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Delivering Deliberative Democracy - Participation by the Public Participation Networks in Local Government Decision-making

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Since early 2014, the PPNs have evolved, from the initial Introduction Period, through the Development Period to the Consolidation Period (Bourke, 2017) and are now firmly established and recognised as the main conduit by which Local Authorities engage with their communities, with a membership of more than 15,000 organisations from the Community and Voluntary, Social Inclusion and Environmental sectors (Department of Rural and Community Development, 2019). In particular, certain Local Authority structures, such as the Strategic Policy Committees and Local Community Development Committees, must source community representation through the PPNs.

The main way in which PPNs facilitate participation in local democracy is through the nomination and election of representatives on to Local Authority Committees and Boards. The framework for participation recommended by the Working Group on Citizen Engagement with Local Government was that developed by the Council of Europe, which follows a progression from least participatory to most participatory (Working Group on Citizen Engagement with Local Government, 2014).

The purpose of this research was to capture how the various PPN stakeholders engaged in the participation processes ‘on the ground’ viewed the application of the principles set out in the Council of Europe Framework to participation by the PPN, both overall and at each stage of the decision-making process. This data can then be used to inform policy on participation in local decision-making to support more active engagement.

A survey, based on the scale of participation set out in the Council of Europe’s Code of Good Practice for Civil Participation in the Decision-Making Process and the Council of Europe Guidelines for Civil Participation in Political Decision-making, was developed by Social Justice Ireland. As the aim of the survey was to capture the ‘on the ground’ experience of PPN Workers, Representatives and Local Authority staff who engage with Committees and Boards at Local Authority level, other important stakeholders, such as the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, were not invited to participate.

Results

Public Participation Networks (PPNs) are engaging across a range of committees and Boards at local level to influence policies that affect their Member Groups and their communities. While most respondents felt that the principles of participation were being adhered to, it is interesting to note that an exception was made for the principles statement relating to openness in the decision-making process.

Overall, the responses to our survey indicate agreement or strong agreement that the principles outlined by the Council of Europe are being implemented when it comes to participation at local government level in Ireland. Similarly, a high proportion of respondents felt that the PPNs had moved beyond the ‘Information’ and ‘Consultation’ levels of participation, to the Dialogue level for each stage of the decision-making process. There is, however, some work to be done before ‘Partnership’ can be achieved at all stages of the decision-making process, as this level was indicated by the lowest proportion of respondents for each stage.

It is positive to see that a high proportion of respondents felt that the level of participation across each stage of the decision-making process was at dialogue stage, however there is a significant proportion who responded that participation was still at the lowest level, that the Local Authority provided the information only to the PPN. This is was particularly the case for PPN Representatives on the Strategic Policy Committees and the Local Community Development Committees, two important committees which would benefit from a more inclusive approach to community participation.

It is also clear from the responses, that there is variance among and between stakeholder groups as to the level of participation experienced. This is also evident in the comments included by some respondents.  This provides both a challenge and an opportunity nationally. Examples of good practice developed in one area may apply equally well to another, acknowledging the local variances necessary to ensure that participation is specific to the community / Local Authority area concerned. 

Recommendations

Structural Support - Dialogue

As noted above, the disparity between and among respondent groups presents both a challenge and an opportunity for PPNs and Local Authorities to discuss what is working well in some areas, or for some particular committees, and to develop best practice procedures in partnership. The mainly positive responses of the ‘Local Authority Staff’ respondents also present an opportunity to explore their approach to the principles and levels of engagement with their stakeholder colleagues to come to a common understanding. This could take place at a local or a national level, under national oversight of the National PPN Advisory Group and the Department of Rural and Community Development. This would also address the ‘personality effect’ that makes participation dependent on individuals among the stakeholder group, and support a more systemic approach.

Recommendation 1: A dialogue between the Local Authorities and the other PPN Stakeholders to establish practical, best-practice approaches to implementing the principles of participation and working towards increasing partnership across all stages of the decision-making process.

Structural Support – Policy

The data presented in this Report indicates that Local Authority Staff are both broadly in favour of participation generally and strongly of the view that the structures, as currently constituted, lead to a high level of partnership at all stages of the decision-making process. This is not, however, the view of the majority of Representatives. In addition to the dialogue referred to above, a review of participation within the Local Authority structures should be undertaken. This review would focus on whether these structures are really participative, following the Council of Europe’s Framework. To support both this review, and the implementation of any actions that follow, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage should dedicate resources at, at least, Principal Officer grade to work collaboratively with counterparts in the Department of Rural and Community Development to ensure meaningful engagement.

Recommendation 2: Review the Local Authority Structures against the Council of Europe’s Framework and dedicate resources from within the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, of at least Principal Officer grade, to ensure meaningful engagement.

Further Research

This research sought to quantify how selected PPN stakeholders applied the principles of participation and the levels of participation across all stages of the decision-making process, in accordance with the Council of Europe Guidelines (Council of Europe, 2009) and the Report of the Working Group on Citizen Engagement with Local Government (Working Group on Citizen Engagement with Local Government, 2014). The disparities identified between and among stakeholder groups in their application of these instruments warrants further, qualitative, research with respondents to this survey indicating their willingness to engage in further conversation on this topic.

Recommendation 3: Further qualitative research to explore best practice solutions.

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