Selecting the Right Level of Public Participation
Not all public participation is the same; there are numerous levels at which you might wish to engage with the public based on the project, the stakeholders, and the decisions to be made. To identify the appropriate level of public participation for your project, you must first answer the following question:
- How much potential influence on the decision or action are you willing to provide to the public?
The answer to this question is critical to the design and ultimate success of your public participation program. It is not uncommon for agencies to promise the public far more potential influence than is actually likely or possible. In general, this is not done purposely, but rather due to a lack of understanding or careful consideration of the role of the public at the conception of the project.
However, the risks of not clarifying the public’s role are significant. If stakeholders perceive they will or believe they should have significant input to and influence on a decision but in the end do not, they will be dissatisfied with the outcome of the process, regardless of how much public participation activity may have occurred.
It is important to recognize that the number of activities, expense, and time devoted to public participation do not mean the same thing as the potential for actual public influence on the decision. In public participation, a great deal of time, effort, and resources can easily be expended on the wrong pursuits, in turn leading to negative results. This is particularly true when you follow a prescribed set of activities in a law or regulation without first establishing a clear role for the public.
Fortunately, a number of simple tools exist to assist in the selection of the appropriate level of public participation, one of which is described here.
The IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum
The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) designed its Public Participation Spectrum (1 pg, 622K, About PDF Files) to assist agencies in establishing and communicating clear expectations regarding the intent of public participation projects.
The Spectrum is organized around the principle that the level of public participation is directly tied to the level of potential public influence on the decision or action being considered. This potential influence can vary anywhere from none at all to total. The spectrum is designed to understand the key levels that should be considered within these extremes for designing a public participation program.
It is important to recognize that we are only talking about potential influence. In few cases can you promise the exact nature of the public’s ultimate influence. This is generally not apparent until the end of a well-implemented program, when full consideration is given to the input received.
You can, however, conduct thoughtful planning to fully understand the dynamics of the project, the desired and likely nature of public input, and the opportunities to address public concerns, desires, and interests.
Five levels of public participation are described on the Spectrum ranging from no influence (Inform) to total influence (Empower). Under each level, three items are described that help to explain the level of participation more fully.
- The Public Participation Goal. The goal of the public participation project describes the agency’s intent with regard to engaging the public in the project and is used to make sure that common internal expectations (those of the sponsor agency) are established and maintained. The goal statements on the spectrum are intended to provide generic guidance and are not expected to be used exactly as written. As you approach each new project, you should give careful thought to identifying the specific goals that apply to your conditions, opportunities, constraints, and stakeholders.
- The Promise to the Public. Every public participation program results in a promise to the public regarding the level of their potential influence on the outcome of the project and what they can expect from the sponsor agency. The spectrum is designed to remind agencies that they need to make this promise clear and explicit so as to create common expectations among all stakeholders. As with the goal statements, the promises on the spectrum are intended to provide generic guidance and are not expected to be used exactly as written. You should always give careful thought to creating promise statements that fit the conditions, circumstances, and stakeholders for that project.
- Example Techniques. In each column, a few public participation techniques or tools are identified to suggest the types of activities that might be used at different levels of public participation. As the level of public participation increases, you will seek to engage the public more often and with more intensity. However, it is important to understand that these are just examples and most techniques can be designed to be used at any level of the spectrum.
The two ends of the spectrum relate to the extreme levels of potential public influence, from no opportunity to influence (the inform level) to total influence over the outcome (the empower level). These two levels of public participation work to frame the spectrum, but are not actually where most meaningful public participation occurs. At the inform level, since there is no real opportunity for public influence, we do not conduct public participation; however, it is there to remind us that sometimes we can do no more than provide good information to the public. At the far right-hand side of the spectrum, empower represents a level of influence that we rarely provide to the public. Most agencies are not legally able to hand over their decision authority and to do this effectively would require a very rigorous program of public information and capacity building. Thus, it is in the middle three levels where most public participation occurs: consult, involve, and collaborate.
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 agency decision-making process. This level is on the spectrum to remind agencies 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 manipulate 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 the agency to serve as an honest broker of information, giving the public what they need to fully understand the project and decision and to reach their own conclusions as to the appropriateness and adequacy of the decision.
- Both the public participation goal and promise at the inform level is to keep the public informed.
The Consult level of public participation is the basic minimum opportunity for public input to a decision. Consult simply means to ask. There is no invitation to sit down together and work on things in any cooperative way. The agency merely asks the public for their opinions and considers the input it receives as it makes the decision. At consult, agencies generally ask for input at set points in the process and do not provide an ongoing opportunity for input.
- The public participation goal at the consult level is to obtain and consider public input.
- The promise at the consult level is to consider the public input received and to provide feedback as to how that input influenced the decision.
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, the agency is 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.
- The public participation goal at the involve level is to work directly with the public and consider their input throughout the decision-making process.
- The promise at the involve level is that the public will have access to the decision process and decision makers and will be provided the opportunity to give input throughout the process and receive direct feedback on how their input helped to influence the decision.
The Collaborate level of public participation includes all the elements of involve. To collaborate means to work together. At the collaborate level, the public is directly engaged in decision-making. Collaborate often includes the explicit attempt to find consensus solutions. However, as at involve, the agency is still the ultimate decision-maker. The degree to which consensus will be sought and how much decision authority the agency is willing to share must be made explicit. In the end, the agency will take all of the input received and make the decision. Conducting a collaboration level program is time-consuming and resource intensive and should not be entered into lightly. If stakeholders do reach consensus and this is not given serious consideration by the sponsoring agency, it can have serious negative consequences on the project and on future relationships with stakeholders.
- The public participation goal at the collaborate level is to design a process that allows for effective partnering with the public on all aspects of the decision.
- The promise at the collaborate level is that the public will be engaged in all key activities and decisions, and their input will be incorporated to the maximum extent possible. Consensus is not always sought at the collaborate level; the degree to which consensus will be sought should be an explicit part of the promise.
At the Empower level, agencies provide the public with the opportunity to make decisions for themselves. The most common activities at this level are public voting or ballots, but there are other techniques available as well. Government agencies rarely conduct public participation at the empower level. In general, agencies are not permitted to delegate their decision authority to the public, and creating a fair, legitimate, and inclusive process for empowerment beyond basic voting is complex and challenging. Basic voting by itself often fails to create the level of public knowledge and broad range of public input that is needed for meaningful public participation.
- The public participation goal at the empower level is to create a program that allows the public to make an informed decision.
- The promise at the empower level is that the agency will implement what the public decides.
Your public participation program may include multiple levels of public participation, both at different stages of the process and because different stakeholders will choose to engage at different levels.
The level of public participation that you select for your project or decision is the most intensive, or highest, level of public participation that you will perform on the project. However, you will also be conducting public participation at all of the levels of the spectrum beneath that highest level. This is because stakeholders will choose the level of public participation at which they want to participate and not all stakeholders will want to engage at the highest level of public participation that is available.
Lower levels, particularly inform and consult can accommodate many stakeholders. Higher levels of participation require more effort on the part of both agencies and stakeholders and therefore generally attract fewer stakeholders. The highest level of collaboration, for example, involves consensus-seeking and is often limited to a representative group of stakeholders involved in long-term processes, such as long-term advisory boards. At the same time, many additional stakeholders may be engaged in the project at the involve level, attending public workshops and events, or at the consult level providing input through letters or the internet. Still more stakeholders may choose to engage at the inform level, tracking the project but offering no direct input. Thus a single project can be operating at four different levels of public participation. Designing a public participation program must therefore be done with this in mind.
(Resources on other public participation frameworks)
Guide Navigation by Section:
- Introduction to the Public Participation Guide
- Introduction to Public Participation
- Public Participation Situation Assessments
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- Public Participation Process Design
- Public Participation Tools
- Public Participation Workshops
- Public Participation Foundational Skills, Knowledge, and Behaviors
- Public Participation Resources
For additional information on EPA's Public Participation Guide, contact:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2650R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460