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Public Participation in Environmental Decision-making

We talked about the historical development of public participation in environmental governance. Now we dive into the area to reveal the ways of public participation in environmental decision-making. Even though successfully engaging people in environmental decision-making is challenging, inclusive and meaningful participation is a core content in achieving sustainable and environmental goals.

Formal participation

A rapid rise in formal approaches of participation has been seen for years. Those formal and conventional participation approaches, including public meetings, citizen assemblies and other consulting processes, are often led by public authorities to promote public participation beyond voting.

The government sectors usually invite people to share concerns and opinions and engage in environmental decision-making through the “participatory democracy” approach. This engaging approach reshapes the administrative process into collaborative decision-making. In some contexts, public participation is obligatory in environmental decision-making. For example, engaging the public and relevant stakeholders and collecting their opinions in environmental impact assessment, urban land use planning, etc., are mandatory.

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The more advanced approach of formal participation includes the process of information exchange and deliberative communication, known as “deliberative democracy”. That is, authorities or social organizations take a group of citizens or stakeholders together to deliberate on environmental issues and make rational decisions. Moving beyond two-way communication, the deliberative process allows sharing and co-creation which lay the foundation for mutual understanding and facilitate problem-solving. Critiques for deliberation include that the participants must be open-minded to ensure the success and marginalized groups are still disadvantaged which deepen the inequalities.

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Informal participation

The informal way of participation could be also useful and compensate for some deficits of formal participation. Unlike formal participation which favour the privileged groups, participation outside of the institutionalized authorities expands the opportunities for citizens to engage in decision-making. The common approaches, community forums, workshops and events, can provide feedback and input to decision-makers. Although in general, the participants will not directly affect final decisions, these approaches bring citizens with larger-scale of awareness, better-informed knowledge, clearer attitudes and confidence prior to the formal participation. Bringing citizens to discussions also empowers citizens in decision-making.

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However, formal and informal participation are often tied together. This requires the collaboration of public authorities and civil society. Civil society can create space for public participation by leveraging their influential networks mostly through informal approaches of participation. Researches show that the participants’ preferences, two-way or dialogue-based communication and multilevel governance have a significant impact on environmental outputs. The creation of liveable and sustainable environment requires the successful engagement of all sectors at all levels in society. Public participation is, thus, the key tool to foster collaboration with stakeholders and citizens and generate meaningful environmental outcomes.

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Reference

1 Fung, A. (2006). Varieties of participation in complex governance. Public Administration Review, 66(Supp.), 66-75.

2 Bozhinova, K. (2014). Environmental Governance and Public Participation.

3 Berry, L.H, Koski, J., Verkuijl, C., Strambo, C. and Piggot, G. (2019). Making space: how public participation shapes environmental decision-making. Discussion brief. Stockholm Environment Institute.

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About The Author

Yunyue Peng

Master student in Nature Management at the University of Copenhagen, focusing on public participation and citizen action in nature conservation and sustainable development.