Introduction to the Public Participation Discussion Group

The blog is a team discussion place where you can post and discuss information relevant to your team.

Aug 1, 2008

Welcome to the discussion.

My intention in starting this group is to bring together our experiences in the practice of public participation. To ask questions about the different ways that the public are encouraged/ enabled/ patronised/ prevented/ misled etc. In other words:

what tools have you found useful? what are the resources that you have found most useful? what are the ways of communicating and dialogue that work best in your country and could these be useful for others to learn from? what are the pitfalls?

In this discussion we can help each other by talking about the difficulties we have experienced and the mistakes we have made as well as the good practice we have developed.

The Irish Government has recently taken the lead in setting up a taskforce on Public Participation on behalf of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, and I see great possibilities here for synergy between TAI and the Aarhus family.

Let Them Say
11:36pm - Aug 1, 2008

Dear Michael, Thank you for starting up this group. Something has puzzled me for the last several decades about this public participation concept. This is especially with marginalised groups in Cameroon in particular and Africa in general. PP practitioners/promoters have done the talking for these groups more than they have done for themselves. In my opinion, if after a decade or so of working with a community and one still have to speak on their behalf because they cannot speak for themselves, then one surely has to revise one`s strategy. I think some key yardsticks and milestones for PP should be direct participation by the people themselves. So let them say !!!!!! What do you think?

People and Participation
6:34pm - Aug 5, 2008

I enjoyed reading the conversation here so far. We attempted to tackle a few of these issues when we wrote Voice and Choice. So let me take a crack at some of them.

First, I agree with you entirely that participation of general members of the public in an EIA or policy-making process is an ideal we should strive for. This is especially important for those members of the public who have views that differ from the electoral majority. Reforms can be made and should be made to lower the costs of participation and information-gathering.

However, even in countries with strong EIA processes or particularly open legislative or administrative policy-making, very few members of the public will participate. I assume this is because most people make a cost-benefit analysis in their head and decide that the time and energy is not worth it or that the risks of participating and speaking out are too great. Often this is because participation has no teeth and no accountability. One of the findings from Voice and Choice was that in nearly 50 EIA processes globally there was rarely a record of public input or any written response from public officials. Given the fact that there is not even transparency (let alone accountability) in most proceedings, I can hardly I would be surprised that most people choose not to participate.

It is also important that we acknowledge that public participation is only a single mechanism –only one part of the solution– allowing communities to have their voices heard and to defend their own interests. NGOs can make efforts to ensure that community members themselves are participating, but ultimately, elections, secure land rights, and access to courts put teeth into the average person’s ability to have their voice not just heard, but heeded. I think it is important that we see our work as part of the larger matrix of institutions and channels that create accountability for the average citizen.

I am currently working on a paper which will outline a framework suggesting the types of reforms that will encourage participation, but the role of NGOs, media, and local government as intermediaries will likely not diminish in aiding participation. I will post it on the poverty discussion page soon.

Public participation
5:01pm - Aug 6, 2008

I agree with Augustine on the “Let Them Say strategy” but also recognise the fact that it is a long tactical process for the results to be realised. The type of community, the nature of the issues being dealt with, and and the “powers that be” actually determine how successfull this strategy can be. Direct participation is indeed the best way of promoting real public participation but due to various factors, sometimes participation is compromised and just used as rubberstamping. The idea of empowering the people to build their civic competence and enable them to engage in genuine participation really demands alot from both us who design the strategies, the communities that we target, and the environment within which we are operating (political, social and economic)

Public Participation in Decesion Making
11:44pm - Aug 6, 2008

I agree most of the argument about the Public Participation like engaging various local groups such as local CBOs, NGOs, and Intermediaries to increase the Public Participation. I want to emphasize the word effective participation i.e. the participation is not just shake of appearing in the gathering and protest. If the voice raised by the people heard and given proper place in the discussion, in fact in the reporting as well as documentation of the public participation and procedure of the events would really means the public participation. There should be report back system, whether public voice has been heard and incorporated in the process or not?

I want to share couple of issue based degree of participation in Nepal. Pro Public being an advocacy, research and litigation based organization, up on announcement for the public comment on EIA of several development works of our interest and working area, we from the organization level use to review the bulky EIA reports and sent our comments to the concerned stakeholder/proponent specified. Up on reviewing the EIA of Medical Waste Management Project for Kathmandu Valley, we have found that the out of 28 Public Participated in the Public Hearing, 24 represent the proponents group directly and indirectly. So remaining 4 were seems to be real Public. Up on digging out in-depth, among those 4 public, two once again found to be workers at the Kathmandu Metropolitan City, the proponent again. So though we have enough legal provision of Public Participation in the EIA process start from scoping to final approval stage, sometimes Participation of that degree of ignorance was happened. So it is not at all public participation if one can invite all the beneficial groups in the public hearing or inviting their own people leaving the possible Project Affected People.

The second aspect of the Public Participation in Nepal is there is no report back system about the public participation formally institutionalizes in Nepal and may be in other countries. As I have mentioned above, we as a NGO working for protection of public interest use to sent our written comment on EIA reports. After that we also duly invited for the participating in the discussion on our comment. But we have not yet received written information on the status of our comments whether it has been incorporated in the final report or not? However, up on informal discussion, we usually came to know that based on our comments, Pro Public has been nominated as a monitoring committee members during the operation of that particular project. As these has happened in case of Kathmandu Medical Waste Management project including provision for incineration. Pro Public has been nominated as one of the representative in the monitoring of the stack emission as well as environment monitoring of that project. So sending credible comments on the EIA report is one effective way of ensuring real PP.

The third aspect of the PP with reference to Nepal I need to highlight is that our country has undergone great political transformation from democracy to republican country. Where higher degree of inclusiveness and representation from most of the parties, cast, ethnicity, groups, indigenous groups, women, janjati, Dalit has been tried to achieve from all concerned. In fact at least they have opt for this but not able to maintain as per their political agenda. So as we see the improvement taking place towards making inclusiveness in most of the things seems to be a real public participation. I personally perceived that the representation from large component of the society in the parliaments is the wider PP and at the same time their access to decision making is the direct representation of the public and hence it can be considered as the PP in the decision making process as the parliamentarian are the elected representative of the people. However the TAI assessment toolkits description did not recognize the participation of the public representative in the decision making as the PP. So I assume to have more discussion on this issue whether we consider the representation of public representative parliamentarian as PP in decision making or not? Based on our country contest, I can say yes, it is.

Ram Charitra Sah Project Coordinator TAI Nepal/ Pro Public

Effective participation
1:09pm - Aug 15, 2008

Ram Charitra Shah mentioned a key point: effective public participation. Certainly none of us or of the access practitioners do our job for the sake of hearing our own voice, sometimes in vain. We do want to achieve a change - or block a change once it is environmentally harmful. The key to this problem is effective remedies (including judicial). This is an evergreen problem - and one of the major findings of the European Regional Report (2006) - that despite having mechanisms, platforms, interfaces available for the public to COMMENT, there are only a few opportunities to INFLUENCE. An example (not to the issue of remedies, though): the Indian manufacturing company Apollo Tyres negotiated with the Government of Hungary in order to build a car tyre manufacturing plant in the town of Gyongyos. Local citizens have initiated a local referendum against the project. Apollo Tyres have announced yesterday that they “would not like to come to a place where they are not welcome”, thus the project failed. This also seems to be an answer to Augustine and Sophie that sometimes direct participation is the best tool for making a change. And in this case, this was also effective.

The Practice of Participation
7:38am - Sep 3, 2008

Michael Ewing Ireland

When I started this discussion I didn’t know what to expect, but I have been very stimulated by the different aspects of debate that have already emerged.
Firstly it is clear that, in the absence of the rule of law and a form of democratic open society, people are always going to find it difficult if not nigh on impossible to participate in any decision-making, environmental or otherwise. Similarly without proper accessible legal redress then there are no guarantees for anyone attempting to assert their participatory rights. Ram Charitra Sah rightly points to the need to have real parliamentary representation of the wishes of the people, but this is not usually anywhere near enough to protect the rights of the public both present and future to a clean and healthy environment.
The public must be included in all decision-making that effects their health or the environment at whatever level that decision is being made. They must be included at the earliest possible moment and their involvement must be reflected in the outcome of the process, even if it is only an explanation of why their input wasn’t used. This applies to financial decisions that impact on the environment as well as impact assessments, planning, permitting, licensing or other processes. The realisation that the public are “experts”, when it comes to their home environment and their own needs, is supported both by research but also by the many instances where developers ignored the public wisdom and it ended up costing the developer dearly. Given all of the above, how do we ensure that best practice is used in public participation processes, and indeed what constitutes best practice? It is unlikely to be ‘one size fits all’. Do the techniques that work well in one country or culture produce good outcomes in another? For 30 years or more participatory practice has been developing in many parts of the world but it is my impression that only a small amount of it from anglophone countries is being reported. So lets hear about what has worked for you? Is the public meeting really the last of the blood sports? Is consultation the same thing as partcipation? How do we ensure that the poor, the illiterate, and the marginalised are also able to participate and have their wisdom included in decisio-making?

Just a few questions!!!

3:47pm - Sep 5, 2008

Michael just properly noted that there are diverse techniques in public participation that allow citizens to express their thoughts before a development decision. Let us not go into details now how early this can happen BEFORE the actual decision. I would rather say, no matter what techniques were developed, most of them could not cross that psychological Rubicon that the ultimate decision is not made by the public but expert bodies and state administration. This however reflects a 19th century division of society: public = lay persons / government = experts. But this is outdated as again Michael noted when people are better experts of their own surrounding than contracted impact assessors. Maybe referendum (national and local) are the instruments that are decisive enough and give real power to the public. But many conditions can complicate this promising picture, e.g. quorum, publicity of arguments pro and contra, etc. I am not sure this was a helpful comment…

Thank you all for these interesting comments. Let me make one point. There are several regulatory and management tools developed over the years to improve environmental governance. These include Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA), spatial planning, legislative hearings, public hearings etc. Recent studies on EIA have shown that one of the weakest elements of the process is public participation. Often, EIA processes treat public participation as a necessary evil and stick it at the end. Clearly, there is a need for participation to happen at the earliest point in all of these processes if it is to truly influence decision-making.

But, it is also important to note that we need multiple channels for citizens to express their voice. In this sense, some advocate EIA as the best way to promote citizen voices in environmental decision-making. Others think that SEA or planning and zoning processes are the best way to do it. Frankly, we need all of them and more. Short of direct decision-making by the public (referendums and plebiscites etc), we need to develop and advocate multiple channels of public influence and voice at all levels of government decision-making - legislative, executive and judicial.

Fully agree
9:10am - Oct 2, 2008

Dear Lalanath, I can not do anything but fully agree with you! We at EMLA have no strategy, etc. but tried to do instinctively what you formulated in your comment. As we used to say: shoot at everything that moves. Take every opportunity (formal and informal) to influence a development decision-making (btw, how misleading this term “development” is in this context!). Unfortunately, this pattern is also known for the other side. Polluters usually take every opportunity to weaken public participation or access practitioners. Just let us think about SLAPP cases…

Broader standing in airport cases
10:27am - Oct 23, 2008

Dear All, Let me share with you one of our recent wins in Hungary that has an impact on standing.

Airport construction is experiencing some kind of a boom in Hungary. As a result, the number of airport related cases running parallel at EMLA has risen to four. In one such case a former Soviet military air base near Budapest (currently known officially as a “non-public site for take-offs and landings”) will be transformed into a commercial airport. Part of the permitting process is the setting of the so-called “noise protection zone” around the airport. In fact, this is a zone delineated around the airport within which the ambient noise level will exceed the permissible limit values. Thus, certain restrictions and adaptation mesaures will have to be introduced within the zone. A neighbouring town’s municipality has complained at the court that only because the boundaries of the protective zone do not cut accross the frontiers of the territory of the town (i.e. there is no overlap between the area of the town and the protective zone of the airport) based on the initial calculations of the project developer, it has no standing whatsoever in the process where the National Air Traffic Authority eventually defines the zone and its details. The Authority agreed with the interpretation of the project developer and excluded the municipality from the process. EMLA lawyers have represented the municipality against the National Air Traffic Authority in a lawsuit. The final judgment made by the Budapest Capitol Court in June 2008 stated that legal standing should be granted to the municipality based on the notion of affectedness. In its reasoning, the Court held that the specific subordinate legislation prevailing in airport construction cases and limiting the persons to be notified of the decision on the noise protective zone to those only whose territory overlaps with the protective zone (i.e. where ambient noise limit values will be exceeded due to the air traffic) is unreasonably restrictive. It also held, that the criteria to be met to have standing are set by an Act of Parliament, the Administrative Procedure Act. This includes a test of affectedness which was clearly met by the plaintiff municipality for at least two reasons. On the one hand, the municipality is obliged by law to implement the protection of environment on its own terrritory. On the other hand, the affectedness was partly demonstrated by letters of complaints submitted to the municipality by local environmental NGOs who have petitioned even against the current noise of a few take-offs and landings. Ultimately, the Court reaffirmed that a lower level norm on technical details of airport construction can not in any way overwrite a national Act of Parliament setting the boundaries of standing and ordered the National Air Traffic Authority to invovle the municipality into the process as a party.

Participatory legislative processes
7:27pm - Oct 6, 2009


I’m working as an independent consultant to the Soros Foundation in Romania. As one of my tasks, I am writing a paper on participatory legislative processes in the mining sector. In particular, I’m looking for examples in which governments have engaged with civil society to develop mining policy. I know of some cases in Canada, South Africa, and have heard of cases in Ghana and Peru, but don’t have too much information.

Does anyone have any information (preferably written papers) they could share with me, even if not related to the mining sector per se?

Thanks very much.

Marta Miranda, Principal Terra Business & Environment Strategies Washington, DC.

Accessinitiative, I like your style
3:26am - Aug 16, 2011

All I had to put in the search engine was: discussion groups for public participation, and there you were.

Thanks for being there, I hope I can find some contributions that won’t waste your time–’..keep it clean, no hitting below the belt..’.

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