The Information and Privacy Commission has recently released the Charter for Public Participation – a guide to assist agencies and promote citizen engagement (The Charter). The Charter is aimed at New South Wales government agencies but is equally applicable to local government as well as not for profits that are wanting to better engage with their communities. As public participation and governance nerds, this Charter is like music to our ears!
Public participation and open government
The Charter aims to help NSW agencies to “seek effective public input into the development and delivery of policies and services”. The value of public participation in the development of policies and service delivery is well documented. So too are the benefits of public participation.
The Charter also recognises that public participation (also known as citizen engagement) is a fundamental tenet of democracy and open government. The Charter notes that the importance of public participation in meeting the objectives of the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 – in particular, creating a government which is open, accountable, fair and effective.
Defining public participation
The term “public participation” is very broadly defined – it is basically involving those affected by a decision in the decision making process (IAP2). This can happen in a number of different ways – starting with telling people about the issue through one-way communication such as a letter or email. Or at the other end of the spectrum, completely empowering citizens to make their own decisions about their communities. And then, of course, lots of nuances in between including consulting, involving and collaborating with those that may be impacted.
This means that there is no one size fits all approach to public participation. The approach needs to be tailored to the people involved, specific needs of the project/issue, the organisation, as well as budget and resources available.
Committing to better public participation
The Charter recognises a key initial step is for leaders (such as local councillors or General Managers / CEOs) to commit to a culture that supports public participation in decision making. This means:
- creating an environment where public participation is welcomed and encouraged
- moving beyond lip service to genuine engagement methods and opportunities which embed collaborative opportunities with communities
- backing up engagement processes with greater transparency in decision making which shows how public participation has influenced or shaped the outcome.
So how do you do that?
Principles of public participation
The Charter sets out eight guiding principles which are based on best practice from the OECD and IAP2:
1. Commitment – There is a political mandate and support of participation at all levels of government.
2. Rights – Those who are affected by a decision have the right to be involved in the decision making process, along with the right not to choose not to participate.
3. Time – Engagement occurs early in the policy development process before any major decisions are made, preferable at the stage of setting broad direction, principles, and identifying options. There is sufficient time to for meaningful participation.
4. Inclusion – Those with an interest in the decision have an equal opportunity to participate. Special support is provided for traditionally excluded groups. The widest possible variety of voices is involved.
5. Resources – Adequate human, technical and financial resources are available to meet the objectives and implement the results.
6. Clarity and transparency – The purpose of participation is clearly defined. There is openness about the process and its limitations. All relevant information is provided to participants and is easy to understand.
7. Accountability – Participants receive feedback about the outcome of the process and how their input was used.
8. Evaluation – The process supports learning and development for participants. The process is evaluated and informs future learning.
These principles provide an excellent framework on how and when to incorporate public participation into your decision making. They also provide a great base to create community engagement plans, if you haven’t already done so.
Implementing public participation
The Charter then sets out the key practical steps to follow in designing and implementing your engagement project. These can be summarised as follows:
1. Define the purpose and scope of your engagement activity
This step is critical to the overall success of the engagement. Getting the purpose or scope wrong can lead to misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations from the process, which then undermine the effectiveness of the process.
2. Plan to deliver
once you know the purpose and scope of the engagement activity, you then need to create a project plan which takes into account your resources, objectives and desired outcomes.
3. Manage your key risks
All community engagement processes come with potential challenges and risks. These include engagement fatigue, unrealistic expectations, lack of budget or high conflict. As part of your planning, you should identify the key risks and have a plan for how you will manage these during the process.
4. Identify the right stakeholders
This is another critical step. If you are engaging with the wrong audience, this will damage the effectiveness of the process. Key stakeholders will be those that are impacted by the decision, have significant concerns about the issue or expertise in the subject matter.
5. Resource the process
Resources include both time, money and human effort.. Human effort is particularly important as this requires a particular skill set. At times, you may benefit from engaging an external facilitator particularly where the issue is controversial. Figure out your budget and what can be realistically achieved in the time frame you have to deliver the project or make the decision.
6. Carry out the engagement process
After all your planning, the engagement process should almost run itself! But it is still important that the process is fair, respectful and inclusive.
7. Evaluate the process
Effective public participation requires you to analyse the feedback and evaluate the process. This may identify the need for a targeted follow up engagement activity or ongoing monitoring / reporting back of outcomes.
8. Give feedback to participants
It is essential to “close the loop” by giving feedback to participants on how their input has been used. Trust in the process will be eroded if participants cannot clearly see how their input has shaped or influenced the outcome.
In summary, there’s no one formula for the “best engagement” process. However, if you approach the process with the above principles in mind, you will be on track to get the most from your community.
If you are interested in finding out more about how to engage with your community on your next project, please get in contact with Steve or Cinnamon who both hold the leading qualifications for community engagement from the International Association of Public Participation:
Disclaimer: This publication is provided in good faith and is for general information purposes only. This publication does not constitute legal advice or other professonial advice, and must not be relied upon. You should seek legal or other professional advice in relation to matters arising out of the publication having regard to your circumstances and needs. No warranty or representation regarding the reliability, quality or accuracy of any information in this publication is given by Locale Consulting or the authors of the publication.