IAP2 core values and Online community engagement: A meeting of technology and ethics

As an international leader in public participation, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has developed the “IAP2 Core Values for Public Participation” for use in the development and implementation of public participation processes. The core values were developed over a two year period with broad international input to identify those aspects of public participation which cross national, cultural, and religious boundaries. The purpose of the core values is to help make better decisions which reflect the interests and concerns of potentially affected people and entities.

The purpose of this piece is to consider, as the title suggests, how or even whether, online consultation marries with those values.

#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.

Online engagement strategies are clearly consistent with, and facilitate the involvement of, all those who are affected by a decision. The key objective of online engagement strategies is to give people who would otherwise not be in a position to participate in more time/travel/capacity intensive processes to participate at their will and whim. The starting point is a belief that people should be able to get involved in the decision making process to a great or lesser degree entirely at their convenience. No technology or technique meets this goal with the breadth and depth permitted by online engagement processes.

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

Online engagement strategies, as with more traditional techniques, meet this goal at the whim of the decision maker. The level of influence that the general public are permitted to have on a decision is more a matter of the culture of the decision making authority and the nature of the issue at hand. The consultation technology used to bring community opinion into the decision making process reflects these two matters. And so, at one end of the spectrum we see the use of age old “submissions” for consideration by the decision making authority, and at the other we see the formation of citizens juries and the like to determine the way forward. Web 2.0 is very similar in that there are a range of tools and those tools can be applied in a variety of ways depending on the level of decision making flexibility that the particular issue and organisation is willing to countenance. You might use a simple feedback form to collect accurate information for distribution to the appropriate section of the organisation, or you might use an open wiki to allow anybody and everybody to upload content and “own” the consultation space. The former might be useful, for example, for development applications, the later for community development projects or community strategic planning.

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

Online consultation technologies provide a unique opportunity to use a range of media to communicate the needs and interests of both the community participants and the decision makers. The opportunity to share text comments or submissions, reports, maps, video, photographs, and to “mash” these to produce a much richer learning experience for all participants cannot be achieved using any other technology. It is possible for example, to use a mixture of mapping, photo, video and text to provide compelling information about a particular location based issue. This can be done either by the decision maker, or, where appropriate, by all participants in the process.

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

Online consultation is a methodology for reaching many “hard to reach” groups who would not otherwise have the opportunity to get involved in a consultation process – commuters, young parents, people who don’t particularly enjoy public meetings, people who might be mobility impaired, and a whole range of other groups. Clearly, online consultation doesn’t reach some groups particularly well, I would not recommend online consultation if a particular consultation was targeting older, poorer, migrants with no access to or interest in the Internet. A question remains for all consultation methodologies about the best way to target “hard to get at” groups. Online consultation is the best way to at the very least make the consultation process as accessible as possible to as a proportion of the community as possible.

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

There is nothing to preclude the community from being involved in the design of the online consultation technologies. However, I would content that this particular “core value” is rarely met by the vast majority of consultation programs.

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

This is a particular strength of online technologies as detailed above. Traditional face-to-face technologies generally rely on people reading lots and lots of information if they want to get a good handle on the issues. This is discriminatory and unfair. Online tools provide an opportunity to use short videos, maps, photo’s, drawings et cetera to communicate complex information in a manner that is far most digestible for the average punter than a technical report by a professional engineer/ecologist/sociologist et cetera.

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

The web generally provides an accessible space for organisations to communicate back to the community the nature of the decision and ways that community input has influenced the either the gross decision or the details embedded within the decision.

Photo Credits: brittanykleinpeter

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