In September we will post a few short questions and answers on the topic of Public Participation.

Whilst CAP is focused on environmental issues it is hoped that this series of question will also be helpful to the public in their social participation and awareness activities.

What is public participation?

Public participation can be any proceeding that includes the public in the decision-making process and where public input is given due weight in the outcomes of the process. Public participation should be seen as more of a process than a single event. It consists of a series of activities and actions by an organisation during the lifespan of a project with the aim of both informing and receiving input from the public. Public participation provides stakeholders, interested, and affected individuals, pressure groups, and communities, with an opportunity to influence decisions that may affect their lives.

The public is made up of a range of interest groups rather than a single harmonious audience, representing a wide range of views and concerns about an issue. In conducting meaningful public participation, an organisation must gather input from a spectrum of interested stakeholders, recognise a variety of views and concerns, ensure fair treatment, and meaningful social inclusion for all people, in relation to the evolution and implementation of decisions reached through the public participation process. The task of the organisation is then to reconcile these views and concerns, with its operational needs and legislation, and to communicate its decisions in a way that allows the public to understand how their diverse concerns have been addressed. Organisations should not be concerned that seeking public input means they have to do what the public wants.

Not all public participation is created equal. It is seldom appropriate or useful to simply invite the public to have their say. This only creates expectations and is not likely to result in direct contributions, especially in areas where no actual influence is possible. Meaningful public participation requires public input at specific points in the decision-making process and on specific issues to ensure that these inputs are relevant and have potential to help shape the decision or action. Sometimes the possibility of influencing a decision is very small, sometimes the public can have a great deal of influence. The impact potential is the one of the most important considerations in developing a successful public participation program.