Public participation is not a PR exercise, but rather a demonstration of the social contract between a government and its people.
Participation or public engagement is often mistaken by policymakers as a communications or public relations exercise. Participation is not and should not be used as a communications exercise. Doing so would destroy policymakers’ credibility and can lead to anger and disengagement from citizens. If done correctly, though, public participation can be a meaningful political process that helps governments gain the people’s respect, and facilitate public policy or sector reforms. The following four steps can help to put decision makers on the right track to meaningful participation.
1. Set realistic goals
Governments and multilateral banks such as ADB often fear that calling for participation from civil society can lead to raising expectations that we cannot meet. Participants can misconstrue the call for engagement as an opportunity to work together on upcoming projects or secure economic or financial opportunities, when in fact, the interaction may be limited in nature. What if participants ask for more than we can give? What if they get upset and have past unsettled issues with us? Are we opening ourselves up to criticism? Indeed, planning a meeting or consultation with civil society can be daunting if the parameters are not properly set, so setting clear goals and objectives are extremely important. A clear purpose statement helps identify the right participants to invite, and people or groups who share the same goal or have a stake in the topic are more likely to attend. Ask yourself why the meeting was planned, and what participants will gain from attending. It should be clear from the beginning whether the gathering is for information sharing or to get feedback from participants. If it’s the latter, don’t be surprised if your participants argue, disagree, or even show anger stemming from past unaddressed issues. In countries where there is a history of suppression of opinions from constituents, no one may show up to your meeting, and if they do they come out of fear and agree with everything for that same purpose.
2. Information disclosure
Providing timely and necessary background information to participants are paramount. Make sure they receive easy-to-understand information, and ask them to be prepared to provide feedback. Sharing information and receiving feedback graciously is an integral part of communications between policy- or decision makers and their constituents. Managed well, this information sharing can lead to informed discussions that helps to improve projects and strengthen relationships between policymakers and people. Repeated and continuous sharing of information throughout the project implementation phase keeps participants engaged, and builds trust that can later help to mobilize participation for other consultation needs.
3. Use the right tools
Understanding the participants’ demographics and their level of understanding of the subject matter of the consultation can help policymakers to plan appropriately. Should the consultation be a public forum, a small focus group, or an online interaction? The consultation tools should be influenced by the selection of participants. A large open public forum may not get poorer populations’ or women’s participation, especially in countries where women do not have equal participation in public life. Hearing the voices of the poor is extremely difficult in an environment where only those with money and confidence speak up. Small focus group meetings and one-to-one discussions are more inclusive ways to hear from those who are not used to speaking out in public. Online discussions are popular in today’s information technology age, but tend to attract a younger, educated crowd. Consult sociologists or participation experts when designing the tools for citizens engagement.
4. Close the feedback loop
After the meeting or consultation, it is always good practice to share the information back with the participants. Closing the feedback loop by informing participants of what was documented, and what will happen next, is of extreme importance if policymakers anticipate future follow-up discussions. Continuous information sharing until the project is completed builds trust and signals to participants that their investment in the participatory process was not a waste of their time. If possible, send thank you notes with follow-up information to keep participants informed and engaged. Let them know how the information collected will be used to help policymakers address the issue.
Through consultations, policymakers show that citizens are equal partners in the governance process, and this should not be taken lightly. Recognizing the importance of engaging with people by inviting them to participate should be done with the right intention, and for the right purpose. Public participation should not be a public relations demonstration, but rather a genuine demonstration of the social contract between a government and its people.