3-8 Arguments for and against public involvement

Public involvement can be a time-consuming and costly exercise. This issue can be best addressed by sound planning. A proposal may be subject to delay and added expense if public consultation is non-existent or inadequate. A proposal may be subject to delay and added expense if public consultation is non-existent or inadequate. More generally the benefits of involving the public have been identified by Cahn and Cahn (1971) as:

  • a means of mobilising under-utilised resources (untapped labour or productivity);
  • a source of knowledge (both corrective and creative); and
  • an end in itself (affirmation of democracy and elimination of alienation, hostility and lack of faith).

To these can be added a fourth and perhaps overriding advantage; that is, it provides:

  • better decision-making.

Although this last point is somewhat nebulous, it is frequently considered to be the main value where objectives for public participation exercises have not been clearly thought out. “Better decision-making” would include aspects of the first three points, and particularly dissemination of information, identification of relevant issues (and perhaps values), and avoiding objections and delay at later stages (since the opportunity to participate has already been provided).

From the point of those developing an EIA, according to Sadar (1994) the advantages of providing opportunities for public involvement are likely to be:

  • the public is informed;
  • different viewpoints are identified;
  • concerns raised by the proposal are made clearer;
  • potential areas of conflict are identified;
  • trust and mutual respect are fostered; and
  • the ‘comfort level’ of decision-makers is raised.

Clearly there are good reasons for undertaking public engagement programs. However, Molesworth (1985) also sees there are disadvantages in developing these programs:

  • only those with scientific or technical training are able to contribute to positive and constructive decision-making;
  • it is more efficient to have a small number of people involved in making decisions (efficiency of time, and being decisive);
  • members of the public tend to be subjective whereas professionals (technical or bureaucratic) are thought to be objective;
  • the existing political process works to take into account public opinion; public participation is almost interference;
  • third parties should not be allowed to interfere with another person’s democratic right to do something;
  • public participation is not truly representative of public opinion;
  • public participation adds to the costs of projects or governing;
  • public participation encourages litigants to disrupt the proper processes of government/administration; and
  • the public cannot appreciate the importance of many affairs of state (which only government or its agencies can fully understand).

Various arguments have been and still are advanced to justify avoiding public involvement. Some of the commonly used ‘reasons’ and answers follow in the table below:

Common arguments for and against public involvement
Reason Solutions
Sources: UNEP, 1999; World Bank, 2000.
It’s too early; we haven’t yet got a firm proposal The early provision of information to the public will minimise the risk of untrue and damaging rumours about the proposals. Even though the proponent may not have a clear idea of project details, communicating the objectives of the proposals can start to build trust with the community, allow useful public input on site constraints and alternatives and can help the proponent devise a robust scheme.
It will take too long and will cost too much Public involvement can be expensive and time- consuming. If integrated into the project planning process, excessive timelines can be avoided. The costs of not involving the public are likely to be even greater in terms of costs arising from delays.
It will stir up opposition, and the process will be taken over by activists Those who are likely to oppose a project will not be dissuaded by the lack of a public involvement programme. Rather such a programme can ensure that all sides of the debate are heard. Importantly, the issues raised by opponents should be thoroughly examined and treated on their merits. If the impacts cannot be avoided, public involvement can help demonstrate that the concerns of all segments of the community have been fairly addressed.
We will only hear from the articulate Those who are articulate, knowledgeable and powerful find it easier to use the opportunities provided through public involvement. Those preparing and managing such programmes must be aware of this, and incorporate measures to ensure that the views of ‘the silent majority’ are expressed and understood.
We’ll raise expectations we can’t satisfy Great care must be taken in the first phases of a public involvement programme to ensure that unreasonable expectations are not raised.  The purpose of public involvement in EIA and decision- making should be clearly communicated, together with decisions which have been made already.
The local community won’t understand the issues involved. Lack of technical education does not negate intelligence and the understanding people have of their own surroundings. Often people’s knowledge of their environment and how it will be changed can be more accurate than that predicted by models.

No public involvement programme will be effective unless the proponent is serious in engaging with the community in a two-way dialogue and is open minded to what it can contribute to the proposal. Key prerequisites are a willingness to listen to the information, values and concerns of the community, to amend the proposal so as to minimise community concerns, and to acknowledge the value of community input.

Overall, it may be easy to say that the disadvantages noted above are insubstantial. However, while they may not carry much weight in dismissing the need for participation, they should be considered as aspects to be aware of in designing a participation program. If the design can reduce these disadvantages, it will be a better program than one which simply ignores potential problems.

July 26, 2006 Uncategorized — @ 7:12 pm


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