Introduction to Public Participation
What is public participation?
Public participation can be any process that directly engages the public in decision-making and gives full consideration to public input in making that decision.
Public participation is a process, not a single event. It consists of a series of activities and actions by a sponsor agency over the full lifespan of a project to both inform the public and obtain input from them. Public participation affords stakeholders (those that have an interest or stake in an issue, such as individuals, interest groups, communities) the opportunity to influence decisions that affect their lives.
Agencies should not be concerned that seeking public input means having to do “what the public wants.” Generally speaking, there is no single public. Rather, the public consists of a range of stakeholders holding an array of views and concerns on an issue. When conducting meaningful public participation, an agency will gather input from a wide spectrum of stakeholder interests, resulting in a wide range of views and concerns. The job of the sponsor agency then is to balance among these views and concerns and reflect back decisions so that the public understands how its diverse concerns were considered.
Not all public participation is the same. Conducting meaningful public participation involves seeking public input at the specific points in the decision process and on the specific issues where such input has a real potential to help shape the decision or action. It is rarely appropriate or useful to simply ask the public “what do you want.” Such broad questions will only raise expectations and likely direct input to areas where no influence is actually possible. Sometimes the opportunity for influence is quite small, while at other times the public can have a great deal of influence. The amount of this potential influence is the main consideration in designing a successful public participation program.
The section of this guide titled Selecting the Right Level of Public Participation discusses the different forms that public participation might take depending on the potential for public influence on a decision. These forms include:
- informing the public by providing information to help them understand the issues, options, and solutions
- consulting with the public to obtain their feedback on alternatives or decisions
- involving the public to ensure their concerns are considered throughout the decision process, particularly in the development of decision criteria and options
- collaborating with the public to develop decision criteria and alternatives and identify the preferred solution
- empowering the public by placing final decision-making authority in their hands.
Depending of the form of participation sought, public participation makes use of a variety of tools and techniques to inform the public, generate public input, and, in some cases, build consensus and reach agreement.
What are the benefits of public participation?
Public participation is not simply a nice or necessary thing to do; it actually results in better outcomes and better governance. When done in a meaningful way, public participation will result in two significant benefits:
- Sponsor agencies will make better and more easily implementable decisions that reflect public interests and values and are better understood by the public
- Communities develop long-term capacity to solve and manage challenging social issues, often overcoming longstanding differences and misunderstandings.
How does public participation result in better decisions?
Public participation contributes to better decisions because decision-makers have more complete information – in the form of additional facts, values, and perspectives obtained through public input – to bring to bear on the decision process. As a result, they can incorporate the best information and expertise of all stakeholders. Decisions are more implementable and sustainable because the decision considers the needs and interests of all stakeholders, and stakeholders better understand and are more invested in the outcomes. As a result, decisions that are informed by public participation processes are seen as more legitimate and are less subject to challenge. Decision-makers who fully understand stakeholder interests also become better communicators, able to explain decisions and decision rationale in terms stakeholders understand and in ways that relate to stakeholders’ values and concerns.
How does public participation develop community capacity?
Another major result of sustained stakeholder participation in decisions and their implementation is the development of capacity for managing difficult social problems. This capacity includes improved relationships between decision-makers and the public, and among different stakeholders themselves. Also, when done well, public participation helps to teach stakeholders meaningful and collaborative ways to approach each other, manage difficult decisions, and resolve disputes. Stakeholders learn to appreciate each others’ positions by first learning about each others’ values and interests.
Once stakeholders are invited into the decision process, it becomes more difficult for them to merely stand to the side and say “no.” As participants in good decision-making processes, all stakeholders must understand all sides of an issue, weigh the pros and cons, and make more thoughtful decisions. Stakeholders and communities do not generally achieve this on their own. Sponsoring agencies must recognize their responsibility to help communities build their capacity for collaborative problem solving.
Think About Community Capacity Building as Part of Public Participation
Effective public participation depends in part on a sponsor agency’s willingness and ability to involve the public in the decision process. While it is critical that sponsor agencies develop the skills to think through, plan for, and implement a public participation process, it is no less important that the public develop the capacity to participate effectively in decision processes. A well-designed and sincere participation process will not fulfill its potential if the public lacks the necessary participation skills. Hence, it is important for government agencies to build the public’s participation capacity.
Building participation capacity can be achieved in several ways:
- Modeling the behaviors that you want to see exhibited throughout the process
- Developing and sharing with the public guidance documents that promote the values of public participation (1 pg, 36K, About PDF Files) and delineate best practices
- Providing training to community leaders and stakeholder representatives in foundational public participation and communication skills
- Identifying facilitative leaders within sponsor agencies to mentor community groups/leaders by partnering with them during the planning and implementation of public participation processes. Inviting the public to participate in planning the process can create a sense of ownership among the public
- Hiring professional third-party facilitators to provide instruction at the project outset to sponsor agency staff and external stakeholders on participatory behaviors and techniques
- Where appropriate, using deliberative forums that encourage more active forms of participation instead of selecting forums that are viewed by sponsor agencies as being more “safe” because they control participation
- Providing technical assistance to the public or community groups to help them understand technical information relevant to the decision.
These strategies can help build the public’s capacity for participation. Ongoing interest in public participation, however, will depend on the extent to which public participation processes result in the opportunity for meaningful public input and influence on projects, and the degree to which sponsoring agencies are accountable to these results.
What are the necessary conditions for successful public participation?
Successful public participation requires the following conditions:
- Clear purpose and goals – a well-defined purpose for the public’s role in the project that is real, practical, and shared among stakeholders. Sponsoring agencies must determine the appropriate level or degree of public participation for the decision at hand and set the public’s expectations accordingly. No one benefits when agencies promise more in the way of public participation than they are willing to commit to and deliver. In fact, making promises that cannot be kept will undermine public confidence in the public participation process
- Clear structure and process – well-defined rules about how public participation will be conducted and how the decision will be made
- Actual opportunity for influence – the real opportunity for public input to be considered in making the decision
- Commitment to the process – managers and staff alike must be committed to the full range of activities required to make public participation work and be willing to obtain and consider public input in making the decision
- Inclusive and effective representation – reaching out to representatives of the full range of relevant stakeholder interests.
What are some additional considerations for successful public participation?
At the core of every public participation process is a promise to the public. This promise represents what the public can expect from the sponsoring agency with regard to access to and potential influence on the decision. The promise also defines the level of information and communication that can be expected. Sponsoring agencies that make clear, explicit promises will set clear expectations with their stakeholders and will be held appropriately accountable. Without clear promises, the pubic will interpret a wide range of expectations, most of which are not intended and cannot be met. When making promises, it is important to follow through and consider these three factors:
- Promise only what you believe you can deliver
- Deliver what you have promised
- Demonstrate what you deliver by communicating effectively.
In order to establish and maintain effective public participation, sponsoring agencies and decision makers should give careful consideration to how they are supporting the process. Some important elements to successful public participation can include the following:
- Sufficient resources to conduct the process – provide the funding and staff to support all aspects of the process, including a situation assessment, outreach activities, and obtaining and incorporating public input
- Participative capacity among staff and participants – conduct training in communication, outreach, and collaborative problem solving skills
- A climate of integrity – trust and credibility of government are essential for public participation. Public participation will not flourish where government agencies or decision makers are corrupt or disingenuous about considering public input
- A belief in the value of public input – the knowledge that public input will result in better decision-making and that public participation results in better governance
- Capacity to engage - ensuring that agencies know how to design and implement public participation processes, and that agencies and the public alike have the knowledge and communication skills to participate effectively in the process
- Complete transparency – the timely sharing of easily understandable and accessible information to educate the public about the issues and options.
The Importance of Transparency
Transparency represents the willingness of agencies to fully share the information, criteria, and deliberations of decision-making with the public. Without transparency, public input will not based on the same considerations that decision-makers are actually using to make decisions. As a result, the public is unlikely to understand why decisions are made or how those decisions will impact them. Much public outrage is a result of not being provided complete and timely information.
Although the conditions and responsibilities for public participation are significant, you should not feel daunted. Rather, public participation should be viewed as an opportunity to make a powerful decision – one that resolves issues to the broadest possible satisfaction and benefit of interested parties. When done well, the time and effort invested in public participation pay dividends by resulting in a more broadly acceptable, implementable, and sustainable decision.
Guide Navigation by Section:
- Introduction to the Public Participation Guide
- You are viewing Introduction to Public Participation
- Public Participation Situation Assessments
- Selecting the Right Level of Public Participation
- Public Participation Process Design
- Public Participation Tools
- Public Participation Workshops
- Public Participation Foundational Skills, Knowledge, and Behaviors
- Public Participation Resources
For additional information on EPA's Public Participation Guide, contact:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2650R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460