This is part two of a three part series on the evolution of public consultation, written by Environmental Planner, Danya Al-Haydari.
Public consultation is a regulatory process by which the public’s input on matters affecting them is sought. Its main goals are in improving efficiency, transparency and public involvement in large-scale projects or laws and policies.
As noted in a previous blog post, public consultation is a part of our environmental legislation here in Canada (e.g. Environmental Assessments (EAs)). However, various other activities, such as strategic plans or amendments to ‘Acts’, etc. also have provisions for public consultation that aren’t necessarily enshrined in law like the EA process, but exist due to the nature of the project which often requires incorporating feedback from the public for a variety of purposes. Basically, public consultation is like a ‘zeitgeist’ for many governmental projects (and some private industry, depending on the nature of the project) these days, and you can readily find information on how to participate on pretty much any project of interest. This truly is the ‘golden age’ for the concept of public consultation.
So what was the process for involving the public say, 40 years ago before there was such an interest in incorporating public consultation into projects? Let’s face it – many years ago there simply weren’t public consultation processes for development or environmental projects. It just wasn’t part of the ‘zeitgeist’ of the time. Highways, airports, landfills, etc. were sited by a top down, technical approach where government bodies basically decided where they wanted such developments to go or how they wanted projects to proceed and that was the end of it. There may have been some discontent voiced by local residents, but it wasn’t necessarily considered to be a barrier to project implementation.
This was the case when the US government was searching for a location to site a repository for high level nuclear fuel waste back in the 70’s and 80’s. The concept of ‘Decide, Announce, Defend’ (DAD) was commonplace. The DAD approach is pretty self explanatory and it had no provisions for public input. However, citizens and – in the case of the US nuclear waste example – local governments became way more savvy and demanded the ability to influence decision making processes. For instance, the decided upon final resting place for the US’ nuclear waste repository was Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and we all know what happened to that – strong public and political opposition (in addition to funding for the project being cut) resulting in project failure!
So what lessons can we learn from past experiences with public consultation? Here are a
- Involve the public early on in the process to ensure issues are brought to the forefront before the project is ready to launch;
- The ability for the public to understand a project should not be underestimated – with the right tools provided by project proponents, the public can offer excellent local knowledge that can be used to prevent issues from arising before it’s too late; and
- Deliberative processes that involve the public in the decision making process give people a sense of ownership over a project and foster support in a local community.
Danya Al-Haydari is an Environmental Planner at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, where she specializes in public consultation, environmental assessment and energy policy. She has coordinated work for the Port Hope and Port Granby Projects, and conducted research on the Port Hope Area Initiative’s Property Value Protection Program. Most recently, she co-authored a paper for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization on community well-being in nuclear host communities. Danya is a member of the Canadian Nuclear Society and Women in Nuclear Canada.