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How to design more effective participatory decision-making processes

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Working with stakeholders is often challenging. There seem to always be difficult characters to deal with, and you often end up working with people who are in conflict with one another – or worse – in conflict with you. But the promise of stakeholder participation is still alluring: democracy in action; smarter and more popular decisions, designed by and supported by the people who have to implement them.

So how can you design participatory processes that can effectively engage stakeholders in policy decisions? How can we harness participation to achieve social and environmental benefits, but avoid the pitfalls?

1. Start talking to people as soon as you can

Stakeholder participation should be considered right from the outset, from concept development and planning, through implementation, to monitoring and evaluation of outcomes. Engagement with stakeholders as early as possible in decision-making has been frequently cited as essential if participatory processes are to lead to high quality and durable decisions. Typically, stakeholders only get involved in decision-making at the implementation phase of the project cycle, and not in earlier project identification and preparation phases. Increasingly they may also be involved in monitoring and evaluating the outcomes of the decision-making process. However, unless flexibility can be built into the project design, this can mean that stakeholders are invited to get involved in a project that is at odds with their own needs and priorities. This may make it a challenge to motivate stakeholders to engage with the decision-making process, and those who are engaged may be placed in a reactive position, where they are asked to respond to proposals that they perceive to have already have been finalised. In contrast to this, a number of projects have shown how stakeholders could be actively engaged in sampling design, data collection and analysis, in addition to more traditional roles.

2. Make sure you’re talking to the right people

One of the main ingredients for successful participation, and at the same time one of the main challenges, is the selection and actual involvement of appropriate participants. It is often difficult to identify who should be involved, but getting the right mix is

crucial for the legitimacy of the process. The selection of participants also significantly influences the nature of the outputs. As a result, “stakeholder analysis” is increasingly being used to systematically represent those relevant to environmental decision-making processes. Stakeholder analysis is a process that: (i) defines aspects of a social and natural system affected by a decision or action, (ii) identifies individuals and groups who are affected by or can affect those parts of the system (this may include non-human and non-living entities and future generations), and; (iii) prioritises these individuals and groups for involvement in the decision-making process. A wide variety of tools and approaches have been used for stakeholder analysis to: (i) identify stakeholders; (ii) differentiate between and categorise stakeholders; and (iii) investigate relationships between stakeholders (for more details, see: Reed et al., 2009).

3. Make sure you know what people want to talk about

In order to design an appropriate process using relevant tools, it is essential to clearly articulate the goals towards which the group will be working. This is closely linked to stakeholder analysis and may take place as part of such an analysis, where system boundaries and issues are identified alongside those who hold a stake in what happens to the system under investigation. This may require negotiation, and different stakeholders may have irreconcilable objectives. If the goals are developed through dialogue (making trade-offs where necessary) between participants, they are more likely to take ownership of the process, partnership building will be more likely, and the outcomes are more likely to be more relevant to stakeholder needs and priorities, motivating their ongoing active engagement.

4. Be flexible: base level of participation and methods on your context and objectives

Participatory methods can only be chosen once the objectives of the process have been clearly articulated, a level of engagement has been identified that is appropriate to those objectives, and relevant stakeholders have been selected for inclusion in the process. For example, there are many methods that can be used to communicate (e.g. information dissemination via leaflets or the mass media, hotlines and public meetings), consult (e.g. consultation documents, opinion polls and referendums, focus groups and surveys) or participate (e.g. citizen’s juries, consensus conferences, task-forces and public meetings with voting) with stakeholders. Methods must also

be adapted to the decision-making context, including socio-cultural and environmental factors (for example, methods that require participants to read or write should be avoided in groups that might include illiterate participants). Depending on the power dynamics of the group, methods may need to be employed that equalize power between participants to avoid marginalising the voices of the less powerful. Those who feel marginalised during decision-making may delay or prevent implementation through litigation.

5. Get a facilitator

Don’t underestimate the power of a good facilitator to bring people together and deliver high quality outcomes. The outcome of any participatory process is far more sensitive to the manner in which it is conducted than the tools that are used. Highly skilled facilitation is particular important in the uplands, given the high likelihood of dealing with conflict, for example between conservationists and resource users. Different facilitators can use the same tools with radically different outcomes, depending on their skill level. Such skills include technical expertise in the use of different tools. However, it is sometimes the most seemingly simple of methods, such as informal group discussion, which require the greatest expertise. A successful facilitator needs to be perceived as impartial, open to multiple perspectives and approachable. They need to be capable of maintaining positive group dynamics, handling dominating or offensive individuals, encourage participants to question assumptions and re-evaluate entrenched positions, and get the most out of reticent individuals. Such skills are difficult to learn and tend to be developed through years of experience, intuition and empathy.

6. Put local and scientific knowledge on an equal footing

The need for scientific information and analysis to inform stakeholder deliberation has been identified by many authors as an essential ingredient in any participatory process. It is argued that local stakeholders may be able to learn from scientific sources of knowledge and so make more informed decisions in highly technical decision-making contexts, for example using Citizens’ Juries. Equally, by taking local knowledge into account, researchers may have their assumptions and validity of results questioned, leading to further investigation and a more rigorous understanding of the issues they are investigating. Following from this, cross-fertilisation of ideas between these different sources of knowledge may provide more comprehensive information upon which to base decisions, which may increase their robustness and durability. Having said this, opponents argue that local knowledge may be exaggerated or distorted, and irrelevant to “scientific” nature of much modern environmental management. On this basis, concerns have been expressed that integrating scientific and local knowledge bases will inevitably involve a trade-off between meaningful participation and scientific rigour. However, the same critique can be made of scientific knowledge, which should also not be uncritically accepted without evaluating the uncertainty and associated value judgments in the claims being made. If we consider local and scientific knowledge to be equally valid, it is necessary to subject each to an appropriate level of scrutiny, before considering what exactly may be integrated.

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