Skip to main content

One way to avoid public participation nightmares

You're a decision-maker, with some institution or organization, and there's an issue or project where you want to consult with members of the public. How can you get their input in a way that will be meaningful, in a process that will feel inclusive and collaborative? If the issue is contentious, and you want to gather input without delegating your authority to make the final decision, how can you engage participants in a way that won't feel completely disingenuous?

This is no small task, and is the subject of much research, training, and deliberation amongst public participation facilitators and consultants. More often than not, efforts at public participation are a disaster. Participants can feel as though their input is not considered seriously, are frustrated that their proposals and feedback are not adopted, and practitioners are left with more information than they know what to do with. At worst, trust in the institution itself is eroded.

Trust in the public realm is a growing problem, with current studies reporting that trust in public institutions is in decline. At best, a solid process to include the public in decision-making can increase trust and support for your work.

There are a lot of dimensions to designing and implementing an effective public participation process (for resources and training on the topic check out In this post I'm only going to focus on one key consideration: how and whether participants should interact with each other. One of the key failures of many efforts at meaningful public participation is not allowing participants to engage with one another. The institution solicits feedback from each participant, one on one, independent of feedback that is received from other participants. This is depicted by the drawing on the left:

It's far more meaningful, effective, and ultimately collaborative, to equip participants with the opportunity to connect with one another, as well as the institution, through the process. This is depicted by the drawing on the right hand side. Enabling this will empower participants to challenge one another, to adjust their own perspectives, and to explore and reveal new insights about the issue. This is not possible when feedback is collected from participants who are silo'd from one another.

This kind of interaction can be achieved via discussion groups, focus groups, world cafes, or even short term task forces or committees. Irrespective of the outcome of the process, participants can build relationships and learn new things about themselves, their community, and public issues if they can interact with one another through. In addition, this approach gives you, the decision-maker, a kind of filter or initial review for feedback from the public. If each person submits their feedback directly, you are left sorting through massive amounts of input. If, however, participants can review proposals and suggestions from one another, and agree on key principles or concepts to provide as feedback, then they are beginning the review process for you, and refining the items that get put forward as public input.

So let people talk to one another, and be up front with whether and how you'll be using their feedback in the decision-making process. For a great spectrum when it comes to public participation in decision-making, have a look here.


Popular posts from this blog

Why democracy doesn't mean you get your way - Part 2

If you do an online search of the word "democracy", you'll come across references to things like 'majority decision-making' or 'control by a majority'. Majority decision-making, and voting, are often assumed to be key features of a democracy.

However: neither voting, nor control by a majority, are necessary for democratic decision-making.

This may come as a shock, but there are ways for groups of people to make decisions that do not involve voting. Voting leaves very little room for nuance, for the exploration of alternatives, or for compromise between disparate perspectives.

Majority decision-making, for its part, can lead to a tyranny of the majority, the oppression of minority perspectives, the polarization of opinions, and, by definition, a portion of participants whose preferences are ignored.

So what's the alternative?

If you're part of a group that is empowered to make a decision on some issue (a board, community group, committee, etc), you…

Freedom to do stuff vs. freedom from stuff

As our children grow up we typically give them more freedom and discretion over the activities they will pursue, and increasing freedom of choice when it comes to who they will associate with and the type of education they want. It's commonly accepted that freedom from tyranny, oppression, and control is a hallmark of a democratic society; we should be free to lead and build a life of our choosing. Leading and guiding one another to a life of freedom is a great privilege that many communities are still fighting and striving towards. 
However, when our children are young, we're a bit more directive. When I wake up my daughters in the morning, whether they get dressed, eat breakfast, and get ready for school is not up for discussion or deliberation. At first, commanding them when to put on their shoes might seem to contravene their freedom of choice. Am I restraining their liberty? Obstructing their progress as free individuals? In directing them through these activities, it is…

Collaborative Governance in Action

Government: one participant amongst many

In a previous post we highlighted the need to go beyond voting for robust democratic participation. But if that's the case then the question becomes - how? Where do we create places for collaboration, discussion, and dialogue surrounding key issues facing our communities?

One possibility is to set up opportunities for collaborative governance. Now remember, governance is distinct from government; governance refers to decision-making practices and structures, and alsothe broader systems in which decisions about our communities are made. A government is a specific entity endowed with decision-making authority over something.

Collaborative governance simply refers to decision-making where multiple different organizations are involved. In these forums, governments are one of the participants amongst many, as opposed to being the sole arbiter over final decisions. Decision-making takes place between both state and non-state entities, and authori…