Mobilised citizens improve public input into environmental policies

Researchers at Stockholm Environment Institute find mobilised citizens key to expanding meaningful public participation crucial to achieving sustainability goals.

In a honed discussion brief1 published earlier this year, researchers at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) decisively unpack the challenges of expanding meaningful public participation crucial to achieving sustainability goals. This follows on from, what seems to be, a heightening of public participation globally. Indeed, as the authors note, the United Nations’ global online survey on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development used an unparalleled public outreach of more than 7.5 million people from over 190 countries.

Yet, although many international engagement frameworks for civil society exist, participation is both an urgent and vital aspect of the sustainability agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) produced by the United Nations in 2015, specifically calls for “responsive, inclusive, and participatory and representative decision-making at all levels” (SDG 16.7). Despite this commitment, the authors argue that “coordinated action to improve public participation does not receive the same level of attention as some of the other SDGs – such as building resilient infrastructure or encouraging sustainable consumption.”

Increasing the public’s role in policy-making processes

Examining the rationale for augmenting the public’s input and role into environmental policy-making, the authors point out the usual binary for deploying public participation: either as a basic component of democracy or as “a means to an end”.

In the first instance, the belief holds that public participation is an “intrinsic good” regardless of the outcome. Alternately, as a means to an end, local information or “lay” knowledge plays a vital role in implementing strategic commitments. By way of example, they turn to the SDGs. For while the 17 goals are global in scope, they rely on implementation at a local level. As they write: “Top-down translation, without widespread public input, can lead to policies that disregard local priorities and specific development contexts.”

“No participation process is independent of its social context”

To this binary, however, the authors add the heavyweight notions of ‘legitimacy’ and ‘distrust’. In relation to the former, they argue that inclusive public input can improve policy implementation by increasing the legitimacy of decision-making processes. Hence, it can reduce conflict around environmental policy issues. By comparison, inclusive participation can squarely face the distrust that results from the heavy reliance on environmental experts in environmental policy-making. The predominance of the environmental expert is validated by the fact that environmental problems (for instance, ozone depletion and climate change) are only made visible through science and technology. Here, policy questions become blurred with scientific questions. The heavy reliance on experts, too, makes it difficult for public input and debate, where the scientific questions themselves become the target of debate – a gridlock is well represented by climate change policy-making.

Reinvigorating public debate

“Bringing the public into decision-making has the potential to reinvigorate debate and move policy-making forward”

Demands to expand public participation in environmental policy-making, in recent times, has led to a rapid proliferation of “formal” participation practices and mechanisms. For instance, public meetings, advisory committees and government initiatives designed to facilitate citizen engagement with policy-making processes. Yet, these are offset by the rise and mobilisation of civil movements. (Beyond the scope of this discussion paper, this draws attention to the rise of citizen scientist in environmental issues such as water management.) Here, a range of mobilisation tactics like community forums, neighbourhood coalitions have demonstrably served to influence policy development. But, while these activities seemingly suggest public participation is expanding, this serves as a launchpad for the authors to call for the expansion of its very definition.

In expanding the actual definition of ‘public participation’, they include “the full range of activities that the public undertakes to shape policy outcomes”. Here, they introduce a framework that incorporates “invited spaces”, where decision-making authorities invite the public to provide input, and “created spaces”, where citizens create engagement spaces grounded in their common interests.

In perhaps the only turn to online engagement in the discussion paper, and with not so confident outcomes, the authors refer to the expansion into digital engagement and forays into e-democracy in “invited spaces”, or formal mechanisms for participation. In their words:

“On the one hand, the internet can help overcome the limitations of distance and mobility. However, the quality of deliberation is often very poor in online forums. There are also large gaps in access to technology and competence both across and within nations. As a result, heavy reliance on new technologies to expand participation may reinforce existing inequities.”

(Interestingly, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development also calls for countries to mobilize for change in the next 15 years – a discussion which has opened up to the possibilities of digitisation reducing threats to sustainability.)

In discussing created spaces, or tactics civil groups use to deliver feedback to policy-makers, they include examples of civil mobilisation and activism that have successfully influenced policy, including a review of hydraulic fracturing in Canada, and mining in Columbia, where a referendum led to a clear public condemnation of the mine.

Turning specifically to online tactics, they cite how advocacy groups used online resources to grow awareness to public concerns over a  biological testing facility in Bishkek. The local community organisation Clean Environment initiated a response by the Bishkek City Council demonstrating that the use of online space prompted local government to “invite” public engagement.

Social norms undermine inclusive engagement

It is well rehearsed that one of the major practical hurdles to expanding public participation is that meaningful engagement requires time and money. But, because the authors expand the definition they shift attention to the actual practice of public participation in a socio-political context. In turn, this leads to an examination of the more “intractable obstacles that impact who speaks and who is heard”.

“No participation process is independent of its social context, and participation is biased toward those with more privilege and more resources,” they write. Hence, the expansion of public participation in and of itself could potentially yield policies that are not reflective of the needs and requirements of impacted communities – or especially, marginalised groups. For if public participation processes continue to be non-inclusive, they have the “tendency to recreate and depend existing inequalities in unintended ways”:

Design process key

The significant takeaway from this discussion paper, then, is the importance of design processes. Design processes must be specifically targeted at addressing social injustice to circumvent reinforcing the status quo. Open assemblies, for instance, while seemingly open to everyone, require “active attempts to recruit more disenfranchised”, without which, they are likely to see higher turnout from those already politically active.

But, in public participation in environmental decision making, there is an enormous elephant in the room in the role of the expert. The major role that experts play can augment the negative impacts of public participation. For instance, technocratic decision making may prioritize the role of business at the exclusion of public input. On the flipside, meaningful public input into highly technical decisions is hindered by the huge stumbling block of overly technical information in environmental policy processes, at times, incurring self-censoring by people who are already marginalized or on society’s margins.

“Participation fatigue” is another stumbling block. The lack of understanding how public participation can influence decision making can lead to distrust and opening up to public input can increase expectations around meaningful influence on policies. It can be difficult to translate and standardise how policy-making authorities evaluate public input. As the researchers justly refer: “Environmental impact assessments are an excellent example.”

Questions for the future

Looking into the future of environmental protection and public participation, the authors present four interlinked areas of further inquiry:

  1. How to build truly inclusive participation given the variables of each participant’s capacity, who participates, the conditions that facilitate equitable participation and the role of expert supporting citizen participation?
  2. What are the tactics or mechanisms available to marginalized individuals and communities that can be used to amplify their voices? How to identify best practice for capacity building?
  3. How formal and informal, or citizen-led, participation spaces interact and how invited spaces receive and implement public input?
  4. Lastly, how decision makers receive and apply public input, where gaining an understanding of the relationship increases the legitimacy of public participation processes and render the relationship between public input and outcomes more transparent.

In short, expanding public participation relies on inclusive engagement. The ability of public participation to increase legitimacy of decision-making process, reinvigorate debate and move policy making on climate change forward, depends on “how governments and civil society translate ideals into practice”. Public participation will only improve democratic practice if it is inclusive. Equally, it won’t improve decision making if local input is not listened to, or if the public perceive participation processes as unfair.

While there is a mutuality of created and invited spaces for public participation, this doesn’t impede the success of civil mobilisation beyond formal participation practices as it is an “important source of democratic deliberation which can “yield new narratives that change political discourse …[or] alters the political agenda.”

Overcoming the tendency to recreate existing inequalities – in the absence of universal best practice – design processes need to be prioritised so that participation is inclusive as possible in any given social context.  The targeted investments in capacity building to ensure meaningful participation from those too often excluded from the decision-making process would foster legitimacy and allow for greater transparency for a positive vision of our future.

1 Berry, L.H, Koski, J., Verkuijl, C., Strambo, C. and Piggot, G. (2019). Making space: how public participation shapes environmental decision-making. Discussion brief. Stockholm Environment Institute.

Sally Hussey is a Melbourne-based writer and Bang the Table’s Senior Managing Editor of Content and Research. She has an extensive background in the publishing, academic and cultural sectors.

Banner photo: Dmitry Dreyer/Unsplash

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