we have. It becomes quite natural to think about our role.
When we ask specific questions in dialogues, we are already steering what is being discussed.
To probe further into this theme a researcher asked, “If you gave up control of setting
the agenda, who would decide then? What would happen?” The way that the conversation
unfolded thereafter demonstrates how the dilemma of “following from the front” can be
expressed in terms of power. To be a dialogue expert is to be in a position of power in a
practice that involves levelling power imbalances.
If we open up for different themes, then we need to have some kind of internal coordination.
I mean, we need to be prepared to keep a record of all of the opinions that we take in from dif-
ferent forums. … If our work is to lead to any changes then we need to find ways to make sure
that someone takes notice of citizens’ opinions. (Anna)
This quote shows how the practitioners recognise that the municipality and its civil servants,
due to the Swedish municipal “planning monopoly”, are in justifiable positions of power. In
this example, their position is justified because there is a need for structured planning pro-
124 AMELIA MUTTER, MARTIN WESTIN, CAMILO CALDERON AND ALEXANDER HELLQUIST
cesses in order to gather and organise opinions on proposed plans. On the other hand, the
practitioners are also inclined to want to let go of that power with the intention of empow-
ering the citizens.
We have employed concepts like ‘let the residents lead us.’ We have some idea that we don’t
always have to set the agenda, but we don’t know exactly how to do this. Maybe the agenda can
be looser in theme or form? … We thought, for example, that if we are going to do a safety walk,
instead of pre-planning the route, we can let our residents lead us towards what is interesting
for us to know. Then we have some kind of framing. There should be a context but maybe the
agenda setting is looser. Maybe we get more relevant answers. Maybe we aren’t asking the best
As exemplified here, the practitioners are attempting to chart a middle way in order to
manage their ambivalence. They want to hold on to certain agenda setting (2D) power while,
at the same time, providing space for citizens to influence what is discussed, how it is dis-
cussed and what is done during interactions between planners and residents.
Next, the discussion turned to the researchers’ preliminary interpretation of two different
kinds of justifications: the bureaucratic and the advocative. The practitioners validated the
interpretation and added nuance.
Yes, I recognise myself [in these justifications]. But these two motives overlap: when I try to
change processes and routines, I do it based on my own experience but also based on political
will. The fact that there is a political will to enhance participation is really important. Otherwise,
it is hard for us to encourage the development work within our regular work. (Anna)
Anna clarified that there is a mandate from elected politicians to change the planning struc-
tures so that they become more inclusive. She further emphasised that the dialogue experts
can justify their use of power in different ways, depending on what the situation at hand
I think that we can have slightly different roles depending [on the situation]. We may feel that
there is a need for change as planners and try to make it happen. And then we can be activists if
there is [internal municipal] resistance and try to convince and actually explain why this change
must be made. We become activists, but it is not the only role that we have. Now I think back
to the goal and the budget: there is also a mandate to work with increased participation in the
municipality and in planning.
Cecilia then emphasised that they have a political mandate to make the planning processes
more inclusive. She explained how their experiments with new forms of dialogue are within
their mandate from the elected politicians. The practitioners do not believe that their use of
power in the early phase of planning (where the events in their stories took place) was con-
troversial to the politicians. Nevertheless, there might be resistance from colleagues in other
positions of responsibility towards the dialogue experts’ attempts to promote dialogical ways
I think that it can be controversial when you want to introduce it as a routine. Then maybe your
colleagues have different opinions around it, and maybe they don’t think it is as important as we
125NORDIC JOURNAL OF URBAN STUDIES | VOLUME 1 | No. 2-2021
With reference to the practitioners’ attendance at the Hajj party, Anna elaborated on the
potential resistance towards their attempts to increase participation.
I think that relationship building is really interesting, but not everyone is sold on the idea. I think
about how we often need to argue for resources, and using our time on these things can be
harder to justify than using it to hold community meetings. ...Resistance maybe doesn’t stem
from the question of whether we should work with participation but rather how we should do
it – because people have slightly different opinions about that.
Finally, Anna and Cecilia’s colleague suggested that neither the advocative nor bureaucrat
justification is entirely convincing. Instead, he implied that there may be another kind of
justification for dialogue experts’ use of power.
I see that this ‘we are loyal to the politics’ idea is necessary and that this activism where we say
‘we must resolve this’ is necessary. But we also need something else: a third way. Then, we need
a discussion about what it means to be a civil servant. Where do our loyalties lie? I think more
and more about my duty to the citizens and if it is such that I need to push through the things
that the citizens want – not because I think it is right – and to get the politicians to give me a
different mandate. That is where I need to develop something.
Concluding discussion: the difficulty of justifying use of power in
We have inquired into how Swedish dialogue experts make sense of power relations with
citizens. By engaging in joint inquiry with a group of Swedish dialogue experts, we dem-
onstrated how it is possible to move beyond the somewhat locked-in situation where
researchers either critique dialogue practices from outside or support them by advocating
for consensual and egalitarian ideals. Instead, by employing recent thinking about power
and justification (Forst, 2017; Haugaard, 2018), we engaged critically with the practices of
the emerging group of dialogue experts, who so far have operated largely under the radar of
Swedish urban studies.
The findings confirm how these street-level workers of democracy are confronted with
the dilemma of “following from the front” (Moore, 2012). Our study sheds new light on
this dilemma by conceptualising it in terms of power and justification. The dialogue experts
are most comfortable when critiquing their own and others’ use of power. Over the three
focus groups, they critically scrutinised how civil servants – themselves included – tend to
shape dialogues with citizens and thereby constrain the possibility of citizens participating
on equal terms. They identified how the established power relations in urban governance led
to exclusion of certain groups of citizens, and they explained how they would like to change
that. Through reflexive conversations over the three workshops, the practitioners concluded
that they should take a step back and soften their (2D) agenda setting power in order to
empower citizens. They want to be at ögonhöjd (eye-level) with the citizens, and, rather than
leading, they want to be “led by the citizens”. Thus, they emphasise the importance of fol-
lowing rather than being in front.
In contrast, the dialogue experts find it more difficult to explain when they are entitled
to lead, i.e., when their use of power over might be justified. Prompted by the researchers’
challenging questions about legitimacy, they discussed if they might employ an advoca-
tive justification to provide motivation for their efforts to make the planning processes
126 AMELIA MUTTER, MARTIN WESTIN, CAMILO CALDERON AND ALEXANDER HELLQUIST
more inclusive. According to the advocative justification, dialogue experts should be change
makers with agency and a somewhat independent agenda from the dominating regime (on
advocacy planners see Davidoff, 1965; Sager, 2016). Even if the advocative justification made
sense to the practitioners, they landed on embracing the more conventional bureaucratic
justification of merely implementing the will of elected politicians who have mandated the
practitioners to innovate dialogue practices. In spite of this attempt to return to the safe
haven of the value-neutral ideal of bureaucracy, the practitioners’ dilemma could not be
resolved, and the ambivalence remained. They still found it difficult to justify their use of
power. Hence, the workshop series ended on the assertion that they “need to have a discus-
sion about what it means to be a civil servant.”
The findings show that the essence of the dialogue experts’ dilemma, expressed in terms
of power, is to critique the use of power, while being in a position of power, in order to make
the case for more inclusive urban governance processes. Even so, dialogue experts cannot
merely critique power. To be effective and to justify their practice in the eyes of citizens,
politicians and other governance practitioners, they must be able to explain, in a socially
acceptable way, why they are entitled to use power over to influence the process and outcome
of participation (Westin, 2019). This task is daunting for professional experts in a practice
informed by consensual and egalitarian ideals (see Allmendinger, 2009, p. 220–221). The
dialogue experts’ power dilemma arises when they navigate the tension between two equally
important values in urban governance: the equality principle embedded in citizenship and
the principle of inequality inherent to expertise (see Moore, 2017; Warren, 1996). Just as
they cannot do away with the equality of democracy, they cannot do away with expertise as
the basis for their positions of power in urban governance.
This study, as with all studies, has its limitations. While the empirical focus on narratives
and the focus-group method make it possible to study dialogue experts’ sense-making, this
approach does not provide opportunities for studying the practitioners’ actions in practice.
Additionally, even if the choice of focusing on conceptualising the dilemma of “following
from the front” through the concepts of power and justification provides interesting fin-
dings, it limits the possibilities of shedding light on other kinds of dilemmas and tensions in
In spite of these limitations, we have arguably demonstrated how recent thinking about
the links between power and justification may shed light on a core dilemma in dialogue
practice. Our findings point towards the need for conducting further research into the justi-
fication of dialogue experts’ use of power in urban governance. Such research might include
three tasks: (1) to further explore how subcategories of dialogue experts justify their actions
in different contexts, (2) to observe what kind of actions taken by dialogue experts are
found to be socially acceptable by citizens, politicians and other governance actors and (3)
to explore how previous theoretical work related to justification and power might help in
understanding dialogue practice (see Campbell, 2012; Connelly et al., 2006; Fainstein, 2014;
Puustinen, Mäntysalo & Jarenko, 2017).
For the broader discussions about dialogues within urban governance, our study shows
how a critically engaged research approach adds value (Joosse et al., 2020). We have taken
the long-standing critique regarding the alleged power-blindness of participatory practices
as a prompt for engaging in inquiry with a group of Swedish dialogue experts. In so doing,
we have not merely critiqued the shortcomings of dialogue practice from the outside, but
instead, in some modest way, contributed to renewing the practice from within. Our fin-
dings provide an understanding of the problem of power from the perspective of dialogue
practitioners: it is not that the practitioners are “power-blind” but rather that they are faced
127NORDIC JOURNAL OF URBAN STUDIES | VOLUME 1 | No. 2-2021
with the dilemma of justifying their use of power within a practice whose core aim is to cri-
About the article:
This article would not have been possible without the cooperation of the focus group par-
ticipants. We would particularly like to thank the planners at Uppsala Municipality for
contributing with stories from their work and for their openness to discussing difficult ques-
tions of power and legitimacy. We would also like to acknowledge the generous feedback
from the anonymous reviewers, which has greatly helped the development of this manu-
script. This research is funded by the MISTRA research program, Environmental Communi-
cation: Reframing Communication for Sustainability.
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