What is Public Participation?

Participation can be viewed as a continuum of interaction between government and the public, ranging from informing and listening at one end, to implementing jointly agreed solutions at the other; and in between there is dialogue, debate and analysis. Public participation can be described as a deliberative process by which interested or affected citizens, civil society organisations, and government actors are involved in policy-making before a political decision is taken. The European Institute for Public Participation argues that a core component of genuine participation is the possibility for involved actors/stakeholders to change their mind, which enables people to come to  a shared understanding of issues and solutions instead of just exchanging views. 

Different levels of participation

Public participation knows different levels, one of the most famous models for public participation is ‘ the ladder of Arnstein’, which ranges from non-participation to citizen control, whereby power and responsibility is delegated to citizens. (Read more about the ladder of Participation.)

International documents and country specific regulation recognize the following levels of participation: (1) access to information, (2) consultation and (3) active engagement through dialogue and partnership. The following is a summary of how these levels are described in different documents.

  1. Access to information is the first, basic and important right which is underlying the whole process of participation. Whilst it means that the government informs the public about its plans and the types of documents it wants to adopt at the beginning of the process, it also highlights the right of the public to have access to all information (e.g., drafts, comments and reasoning) throughout the process. The access to information is regulated in specific laws. While at this level there is no need for intensive interaction between the government and the public, the government should not apply measures which would prevent the public from receiving the information crucial for the process.
  2. Consultation is a form of participation where the government invites the public to provide its opinion, comments, views and feed-back on a specific document. Whilst the issues on which the public is consulted are defined by the government, this process should also allow for the public to express opinion on other issues contained in the draft. Consultation can be organized with a broader group of participants from the public. It is a reactive way of participation – the public becomes involved because the government requests this. However, this is not to say that the public cannot request to be consulted. Indeed, citizens can pro-actively engage and remind the governmental bodies about the need to be asked to comment on laws which will affect them.
  3. Active involvement (partnership) means collaboration and jointly undertaken responsibilities at all stages of the decision-making process (agenda setting, issue identification, drafting, decision and implementation). It is the highest form of participation; it may be described as a situation where the representatives of the public share a seat at the table with the government representatives. The initiative can come from both the sides. Whilst there should be an agreement about the common goals of the process, those involved from the public should be able to retain their independence, and to advocate and campaign for the solutions which they want to see adopted. 

Read more in the OECD Report: Citizens as Partners.

Challenges of Public Participation

Participatory planning in itself is not a golden recipe for success. There are a number of challenges that have to be taken into account. Some of them are listed below:

  • Participatory practices can be costly in time and money and may be perceived as inefficient 
  • There is a knowledge gap to be bridged between citizens and government officials in complex decision-making processes (especially when using specific technical applications) 
  • Participatory arrangements are sometimes criticised as lacking representativeness by disproportionately involving the wealthy, well-educated citizens 
  • There is a culture gap between government officials and citizens  and public officials have sometimes little experience in organising an effective participatory approach 
  • The way governments organisations function are not always aligned to participatory processes. For example, formal decision-making procedures are often lengthy in nature, which does not correspond to the expectations of citizens involved, who expect quick decisions and results.