How to Ensure Effective Public Participation and Democracy

Public Participation is Necessary for Democracy

Illustration of people silhouetted against the White House, illustrating how to ensure effective public participation.

When determining how to ensure effective public participation, it should be noted that public participation is no less than the bedrock of a functioning democracy. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the U.S.

Constitution, said, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves …”

Truly effective public participation, however, has its own specific rules for success.

But first, a little perspective will be helpful.

How Did Public Participation Get Started?

The concept and promotion of public participation has been around since the beginning of democracy, but it really got its legs in the adoption of the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). U.S. President Richard Nixon signed NEPA into law January 1,1970. For the first time, NEPA required federal agencies to engage in a public participation process when making decisions that affect the “human environment”.

However, “public participation” in the law was vague enough that it didn’t quite describe exactly what public participation meant or how it should be done. Each individual agency tended to interpret the directive differently and apply its own rules.

Eventually, leaders tasked with interpreting and implementing participation, mostly from Australia, Canada (countries that had generally mirrored NEPA in crafting their own environmental laws) and the U.S. decided it was time to put some definition to their field and establish some ground rules.

And That’s How IAP2 Got Started

That effort resulted in the formation of the International Association for Public Participation Practitioners (IAP3) – some time later the organization dropped the “practitioner” part of the name to become IAP2.

The International Association for Public Participation established three overriding time-and-experience-proven products that are key to public participation success: a set of defining principles for the practice, a spectrum clearly explaining public influence, and a code of ethics for those doing this work.

The Seven Core Values of Public Participation

The defining principles, or seven Core Values, establish the rules of engagement:

1. Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

This one is rather self-evident – the essence of democracy.

2. Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.

Officials and decision owners sometimes get queasy with the word “promise” but the fact is if there’s no way for the public to have at least some influence with what might be done, it’s not really public participation. Informing them doesn’t require or suggest any influence on their part. That’s fine if that’s all you can do, just don’t call it public participation because it’s not and saying it is, is disingenuous. Call it what it is – public information, that’s ok.

3. Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including the decision makers.

Involving the public successfully means it has to work for everyone – all stakeholders. as well as the organization doing the engaging.

4. Public participation seeks and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.

Doing this honestly, ethically, and effectively requires actively finding the people who really should be involved, not just those who happen to show up.

5. Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.

Just because holding a public meeting next Thursday night is convenient for you doesn’t mean it works for them.

6. Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.

Which not only means being transparent, but also means smartly and creatively translating your technobabble into something that people will understand and that means something to them personally.

7. Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

When people have given you their time and attention, the least you can do is to tell them what you did with what they told you.

What is the Public Participation Spectrum?

IAP2 developed the Public Participation Spectrum to explain that there are differences in the level of influence that people might have in whatever you’re trying to do. Those levels of influence are reflected in the different models of participation that the spectrum defines: involve, consult, collaborate and empower. The amount of influence that they’re reasonably able to exert and you’re willing and able to share needs to result in a commitment or promise that you’ll deliver.

If you’d like our Skill Sheets for Participation Professionals on the IAP2 Spectrum flowchart and our guide on how to put it into action, we offer you these two downloads for free now.

Here is the IAP2 Spectrum flowchart:

Download Spectrum Flowchart

And here is The Participation Company’s own Guide to the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum:

Download TPC’s Guide

We use these two Skill Sheets in our training sessions. If you’d like to know more, please check them out now.

When you’re working on how to ensure effective public participation, know that if people don’t understand or trust what you want to do, they will invariably fight for more control or influence. And the inverse of that rule tends to also apply. You might notice that “inform” is part of that spectrum, but the fact is that just informing people is not public participation. The inform level is there because people can’t effectively participate if they don’t clearly understand what they‘re participating in, it’s a first priority.

IAP2 Code of Ethics Explained

IAP2’s Code of Ethics is about how those of us who do the work conduct ourselves if we want to do so with an honest and ethical underpinning. These specific ethics include support of the practice in everyone’s best interests, acting as conduits between people and the deciders, and pushing for trust and credibility. We make sure not to fake the public’s role, not to hide facts, and to open the door wide for everyone. We won’t divide to conquer or just sell projects. We operate with good intentions and in good faith and we help others do what we do.

Public Participation for the Survival of Democracy

We live at a time that feels particularly unbalanced, especially with regard to how democracy is defined and what it truly means. The author John Ralston Saul says, “Democracy is the only system capable of reflecting the humanist premise of equilibrium or balance. The key to its secret is the involvement of the citizen.” In this age of prolific, professional propaganda, engaging people in the truth and the affairs that affect them has never been more challenging or important. And it’s the only way democracy can survive.

John Godec and Doug Sarno