The practice of Public Participation aims to include all aspects of identifying problems and opportunities, while developing alternatives and making decisions. Commonly referred to as Citizen and Community Engagement, Stakeholder Engagement or Relations and Public Consultation; Public Participation uses tools and techniques that are common to a number of dispute resolution and communications fields. These techniques are commonly employed in the Two-way symmetrical communication public relations model which uses communication to negotiate with the public, resolve conflict, and promote mutual understanding and respect between an organization and its public(s).[1]
For many jurisdictions in the western world, public participation has become a central principle of public policy making. Meaningful citizen engagement can take the form of:
  • information sharing;
  • consulting to get public feedback;
  • working directly with citizens to deliberate their ideas and ensure their concerns are understood and considered;
  • collaborating with citizens to reach consensus on alternatives;
  • identification of preferred solutions to partner with citizens in joint decision-making processes where people assume responsibility for shaping their future.[2]

Effective public participation acknowledges the desire for humans to participate in decisions that impact their life directly of indirectly. The belief is that effective public participation facilitates an understanding and improves overall decision making. The practice of public participation is useful for organizations to identify critical issues early and remediate them.[3]
IAP2:
The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) is an Association of members who seek to promote and improve the practice of public participation in relation to individuals, governments, institutions, and other entities that affect the public interest in Canada and around the world.
IAP2 carries out its mission by organizing and conducting activities to adhere to the core values their Core Values for the Practice of Public Participation:
  1. Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.
  2. Public participation includes the promise that the public's contribution will influence the decision.
  3. Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.
  4. Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
  5. Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
  6. Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
  7. Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision. [4]


By utilizing the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation, public relations and public participation professionals can assess what tools would best meet the objective of the public engagement exercise.[5]
Benefits:
The primary objective of public participation is that it increases understanding and contributes to sustainable decision making. The underlying assumption by political theorists, social commentators, and even politicians is that public participation increase public trust in authorities, improving citizen political efficacy, enhancing democratic ideals and even improving the quality of policy decisions. However, the assumed benefits of public participation in restoring public trust are yet to be confirmed.[6],[7]
Public participation provides an early warning system for public concerns and needs, and acts as a sounding board for proposed organizational programs and or initiatives. It provides the opportunity for communication between decision makers and the public by creating a credible channel through which accurate and timely information can be disseminated.[8]
Public participation helps increase understanding and support for an organization’s goals, while encouraging appropriate modification and adaption of policies and procedures before major issues develop.
Criticisms:
Some of the common criticisms and misconceptions that exist about public participation are that it is expensive and takes a lot of additional time. Another common criticism is that governments and organizations that use public participation do not truly value the process and do not consider or use any of the input they received during the consultation exercise. Also, the opportunity for meaningful public participation varies from project to project and that no single approach to public participation will serve or add value to a project.


[1] Grunig, J. (1989). Symmetrical presuppositions as a framework for public relations theory. In C. Botan & V. Hazelton (Eds), Public Relations Theory, pp. 17-44
[2] Government of New Brunswick Citizen Engagement Unit http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/intergovernmental_affairs/citizen_engagementunit.html
[3] International Association of Public Participation. (2006). Planning for Effective Public Participation Student Manuel.
[4] IAP2 – Core Values: http://iap2canada.ca/Default.aspx?pageId=994361
[5] IAP2 – Spectrum of Public Participation: http://iap2canada.ca/Default.aspx?pageId=1020549
[6] Rowe, G. and Frewer, L.J. (2000) Public participation methods: A framework for evaluation, Science, Technology, & Human Values, 25 (1), 3-29.
[7] Rowe, G. and Gammack, J.G. (2004) Promise and perils of electronic public engagement, Science and Public Policy, 31 (1), 39-54.
[8] International Association of Public Participation. (2006). Planning for Effective Public Participation Student Manuel.