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:
participation be understood.
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.