Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Public participation - necessary but not sufficient

Prior to going to the UK I pioneered the use in Australia of certain approaches to public participation in natural resource management R&D. Not long after my arrival in the UK (in 1994) I had a call from a senior researcher at a government research institute who said: 'I hear you know something about public participation? We have a project funded by ODA (now DfID) in India who insist it has a participatory element. We have done this but now we have one of our counterparts doing a study tour of England and he wants to know why they have to do participation when we can show him no examples of it here!'

This was an excellent question on the part of the Indian researcher.

Now things have changed dramatically ...or have they? The discourse and rhetoric, and to be fair, the practices have changed dramatically. So has our own research. From our perspective what is now happening is the uncritical incorporation of demands for public participation into almost every project. The result, too often, is poor practice, stakeholder burnout, the experience of being participated etc. We would now claim that participation is necessary but not sufficient. The reasons why it is necessary can be gleaned in a recent report from the UK-based NGO Involve. Here are the headlines from the report:

"Headline Findings:
• There remains considerable enthusiasm among politicians, policy makers, researchers and practitioners for continuing and enhancing public participation. Understanding of the benefits is growing in general terms, although there is significant unwillingness to quantify these benefits - and particular reluctance to 'monetarise' the benefits (assign a monetary value to them).
• There is a serious lack of data on the practical costs and benefits of participation, for a range of practical and ethical reasons.
• The lack of understanding of potential costs and benefits makes it difficult to develop a coherent hypothesis about participation overall.
• New analytical frameworks are needed. Participation is a new and crosscutting approach that is only partly captured by existing academic and professional disciplines. A new theoretical model is needed that goes beyond the disciplines and fields within which participation began.
• Participants' perspectives are critical to defining the costs and benefits of participation. Only by including this perspective alongside that of institutional interests, and considering the wider impacts on local communities and society as a whole, can the true costs and benefits of
participation be understood.
• Greater investment in assessing participation processes is required, to build a robust evidence base.
• A simple framework for capturing the actual practical costs and benefits of participation is needed, to complement the wider thinking needed around broad new analytical frameworks. In this way, simple data can begin to be captured and provide benchmarks against which future activity can be tested.

Our recent research on social learning addresses some of the concerns raised by this report. Policy briefings can be downloaded from our SLIM website; a special issue of the journal Environmental Science & Policy (vol 10, (6)) will be devoted to SLIM research findings. It should be available in August.

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