Public Participation and the Irish System

On Friday last April 4th I was part of a delegation from Open Government Partnership, OGP that met with officials from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, DECLG. I wasn’t quite sure what the purpose of the meeting was only that the agenda was the Aarhus Convention and Citizen Engagement.

Aarhus was pretty concise – it’s been ratified, it will compliment the OGP process but is focused on environmental matters. There remains issue with the inconsistency between Access to Information on the Environment fees and Freedom Of Information fees.

Citizen Engagement on the other hand was the can of worms.

I had compiled a list of questions and feedback from around the country that I had hoped to broach but they did not really fit the OGP agenda so never quite fitted in. I did get to bring in some feedback in general conversation. My personal interest was to learn more about the establishment of the public participations framework as suggested by the working group on citizen engagement. My experience in Laois to date has been pretty negative with officials from the council unwilling to engage.

It became clear that the staff are not completely happy with the proposals from the working group on citizen engagement. I gained a lot of insight and have some recommendations for the rolling out of the pilot Public Participation Networks, PPNs. That’s the trouble with being hot wired a systems analyst – problem solving and creating efficient frameworks is in the dna!

I learned that the four pilot Public Participation Networks, Galway, Laois, South Dublin and Tipperary, should be up and running immediately and will be reported upon some time in May. Local authorities, LAs will give their feedback to the department and discuss how they see things work, or not. I asked would the participants of the PPNs be invited to give feedback to the dept. As it stands that is not the plan. This means that the department will only get one side of the story – whatever the local authority has to say. Local authorities are not likely to report if they were unsupportive of steps proposed by civil society to aid implementation. They won’t report back that they opposed the measures from the start. Nor will they report that they resisted change, subconsciously or otherwise.

I pointed out that these Public Participation Network structures were conceived and created by members of civic society interested in and with ample experience of public participation. They are probably coming from a different focus than the local authority and departmental staff. Public participation is vital to the implementation of the measures as much as it was to their planning. I do not consider this an unreasonable assumption given that I have been told by at least two senior government officials recently that plans are made by civil servants within the confines of their offices in order to have a starting point. This baseline is devised “in their box”, to quote one official, which is then enhanced by public participation and the consultation process.

I also noted how insecure the implementation of the measures are and how they can be written off as the process evolves if they are seen to be failing. I would like to see the working group recommendations succeed and think the following support measures could help:

  • Establish links between the three Public Participation Network colleges, environment, social inclusion and community, within each pilot Local Authority.
  • Invite members of colleges in each pilot LA to a central meeting to discuss their ideas for the piloting.
  • Invite LA staff and PPN members or advocates to design the implementation of the new framework.
  • Have interim network meetings – support, feedback, idea sharing etc with participants from the 4 pilots.
  • Ensure that the participants establishing the PPNs are invited to provide feedback to the department and that it is given as much weight as the LA staff feedback.

It would be good to think that LA staff and PPN advocates can be brought together to work out an implementation process. That they could have reviews and meet on a regular basis to evaluate how it’s progressing. It is not something that should be left solely to the LA and it is something that may need outside impartial facilitation.

If these PPNs fail at the pilot phase it may be decided to shelve their introduction. I see no support to assist the public participation in the implementation process. That to me is the key to the entire process – shared implementation. Perhaps with impartial facilitation and documentation of the process for proto-typing.

The failings to date, as I see them, have been bad communication leading to insecurities and fear. As usual it all comes down to good communication. Let’s start now and get civil society and local authorities together to begin the communications process that will lead to better all round, more sustainable planning in our country.

LEAF Laois Environmental Action Forum are hosting an information seminar on the establishment of PPNs next Monday, April 14th in Treo Nua, Portlaoise at 7pm. All welcome.

Local Government Reform event flier
Local Government Reform event flier

Quick reference:
AIE – Access to Information on the Environment
DECLG – Department of Environment, Community and Local Government
FOI – Freedom Of Information
LA – Local Authority
LEAF – Laois Environmental Action Forum
OGP – Open Government Partnership
PPN – Public Participation Network

PS see last weeks blog for further public participation info and details on some of the above 🙂

Theresa O’Donohoe – April 5th 2014

Published by Theresa OD

Change maker and mother of 5 living in the west of Ireland

2 thoughts on “Public Participation and the Irish System

  1. Hello Theresa,

    These reflections upon the meeting are spot on. Your examination of the officials in the room really helped to spotlight their lack of planning and coordination. From what I heard you are well able to define improvements in how the PPN pilot rolls out.

    Thank you for making that long journey to speak your mind.

    Edward Stevenson

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