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Empowering Communities, Strengthening Decisions

Karen Ciesielski, IEN, outlined how public participation lies at the heart of our social contract at our Social Policy Conference 2020.  Below is an extract from her paper.

Public participation lies at the heart of the social contract, which has not always been a given in relation to environmental decision-making. Individuals and communities have come together to organise, mobilise and use legal mechanisms where necessary to protect their environment, working tirelessly to have their voices heard, whether they were formally invited to participate or not.

Benefits of community-centred decisions which result from effective public participation:

  • Improved quality of decisions that are made, particularly when local knowledge and community concerns are reflected and incorporated in the outcomes.
  • More effective implementation of decisions concerning the environment, with increased legitimacy and the potential to reduce conflict.
  • Greater transparency and accountability, which builds trust in institutions and in the decision-making processes themselves, strengthening democracy.
  • Active and engaged communities.

There are a number of ways that public participation in Ireland currently happens in relation to environmental decision-making processes, including:

Established structures

Public Participation Networks (PPNs): Groups with a core focus on environmental issues can join the environmental college of their PPN, which is an important linkage to local government decision-making channels.

Local Environmental Networks (LENs) are made up of individuals and groups with interests in a wide range of environmental issues. They provide a central hub around which people from a given county can gather, discuss projects, ask for help, create change and become involved in their local PPN they wish.

Deliberative processes
Citizens Assemblies have provided space for context, rich dialogue and discussion in relation to movements for social change, for example regarding marriage equality and enhanced reproductive rights. The Citizens Assembly on Climate Action for example made 13 recommendations outlining how Ireland could transform into a leader in tackling climate change.

Public Consultations
Members of the public are asked to share their views on a particular piece of legislation, policy development, planning application, etc. How this happens and the process for gathering public inputs and feedback vary widely according to the government department or body, ranging from an online survey of multiple-choice questionnaires to detailed written submissions.

Public Engagement and Dialogue Events/Activities
Members of the public may be invited to take part in town hall type events, roundtables, seminars, webinars, etc. to learn more about a particular initiative, ask questions and provide direct feedback to public bodies. 

The Environmental Pillar
The Environmental Pillar was established as an independent national social partner by the Irish Government in 2009 as a way to involve civil society in public debate and policy making as it pertains to the natural environment. The work of our members covers a broad range of areas including habitat conservation, wildlife protection, environmental education, sustainability, waste and energy issues, as well as environmental campaigning and lobbying. 

We work towards achieving sustainable development, according to the Rio Declaration of 1992[1]. These principles require the balancing of the three pillars of sustainable development - social, environmental, and economic.

Consultative Committees and Advisory Bodies
Representatives of civil society may be invited to join consultative committees and advisory bodies to advise on, and develop, policies pertaining to the natural environment. 

Weaknesses of Current Models of Public Participation

Though there are a number of ways through which the public can engage and participate in environmental decision-making processes, there are weaknesses with these models, which include:

  • There is a quite low level of general awareness and information among the public about how to get involved in local decision-making.
  • Citizens Assemblies have proven to be fantastic opportunities for rich discussion, understanding and consensus building. We need to develop and facilitate models for public participation which encourage a similar level of debate and dialogue in other fora, including at local and regional levels.
  • Persistent barriers for marginalised communities to participate fully in environmental decision-making remain and must be addressed through ways of working which are inclusive and accessible by design, right through to implementation. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in relation to participation, particularly in relation to the availability of high-quality broadband as we have seen a shift to online events and processes.
  • There is no set rule around timeframes for public consultations. As a result, we generally see timescales which are too short, leading to challenges in obtaining proper feedback and engagement by the public.
  • There is a lack of consistency from relevant departments and bodies in terms of where to find information about public consultations, how to participate, formats and nature of inputs.
  • Inadequate resourcing for public participation prevents widescale engagement and limits contributions from individuals and communities.
  • We need to close the feedback loop: when individuals, community groups and NGOs make submissions, they need to be kept informed about where that feedback goes and the impact that their contributions have made to the finished policy document.
  • The public should be able to provide input/comments and have due account taken of them at an early stage of decision-making when all options are still open, on whether the proposed activity should go ahead at all (referred to as the “zero option”). This has special significance if the proposed activity may be of high risk and/or with unknown potential environmental impact.
  • Public dialogue events can be more one-way in nature as opposed to allowing for genuine discussion and knowledge exchange among all stakeholders. As events have moved online, the prevalence of pre-selected questions has emerged as a potential barrier to a full and rich debate about issues of importance to communities.

A New Roadmap to Empower Communities and Strengthen Decisions

As we work towards a just recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, we must put people and communities at the centre of decision making through deliberative processes that are participative, open and inclusive at every stage if we are to ensure that no one is left behind. We need to engage, inform and build trust, particularly among the most marginalised individuals and communities, adopting new ways of working:

  • Appropriate levels of funding and staff resources to administer public participation processes are also necessary to be fully participative.
  • Barriers to participation need to be mitigated, for example issues in relation to literacy, mobility, geographic location, etc. when designing and implementing public participation processes.
  • Sufficient timeframes for all stages of public participation processes, which includes time for taking due account of the outcomes and provisions for ‘the zero option’ is absolutely critical.
  • Policy making processes must be open, inclusive and transparent by design and implementation, with clear and widely accessible information sharing and consistent frameworks for participation.
  • We need to close the feedback loop, ensuring people know what happens to their submissions and views after they submit them.
  • Critically, we need to ensure that civil society can choose our own representatives in official fora, encouraging active citizenship and robust decision-making processes.[2]
  • We need to harness the knowledge and expertise available in local communities throughout the country by reinvigorating and appropriately resourcing PPNs, which can and should play a much bigger role in public participation.

The full paper is available to download here. 

[1]https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/generalassem...

[2] https://www.wheel.ie/sites/default/files/media/file-uploads/2018-08/Powe...