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2016-07-29 | Public participation principles and tools

The only reason for the existence of local government is to improve the life of its community. This is best achieved when the community itself takes part in decisions, and shares responsibility. Unfortunately, average citizens are rarely interested in governance. Therefore, it becomes a tas for CSOs: they should participate in the decision-making processes themselves and, secondly, involve their fellow citizens.

Terms and definitions:

Public concerned – the public whose interests will be affected by the environmental consequences to which planning actions will lead or those having an interest in the consequences to which planning actions will lead.

Information – data, facts, messages about the state of affairs that one gets from the outside world through the sense organs (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching).

Criteria — grounds or rules for which information has to be checked to understand how it meets the given requirement.

Public – one or more individuals or a company, their association or group with the exception of organizations or people who are involved in writing legislation and passing the laws; authorities; bodies of judicial power and other bodies whose job responsibilities include decision-making.

Public hearings – an organized event that implies open discussion which is usually conducted by the local government to understand public opinion, get consultations and find the optimal solution of the problem that concerns life-being of the local community.

Decision-making – a process of choosing one variant out of several initiatives that is aimed at achieving a perceivable result.

Independent consultants – experts that provide advice for a fee.

Public participation – an unstoppable process of communication between the civilians and organizations that are responsible for decision-making. The goal of this communication is to make a decision that will take into consideration everyone’s opinion and will allow to prevent or minimize possible economic, social and ecological risks.

Facilitation – assistance provided by the professional expert to the group to ensure effective work and everyone’s participation in the discussion.

Although the legislation in many countries with young democracies ensures the person’s right to make decisions, it sometimes fails to specify the form and method for participation. The reason is probably the fact that local, municipal authorities and companies are not ready to work together with citizens yet. Therefore it is worth to consider the international agreements that the specific country has signed.

The principle of citizen’s participation is described in the basic documents of the international environmental legislation starting from Rio Declaration on Environment and Development that was approved by the UN during the Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992.

Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration reaffirms the participation of citizens on national level. Each individual should have appropriate access to information concerning the environment. There is a guaranteed opportunity for local authorities to participate in decision-making processes. States shall develop and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.

On June 25, 1998 the ministers of European states signed a convention in the Danish city of Aarhus. The Aarhus Convention reaffirms the right of the public to have a healthy environment. In particular, it reaffirms the right to have access to environmental information, justice and to participate in environmental decision-making.

Rights guaranteed by the Aarhus Convention:

Among the participants of the Aarhus Convention are Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The Convention establishes a minimum level of involvement and a set of actions to be followed. Articles 6, 7 and 8 of the Convention emphasize the following areas of public participation:

  • Decision-making that concerns administrative matters;
  • Decision-making that concerns environmental projects, programs and policies;
  • Preparation of the executive regulations or legally binding normative documents.

In 2012, to reaffirm the agreements and regulations that had been approved earlier, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution “The Future We Want”.

Article 44 of the resolution recognizes that the improved participation of civil society depends upon strengthening the access to information and facilitating the flow of information between governments and the public. In this regard, it is essential to work towards improved access to information as well as to communication technologies and services to bridge the digital development division.

Article 76 of the resolution encourages enhancing the participation and the effective engagement of the civil society in the relevant international forums and in this regard promoting transparency and broad public participation and partnerships to implement sustainable development.

All these international documents encourage the authorities in different countries to inform the public about their intentions and to listen to the public opinion, so that everyone can participate in the decision-making process. However, sometimes the citizens fail to use their rights as they lack both knowledge and experience in working with the authorities. Thus it is essential to share information about forms of public involvement into decision-making process. Below we will examine instruments that are provided by the above-mentioned international conventions.

System of public involvement in decision-making

Principles of effective organization of public involvement in the decision-making process

What decisions concern the environment?

  • Decisions on the specific types of activities that might be harmful for the environment or people’s health (for example the construction of a plant or disposure of a waste facility);

  • Decisions on environmental plans, programs and policies (i.e. development plans for a rural community or city);

  • Normative regulations that may affect environmental conditions.

The procedures for the public participation

The public participation can be illustrated with a ladder. On the bottom of the ladder, people get informed about the decisions that will affect them (by sending messages or publishing information on the official web-site). In this case the public can not influence the decision. In the middle of the ladder, the public can already express their opinion about the decisions before they are approved (consulting the public who can study the drafts and offer comments). On the top of the ladder, the public supports the authorities to make the decision (by public discussions or public expertise). Although every case has its strategy, good practice proves that the higher people climb up the ladder, the larger are the benefits for everyone.

Why is public participation so important?

How to involve the public?

The participation takes place on the territory where the community lives. It should not occur in exceptional conditions, but rather be part of the routine, and become the right and obligation of every member of the society as the consequences of the decisions will impact on them and their families.

It is desirable that the public gets involved as early as possible. Article 6 of the Aarhus Convention suggests the following:

  • Public participation in the earliest stages of decision-making that concerns environmental issues;
  • Opening all possible options for the discussion so that an effective public participation can take place.

In reality, it is possible that the public must get acquainted with the published information.

How does the cooperation in decision-making work on a local level?

Public concerned

As a rule, not all citizens do participate in public procedures. The most involved is usually a particular group of people who are most affected by the consequences of the decision and who want to express their attitude.

If it is essential to know the public opinion at any stage of a long process, it is worth having public representatives. When the public is invited to participate too often, they become bored and stop responding. By cooperating with a group of public representatives, there is no need to address the remaining part of the citizens so often. Moreover, the public representatives will have a more solid opinion about the issue as they will participate in the discussions on every stage of the process.

In the Aarhus Convention this group of people is defined as “the public affected or likely to be affected by, or having an interest in, the environmental decision-making”.

In regard to this, the public concerned usually includes:

  • Non-governmental, non-commercial organizations that represent the interests of a particular group of civilians and that can help to establish the dialogue to negotiate the interests;
  • People who live close to the territories that are likely to be affected by the planned activities and whose interests are not represented by any NGOs. These are separate civilians or initiative groups.

What can the public concerned do?

  • Receive information from the local authorities, companies, organizations and other involved participants about the procedures for public participation;
  • Participate in the public hearings (meetings and discussions) within the local community;
  • Monitor the law enforcement in terms of public participation;
  • Act as an observer or an expert during the decision-making process;
  • Interact with the local authorities.

Stages of public participation in the environmental decision-making

Which resources are required for public participation?

Time: People require time to learn about the problem and possible ways to influence the decision-making process. Time is also required to research the problem, to set up the meetings and to prepare and implement the action plan.

Concerned parties: Groups of citizens or individuals who are concerned by a specific problem should gather and work as a single team, so that they can affect the decision-making. People may gather at events such as meetings, debates, or hearings. Or they may turn to experts for expertise in order to achieve the best results.

Media interest: Information should always be shared among the concerned parties. The public participation has no sense without the information. Media, especially the local one, plays an important role in involving the public in decision-making. They form the public opinion using simple and comprehensible means by informing the local community about the state of the problem and planned activities.

Instruments and technologies for public participation in decision-making

Public participation is a lengthy process that may take from 6 months up to several years. With the help of such long discussions that lead to common opinion, the parties in developed countries agree to such projects as territorial development plans, projects for area development, road construction, forest management and other documents that do not raise conflicts and do not require reconsideration the next day after the signing.

Mechanisms for public participation

The mechanisms for public participation apply to the following:

  • drafts of the legislation that, when applied, may affect the environment negatively;
  • projects of investment programs of the local authorities;
  • drafts of the agreements that imply the use of natural resources and (or) production of waste;
  • all types of urban planning documentation;
  • projects of urban and rural settlements;
  • general plans of the territories under the supervision of the local authorities, as well as industrial and recreational areas and areas with a different purpose;
  • projects for planning and developing the center, urban areas, highways and other settlements;
  • projects of reclamation of the soil that was affected during geological drilling, blasting and other works;
  • project schemes for exploring water, forest, land and other types of natural resources;
  • getting license to perform any action that may affect the environment;
  • negotiating the construction projects, including internal roads;
  • projects for open-cast working.

The most appropriate mechanisms for public participation.

Stages of public participation

How does public participation work?

The participation of the public usually occurs when all concerned parties cooperate to introduce and implement changes.

Table 1. A Sample program for cooperation with concerned parties

Concerned parties Means of communication Disclosed information Deadline
People who are directly affected by the problem that needs to be solved: local citizens and employees. Informational boards in the neighborhood, mailboxes, door-to-door visits. Claims, proposals, reviews. Before the public participation process.
During the process – update in accordance with the claims.
Citizens of the nearest cities in the same region. Informational boards, mass media, Internet, social network. Claims, proposals, reviews. Before the public participation process.
During the process – update in accordance with the claims.
Regional public. Newspapers, internet, employment center. Claims, reviews. Quarterly update.
Regional mass media. Telephone, email. Detailed information is available upon request. Quarterly update.
Local NGOs. Telephone, newspapers, documents available upon request via web-site and meetings in the office. Detailed information is available upon request. Quarterly update.
Local councils. Meetings, telephone, email, informational stands in local councils. Resolutions of public meetings. Quarterly update.
Goods and service suppliers. Informational stands with mailboxes, office visits, Internet. Tender documents, requirements for environmental protection, health and safety, review of claims. Quarterly update.
Sanitary and epidemiology agency. Personal delivery of the documents to the office. Project documentation. Before conducting general expertise.
Emergency management agency. Official emails, meetings, telephone negotiations with regional administration. Emergency preparedness and response plan. Before the project launch; feedback after an emergency.
Central office of government. Official emails. Reports about natural resources exploitation, law enforcement and permissions. Before the project launch.
Submission every 6 months.
International NGOs and environmental organizations. No direct contact; documents are available on the web-site, email correspondence. Contact information. Before making a decision and within the whole process or the project realization.

Public participation campaign planning

Strategic planning is important for the society that is eager to develop no matter what kind of problem they are trying to solve (ecology, health safety, education, etc.). This process is aimed at helping the public to understand the goals and to make all efforts to achieve them. This approach also helps to act on the strategic plan, to follow it strictly despite one’s best intentions. The motivation for the community is the model for the desired future that was defined by all members of this community.

Strategic planning for “healthy communities”

Context for using the method:

This method may be used as the first step to solve a specific problem. This approach was used to plan the budget and management scheme in Albuquerque (New Mexico, USA) for annual Armenian peace corps and a Georgian student forum, where the students studied different ways of regional development. The method of strategical planning is being used by organizations and groups of people in newly independent countries all over the world.

How does it work? There are several key stages of this strategic planning:

Organizational structure of the strategic plan and preparation and monitoring of its implementation consists of two blocks: an open public gathering, where everyone concerned may take part, and constant work of the council that monitors the accomplishment of the strategic plan.

Open public gathering is an important start to give everyone the opportunity to speak up. During the meeting the citizens discuss desirable conditions for their communities and define their future. The key tasks for the preparation of such public gatherings are:

  • advertisement campaigns;
  • having the gathering organized for a date at a weekend will help to attract more participants;
  • invitation of professional facilitators;
  • defining general basic conditions which are desirable for the community, their specification and proposal of the strategy for their achievement.

Evaluating current state of affairs.

In order to identify what measures should be taken to create necessary conditions, it is necessary to evaluate the current state of affairs and to compare it with the desirable one, including “good, bad and awful” sides, but not focusing on the “bad and awful” ones. “Good” – is a set of resources that may be invested in the desirable future. Then the group discusses them and choses five conditions that they need to create.

As a rule, people tend to be not very objective when evaluating the current situation. One of the useful instruments to do that is by using criteria. To set them it is necessary:

  • to identify a few outcomes with which most of the attendees would agree;
  • to check if it is possible to measure them in terms of quality and quantity;
  • to set criteria which would cover all requirements in the desired areas.

Evaluation of the public resources. To understand the state of the community it is essential to understand not only how the current situation is different from a desirable one, but also which resources it possesses. It is not uncommon that communities underestimate the current state of affairs, but overestimate requirements for the necessary resources (natural, cultural, economic, etc.).

By the end of the meeting the project managers should analyze the documents and forward them to the Results monitoring committee.

Results monitoring committee. The committee is responsible for constant monitoring of the plan’s development. It may be a group of volunteers (up to 20 people). Their main task at this stage is to involve people who know how to analyze the data, to set the criteria, to keep looking for new data (do not expect volunteers to do a long-term and tedious job) and to publish the results of the work.

Strategy and choice. The community will choose the strategy in the working process through trying new approaches, evaluating the results, learning from mistakes and adapting the procedures – not by sticking to one plan. The key element for this stage is trying, evaluating intermediary results and being flexible to use another approach if the previous one failed.

Risks and problems.

  • Given that this approach to strategic planning is rather new and not typical, it requires additional education for all interested parties. They should stop concentrating on the problems and rather focus on the results.

  • This method of strategic planning requires more time than others would. It might be worth using it within a small group that can agree on an action plan more easily.

How to deal with them? While using this approach to strategic planning, the community should keep in mind the following:

  • focus on results of the work instead on means of achievement; focus on desires instead of problems;

  • definite (not vague) goals, which would imply moving from notions that can not be measured (“more”, “less”, “increased”, “decreased”), can be ambiguous (“support”, “improve”, “involve”) or can not be achieved (“get it by 100%”).

The development of plans for rural parts of many countries, for “healthy communities” international projects, and for student organizations all over the world has proved its efficiency in insuring the stable and thriving growth.

Risks and problems.


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