What is public participation?

Myles Alexander Mug2By Myles Alexander

Community, Natural Resources & Economic Development Educator
University of Wisconsin-Extension Oneida County
Phone: 715-365-2750       Email: myles.alexander@wisc.edu

A University of Minnesota-Extension tip sheet defines public participation as “the involvement of people in a problem-solving or decision-making process that may interest or affect them.”  There are many labels for that definition.  Some are: citizen engagement, citizen involvement, and community-based decision-making.  I use “public participation.”

I advocate for the public.  Participation ought to be open to everyone.  I cherish the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) core value that “those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.”  Experience in many places shows the higher the proportion of the public that participates (discuss the issues, offer and weigh alternatives) the better result and the more support the result has.

I like the word “participation.”  It suggest to me that people come to the table to work together.  It reflects the hope that people meet as equals, or at least as equal as possible.  Partners discover solutions to shared problems together.  If people are partners rather than opponents they build trust with open, honest conversation.  That makes future problem solving even better.

IAP2 is an international leader in public participation.

I am on the board of the USA affiliate. The IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation (below) illustrates the range of public participation possibilities. It can help people understand what to expect from a public participation process. Different kinds of participation reach the different goals.

Excerpt from IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation Chart

For example, look at “inform.” Information goes one way, from the sponsor to the public. The decision maker retains all the power.
Read the goals from left to right and you may notice a progression. The information flow looks more and more like a give-and-take conversation. The decision making entity shares ever more decision making power.

My values encourage me to work toward “empower.” Yet, it is important not to over-reach.

The process may fail if the public and the decision maker do not have the experience and skills needed to reach a goal.
Stop and think of occasions when “inform” is as far as the process needs to go or may be where a process ends. For example, after a disaster community leaders do best to provide enough, accurate information.

There are occasions that have many public participation goals. One is disaster response planning. It requires a lot of good information get to people with different disaster responsibilities. For responders to understand and use an Emergency Operation Plan the planning process must also include goals that fit people’s different responsibilities.

Ken Kortenof is the Oneida County Emergency Management director. At the January Wisconsin Towns Association meeting he achieved several public participation goals.

Inform: He explained the Towns’ and County’s Emergency Operations planning and response process.
Consult: Mr. Kortenof invited questions.

Involve: Mr. Kortenof asked representatives at the meeting to talk with their Town leadership about their Emergency Operations Plan. He explained how he coordinates the Towns’ plans with the County and State Emergency Operations Plans. Finally, he offered to help Town officials and first responders update their Emergency Operations Plan.

Next month I will look at how to select public participation methods good for particular goals and situations.

International Association for Public Participation Core Values

The purpose of these core values is to help make better decisions which reflect the interests and concerns of people and entities potentially affected by a decision.

Core Values for the Practice of Public Participation

  • Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.
  • Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.
  • Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.
  • Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
  • Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
  • Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
  • Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision
Daniel Yankelovich and Will Friedman, eds. (2010). Toward Wiser Public Judgment. Nashville, TN. Vanderbilt University Press.
Will Friedman, Alison Kadlec, and Lara Birnback (2009). Transforming Public Life: Citizen Engagement and Community Transformation In Bridgeport, CT. Public Agenda, New York, NY. Downloaded from http://www.publicagenda.org/pages/index.php?qid=319#sthash.6XyDjR3p.dpuf
Elena Fagotto and Archon Fung (2009). Sustaining Public Engagement: Embedded Deliberation in Local Communities. Everyday Democracy and the Kettering Foundation. Download from http://www.everyday-democracy.org/resources/sustaining-public-engagement.
Edward Andersson, Emily Fennell and Thea Shahrokh (2011). Making the case for public engagement: How to demonstrate the value of consumer input. Involve. London, England. Download from http://www.involve.org.uk/blog/2011/07/18/making-the-case-for-public-engagement/. [The business case for consumer engagement.]
ICMA (International City/County Management Association) www.icma.org. A search on the term “public participation” yielded 373 resources. A search on the term “public engagement” yielded 3,500 resources. 26 June 2016
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