Welcoming the debate and stakeholder engagement

This week I attended the Energy Ireland conference. Predictably my agenda was public participation. Almost as predictable is the fact that social or “public acceptance” in energy plans, policies and projects was a big issue throughout the two days with one afternoon workshop being dedicated to “stakeholder engagement”.

It got off to a great start when a familiar statement came back to haunt me! In his opening address the minister welcomed the debate. What debate??? I’ve said it before – there is no debate! There are two sides, each reinforcing themselves with like minded people, ideas and views. There is media ping pong. There is social media ping pong and propaganda. Where is the information? Where is the constructive discussion? Where is the education? Where is the debate? Who is hosting? Who will be invited? Who will facilitate it. I welcome the debate – so let’s get it going. At the moment there is NO debate!

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The fact that social acceptance must be secured came up over and over. Even companies who have invested much time and money researching and implementing “best practice”, admitted that it’s not working in Ireland. It may work on a one to one level but then fall down in the community at large and vice versa.

At one of the sessions all speakers had agreed that social acceptance was an issue that needed to be addressed. Inspired by their insight and what I perceived as a willingness to change, I asked what was planned for public participation, the practicalities. What could they do to support it? I was told that there are structures in place, in the planning system, there’s the current green paper where everyone can participate.

I just want to repeat and recap that example – a whole panel agreed that our system of community engagement isn’t working yet when I ask about plans to improve public participation I get referred back to the existing system – which is causing the problems we are discussing?!?!? I’m still not sure if some people are scratching their heads wondering how to involve the communities, achieve comprehensive public participation for a consensus and shared vision? Or if they are scratching their heads wondering how do they force society to accept the changes they plan on making!

I also had some very constructive conversations around public participation and I intend following up and exploring some ideas over the coming weeks. In all it was a positive experience knowing that I am using these opportunities to continue to question the participatory system we so desperately need to change if we are to do anything sustainably.

Theresa O’Donohoe

June 20th 2014

 


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