It’s time for public engagement. Where do you start?
Right here! This Public Participation Toolkit is a resource guide to help you engage with the public about important projects and decisions. The toolkit can help you think through the major questions of a public participation process, such as: What is Public Participation? What is the appropriate level of public involvement? What methods can be used? Which stakeholders should be included?
Public participation can sometimes seem like an intimidating exercise, but giving stakeholders the opportunity to weigh in on or contribute to a project or decision can lead to smoother implementation in the long run, including:
- Better decisions that more effectively respond to the needs and priorities of a diverse community.
- Increased public understanding of and support for public policies and programs.
- Increased transparency and accountability of government actions.
- Community members and community resources become part of the solution.
What is Public Participation?
Public participation affords stakeholders (those that have an interest or stake in an issue, such as residents, interest groups, or communities) the opportunity to influence decisions that affect their lives. Public participation is a process, not a single event. It consists of a series of appropriate activities and actions over the full lifespan of a project to inform, obtain input from, and collaborate with the public.
Not all public participation is the same because, generally speaking, there is no single “public.” Rather, the public consists of a range of stakeholders holding an array of viewpoints on an issue. Conducting meaningful public participation involves seeking input at specific points in the decision process and on specific issues where such input has a real potential to help shape the decision or action. Sometimes the opportunity for influence is quite small, while at other times the public can have a great deal of influence. The amount of this potential influence is the main consideration in designing a successful public participation program.
Public Participation is a spectrum, ranging from low levels of engagement (e.g., informing the public) to high levels of engagement (e.g., collaborating with stakeholders on a decision). The graphic below depicts the full spectrum of public participation along with a corresponding goal for each level.
Public Participation Spectrum
To provide the public with information on the project or decision.
To obtain and consider public input at set points in the process.
To work directly with the public and consider their input throughout the process.
To engage the public in key activities and decisions during the process.
To implement what the public decides (e.g. public referendum).
The Inform level of public participation does not actually provide the opportunity for public participation at all, but rather provides the public with the information they need to understand the decision-making process. This level is on the spectrum as a reminder that sometimes there is no opportunity for the public to influence decision-making and simply informing them is the appropriate activity. When you conduct the Inform level of public participation, it is important to recognize that you are not trying to persuade or influence the public in any way. As such, the Inform level is not the same as a public relations campaign. Rather, the Inform level of public participation requires you to serve as an honest broker of information, giving the public what they need to fully understand the project or decision, allowing them to reach their own conclusions as to the appropriateness and adequacy of the decision.
The Consult level of public participation is the basic minimum opportunity for public input. Consult simply means to ask. There is no invitation to sit down together and work on things in any cooperative way. You merely asks the public for their opinions and consider the input you receive as you make the decision. At Consult, you generally ask for input at set points in the process, but do not provide an ongoing opportunity for input.
The Involve level of public participation is more than a consultation. To involve means to include. At the Involve level, the public is invited into the process, usually from the beginning, and is provided multiple if not ongoing opportunities for input as decision-making progresses. However, you are still the decision-maker and there is no expectation of building consensus or providing the public with any sort of high-level influence over the decision.
At the Collaborate level, the public is directly engaged in decision-making. The Collaborate level of public participation includes all the elements of Involve but takes it a step further. Collaborate often includes the explicit attempt to find consensus solutions. However, similar to the Involve level of participation, you are still the ultimate decision-maker. The degree to which consensus will be sought and how much decision authority you are willing and able to share must be made explicit. In the end, you will take all of the input received and make the decision.
At the Empower level, you provide the public with the opportunity to make decisions for themselves. The most common activities at this level are public voting or ballot measures. Governments rarely conduct public participation at the Empower level because they are usually not permitted to delegate decision authority to the public.
What is the appropriate level of public involvement?
There is no single “right” level of public participation. For each project, you must consider the specific circumstances, your ability to share decision authority, and the nature of the public’s desire and need to participate. The following flowchart can be useful in understanding your intent and matching that to an appropriate level of public participation.
Once you identify the right level of public involvement for your project, you should develop a clear goal statement for public participation so that everyone on project has the same understanding. A stated public participation goal helps stakeholders understand their potential for influence on the decision and what they can expect from you as the process progresses.
What methods can be used?
After clear goals and objectives are established, appropriate tools can be selected and customized to the project or decision. The Toolkit below provides example methods across the spectrum of public participation, from Inform and Consult in the left column to Collaborate and Empower in the right column. Some methods, such as Public Meetings, can be used at multiple levels of the spectrum depending on how they are designed and utilized. The colored dots correspond to the levels of the spectrum.
Keep in mind that higher levels of public participation will still need to incorporate methods from the lower levels. For instance, you would need to adequately inform the public of a particular project in order to effectively and meaningfully collaborate with them.
Click on a box for more information on that particular public participation method. Each tool includes a description, advantages and challenges, resources needed, and implementation time.
This Toolkit is just a sampling of the methods that are available. For more information and ideas, explore the following links :
- MRSC - Communication and Public Participation Techniques
- Local Government Commission - Public Participation Tools
- Institute for Local Government - Online Engagement Tools
Which stakeholders should be included?
It is important to identify the range of stakeholder perspectives that should be involved in your project, including who might be impacted, who should be involved, and what concerns they bring to the process. Here are some questions you can ask to identify your stakeholder community:
- Who will be directly affected by the decision?
- Who will be indirectly affected by the decision?
- Who wants to be involved?
- Who is already engaged in or has contacted us regarding this issue?
- Who will be upset if they have no input to this decision?
- Who can affect the decision?
- Whose support is needed to implement and enforce the decision?
- Which community groups and organizations represent these viewpoints?
As you go through these questions, build a comprehensive stakeholder list, as well as a reliable means for communicating with each stakeholder. Meeting with stakeholders early in a project will help you to know your public, make them more accepting of you and the information you provide, and help you to design a public participation program that responds to their needs and concerns.
Tips and Reminders for Success
- Clear purpose and goals – a well-defined purpose for the public’s role in the project that is real, practical, and shared among stakeholders.
- Clear structure and process – well-defined rules about how public participation will be conducted and how the decision will be made.
- Actual opportunity for influence – as appropriate, the real opportunity for public input to be considered in making the decision.
- Commitment to the process – managers and staff alike must be committed to the full range of activities required to make public participation work and be willing to obtain and consider public input in making the decision.
- Inclusive and effective representation – reaching out to representatives of the full range of relevant stakeholder interests.