When a government organization reaches out to the general public or other key stakeholders to solicit their participation in the decision-making process, this is referred to as public participation (commonly referred to as public consultation or public engagement).
I consult and engage the public (and other stakeholders) on nearly all the projects I am involved with, from the preparation of strategic community plans, to envisioning a future use of a vacant or underutilized site, to trying to better understand the social impacts
of linear infrastructure projects (transportation, water and wastewater) in order to best minimize or mitigate construction-related disruptions such as noise, dust and vibration.
Effective public participation is becoming increasingly important, particularly for government organizations such as regional and local municipalities for two principal reasons:
- Because public and stakeholder groups expect to be involved in the decision–making process.
- Government recognizes the value of public participation as tool for making high-quality decisions and for building, maintaining and strengthening public trust and confidence.
Over a dinner party this past weekend I was asked what it is that I do for a living. I
responded by saying that I was a planner that helps communities become more sustainable by encouraging citizens to envision the kind of place they want their community to become (or not to become), and then crafting the policies needed to implement that vision. I also said that I help engineers better understand the human-side of large infrastructure projects, such as the potential socio-economic impacts of construction activities on residents.
The fellow seemed perplexed, as most people are when I tell them what I do. He followed-up by asking me how I consult the public. I explained the general process to him as well as the various techniques (Public Information Meetings, focus groups, Charettes, interviews etc.). He then asked me: “What differentiates a good public participation process from a poor one?” This is an important question. Far too often this vital step in the planning process is done poorly, and the consequences are many: Less informed decision-making leading to poor quality choices; increased public distrust and cynicism toward government; lack of public support for projects leading to increased costs; and, contribution to the increasing notion of “Information deficit” impairing the public’s view of government and services.
As a response, I gave him an abridged version of the following core public participation principles:
Ensure that the design, organization and convening of the process serves a clearly defined purpose and the articulated needs of the participants.
Be inclusive and foster diversity
Ensure that you have a good understanding of the kinds of people who may be impacted by, or interested in the outcomes of the assignment. Be double sure to include these
people in the process to realize quality outcomes and legitimacy.
Be open and learn
Encourage all participants to listen to one another, explore new ideas that are unconstrained by pre-determined notions and evaluate the public participation process for effectiveness along the way.
Collaborate and communicate a shared purpose
Support and encourage all participants to work together to advance the common good. It
is vital to find ways to allow for all perspectives to be shared, no matter how divergent. The reality is that our world is complex – divergence is a necessity before converging on a mutually satisfactory common ground.
Be clear and open about the planning process. Provide a public record of the process in
order for the public to see how decisions are being made. Also ensure that the public can understand and trace how their input has been used in decision-making.
Organize impactful sessions
Be sure that each participatory effort has the potential to make a tangible difference, and that participants are aware of that potential.
When public comments are provided, be sure to promptly and thoughtfully respond.
Be timely and committed
Involve the public as early on in the process as possible. Always make certain that the
public are asked for their opinions before a decision is made. Always provide appropriate time and resources to ensure that those involved can participate in a meaningful way.
Be accountable and have integrity
The decision-maker must be prepared to demonstrate that the results are consistent with the commitment to public participation. The decision-maker is to always address concerns in an honest and straightforward manner.
Andrzej Schreyer , R.P.P. is a senior land use and environmental planner with Hardy Stevenson and Associates and a member of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners. His experience includes developing and implementing public participation and communications plans, managing social impact assessments and land use studies in support of infrastructure projects and preparing community-based strategic plans.