Over the last several decades, the role of public participation in policy and decision making has expanded in scope and importance. Public participation is being used increasingly to complement technical expertise and empirical evidence in decision-making processes, both to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of policies and to benefit from a wide range of experiential knowledge. The body of literature relating to how best to structure public participation to accomplish both of these, occasionally conflicting, goals is large and growing. The publications selected for this post offer insights into the best practices for the design of public participation, and the vital role that such participation plays in the collection and interpretation of information and knowledge for policy development.
The importance of choosing the right consultation format is the first theme drawn from the readings. The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) introduced a spectrum of options that describes the different forms that public participation can take, depending on the extent of public involvement needed. The options range from simply informing the public about upcoming issues or policy changes empowering the public to make decisions for the government to implement. The Health Canada Policy Toolkit for Public Involvement in Decision Making (2000) describes a variant of this framework, using five levels of involvement: inform/educate, gather information, discuss, engage, and partner. The Toolkit explains when to choose each level, provides examples of techniques, and gives practical examples using case studies.
In the Crawford et al. study, community meetings were held to “foster collaborative knowledge construction…[build] social trust and [empower] diverse stakeholders” in relation to development of coastal adaptation plans (2018, p. 297). While the authors were moderately successful, the two community meetings were insufficient to accomplish the anticipated social learning goals. Instead, the authors recommend a more iterative process with a smaller and more targeted group of participants, especially when addressing contentious issues with significant values-based components (Crawford et al., 2018). This finding demonstrates the importance of tailoring the consultation format to the purpose.
In contrast, the findings of Ernst (2019) suggest that participation intensity features, such as, format of communication, and participation frequency and duration do not significantly influence participants’ perceptions of whether the process was fair, effective, or legitimate, nor do these features have a statistically significant relationship with conflict resolution. This outcome was surprising given the literature Ernst reviewed and the study’s hypothesis, which suggested the opposite. Instead, the primary determinants of both the perceptions of the process and the resolution of conflicts were the presence of a trustworthy moderator and opportunities for co-decision making. Inclusion of all affected parties was also a significant determinant of trust and legitimacy (Ernst, 2019).
The role of a trusted facilitator and the inclusion of affected parties link to the second theme of the publications considered in this post, namely, the importance of understanding the targeted public when designing and holding public participation activities. Choosing a trusted facilitator clearly requires some knowledge of the characteristics and opinions of the participants, especially if neutrality is expected. While Ernst (2019) found that neutrality is not a strong determinant of trust, Health Canada (2000) recommends an experienced, knowledgeable, and neutral facilitator for most techniques in its toolbox. From a purely practical standpoint, it would be significant if Ernst’s (2019) findings were confirmed as it can be challenging to find someone knowledgeable, yet objective, and who is widely trusted by all parties, especially when contentious issues are discussed with a diverse group of stakeholders.
The literature also deals with themes relating to the influence that public participation design has on the accuracy and effectiveness of information collection and generation. Rasch (2019) suggests that public meetings may not be effective for data gathering as group dynamics can skew the type of information gathered. Some participants may opt out of voicing their opinions for fear of judgement or because others have already expressed similar views. Free-form public meetings, such as town halls, can also be more vulnerable to disproportionate focus on trivial information. This outcome creates challenges for applying public feedback in policy making. If these challenges cannot be resolved, direct information collection through individual communication methods such as mail surveys may be more useful tools for gathering accurate information about preferences and conditions in the community (Rasch, 2019).
Despite the challenges in obtaining public input, there is a strong consensus that information gathered through public participation is a valuable complement to expert technical knowledge. Wedemeyer-Strombel et al. (2019) show that the integration of local experiential knowledge with traditional scientific information in the context of Hawksbill sea turtle habitat led to better understanding than the traditional perspective alone. This result is especially important when limited baseline information is available about the local ecosystem in question. Additional benefits identified through using Trinity of Voice techniques for Participatory Action Research include the creation of locally specific information, improved mutual learning, integration of different knowledge sources, and enhanced local participation in conservation efforts (Wedermeyer-Strombel et al., 2019). The effectiveness of such knowledge integration relies heavily on the availability and commitment of both local knowledge holders and the openness of professional scientists to consider alternative sources of information.
One increasingly popular avenue for integrating local knowledge with professional science is the growth of citizen science. Citizen science offers a wide range of potential benefits including monitoring and enforcement of regulatory compliance, data collection, awareness raising, the democratization of policymaking, and increasing government transparency (Nascimento et al., 2018). However, the effectiveness of citizen science is hampered by challenges like conflicting expectations of the purpose of the engagement process and weak information management processes for citizen science contributions (Nascimento et al., 2018). In order to be truly effective, the importance of citizen science must be recognized among all governance levels. Much like the conclusions of the other publications reviewed in this post, effective citizen science relies on integrated processes that facilitate sharing of information that reduces the distance between scientists, citizens, and policy makers.
The role of public consultation has grown in importance and scope in recent years. While assessing the influence of specific features of public consultation on outcomes or public values, some common themes emerged from the literature. These themes include the need to tailor the format of public participation to reflect the purpose and the context of interaction and to understand the public for whom a policy is being created. An important part of the design process is considering how to enhance the effectiveness of information gained through public participation, whether in terms of accuracy or nuance. Despite the myriad challenges in soliciting input from the public, public participation represents an important opportunity to democratize policy making and enhance the information available to build relevant policies.
Crawford, P., Beyea, W., Bode, C., Doll, J., & Menon, R. (2018). Creating climate change adaptation plans for rural coastal communities using Deliberation with Analysis as public participation for social learning. Town Planning Review, 89(3), 283-304. doi: 10.3828/tpr.2018.17
Ernst, A. (2019). How participation influences the perception of fairness, efficiency, and effectiveness in environmental governance: An empirical analysis. Journal of Environmental Management, 238, 368-381. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2019.03.020.
Health Canada. (2000). Health policy toolkit for public involvement in decision making. Ottawa: Health Policy and Communications Branch. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/hc-sc/migration/hc-sc/ahc-asc/alt_formats/pacrb-dgapcr/pdf/public-consult/2000decision-eng.pdf
Nascimento, S., Iglesias, J., Owen, R., Shade, S., & Shanley, L. (2018) Citizen science for policy formulation and implementation. In S. Hecker, M., Haklay, A., Bowser, Z., Makuch, J. Vogel, & A. Bonn (Eds.) Citizen science: Innovation in open science, society, and policy (pp. 219-240). London: UCL Press. [A free copy of the book is available at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/citizen-science].
Rasch, R. (2019). Are public meetings effective platforms for gathering environmental management preferences that most local stakeholders share? Journal of Environmental Management, 245, 496-503. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2019.05.060
Wedemeyer-Strombel, K., Peterson, M., Sanchez, R., Chavarría, S., Valle, M., & Altamirano, E.et al. (2019). Engaging fishers’ ecological knowledge for endangered species conservation: Four advantages to emphasizing voice in participatory action research. Frontiers in Communication, 4. doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2019.00030
Authors: Mary Macgowan and Mohan raj Manohar
This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.