Submission to The Draft Consultation Principles/Guidance
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform,
Mr. Brendan Howlin T.D
The public have a right to participate and with that right comes responsibility. Unfortunately this responsibility may not be known, acknowledged, nurtured or facilitated.
My experience has taught me that it very often takes a shock or a false start to get people to participate – something happens or is planned that threatens them in some way so they get involved reactively. In response to flooding, wind farms, austerity measures, fracking, water charges, an incinerator, pylons and so on.
Unfortunately this reaction is usually by way of opposition, basically a fight. This can result in legal cases causing undue stress on society and often costing a lot of money. This is a very negative way to engage and one that exhausts a lot of people draining their ability to positively engage. In fact I have seen it turn engaged proactive participants into cynical, despondent critics of government.
The ideal situation of course is people proactively engaging in plans for their area. This is usually the aspiration for local area plans but it does’t always pan out like that due to lack of participation for many number of reasons.
I have been involved in proactive community development for almost 9 years with the Transition movement. Transition works on the principals that awareness and ownership or participation in the planned actions are key, so knowing about climate change and resource depletion will encourage people to transition to a low carbon society while participating in developing a resilient local economy. I have also been representing the environment on development boards and committees during that time and I engage with policy at local, regional, national and international level. I also encourage others to engage.
In the course of proactive engagement at local level, participation varies and it’s important to suit your audience. Depending on the preparation and thought afforded to marketing a meeting may only be attended by 10 people, similar to local authority meetings for county development plans. However when the awareness levels are raised, perhaps following extreme weather, food or oil price shocks, where the marketing can be tailored, the attendance tends to be high. The topic is relevant so people are interested. However the nature of the movement is grass roots and as such starts closer to the community than a centrally led dictate for submissions. The awareness raising is done in the local media, through local groups and at community level in language and relevance to the area. In this submission I will try to translate the practical learning from our proactive public participation model in the context of Irelands recent attempts at engagement.
In the past few years there have been some measures taken to improve public participation in policy in Ireland:
•The Constitutional Convention was great in theory, had a high profile and reached a lot of people nationwide.
•The Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas was similar but did spend a lot of time on “stakeholder” engagement. Surely everyone is a “stakeholder” and keeping participants in pockets may close off avenues that may well have been explored with a more diverse group.
•The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources expanded their consultation period to include regional meetings and open meetings in Dublin while preparing the national energy policy. They live streamed the events and welcomed online communications. This was much improved from a 4/6/8/12 week, email only submission, low profile approach often adopted by state agencies.
•The National Economic Dialogue was also a recent exercise in participation.
•Public Participation Networks are being established.
What happens as a result?
•The constitution will be published however it is felt that a lot of people’s input will not be included. It is not an action plan.
•The CEDRA report is published and is referenced regularly. It highlights what’s lacking. It contains recommendations but there is no action plan.
•DCENR will publish the national energy policy in the coming weeks, almost a year later than planned. It is unlikely to be a framework to facilitate greater local say on energy so will probably be another departmental dictate. Hopefully the action plan will have room for community led action.
•NED heard views on the national spending from outside of government but there’s no way of knowing what impact it had. The government will still present their budget.
•The local authorities are tasked with recruiting volunteers, already engaged and busy with local community groups, to establish an entity to enable greater public participation. This is being done without much guidance or support from central government and each local authority can make as much or as little effort as they like to implement it. The result is PPNs at varying stages of development, competence and confidence.
What is notable about most of these?
It’s probably not revisited, reviewed or explored further by the participants.
All of the input is stored centrally.
All of the decisions are being made centrally and the local impact may not be obvious.
Where consultation was done locally someone came from head office to deliver the consultation and extract the information.
The launch was held at head office.
Copies are at, or available through, head office.
Unless some of the participants are engaged in something related, for them the consultation was merely a brief communication on the topic.
Policy – people relationship:
People are disconnected from policy. In my experience a shocking amount of elected representatives, locally and nationally, are also disconnected from policy. We need to create a culture of participation and engagement with our national identity and policy.
Government and civil servants are disconnected from the public. Expecting already stretched volunteers to establish entities to fulfil their own obligation is nothing short of abuse. Participating is a responsibility but putting the infrastructure in place is something government needs to take responsibility for.
There are concrete actions that can be taken and achieved with the structures that currently exist. There is a definite need for an intermediary body to over see participation. There is no one size fits all, especially on the many levels that need considering – awareness raising, location, intellectual capacity to participate, up skilling, technological connectivity, communication needs, mobility issues, informed engagement and so on.
•Establish intermediary participation bodies in every local authority.
•Establish a national oversight body.
•Communicate the need for public participation.
•Task these bodies with ensuring participation is tailored to the public in the area.
•Task these bodies with ensuring as much as can possibly be done is done to help people to participate.
•Task these bodies with up-skilling themselves and others in methods of participation.
•Task these bodies with ensuring the knowledge and understanding required to input into decisions and policy is made available to willing participants especially where technical knowledge is necessary.
These bodies already exist. Working effectively, the Public Participation Networks will revolutionise the whole process. For example, this consultation may not have come to the attention of most of the people making submissions until it was almost due to end. A PPN could deliver notification of consultations to the inbox, letter box, radio programme or local newspaper of a much wider audience within days of it being launched.
We need to take the steps necessary to ensure the Public Participation Networks work. They need to be adequately established to act as a conduit between state agencies and the public. We must support them enough that they can be tasked with facilitating this cultural shift. We must review them regularly to ensure their effectiveness.
One of the main messages that must come from government is the fact that it takes peoples opinions, ideas and dreams to shape the country we want for this generation and future generations. This must then be repeated at local level and steps taken to build on public participation.
At project level, every PPN could be tasked with participation oversight where a check list is drawn up prior to any engagement, a work plan agreed and implemented subject to ongoing review. There are many best practice examples and it’s probable that a mix of many will be necessary. The oversight may also be very different for every project.
This service would also be useful when it comes to private developments. Most developers must engage in public consultation and many are at a loss as to how to do so effectively and in a manner that will be considered adequate should a legal challenge occur. If functioning properly there is an opportunity that developers could be charged to engage the PPN and in so doing financially supporting it’s existence.
Being involved as a secretariat member of Clare PPN I will also make the following recommendations:
•The local authority must have people with the skills, trained in community engagement, to liaise with the PPN.
•The local authority and PPN must invest time into building a working relationship that aims to foster greater collaboration in planning and development.
•Ensure that PPNs are autonomous and seen as separate to the local authority.
•The local authority must believe that the PPN structures are not disposable. Instead of anticipating the funding being cut they should do what they can to make their area PPN essential to decision making and possibly self financing as a vehicle of engagement.
•PPNs are currently under resourced and depend heavily upon volunteer hours by people already committed to community engagement. In some areas this has facilitated greater involvement by the local authority thereby compromising the autonomy and subsequently peoples trust in the PPN.
•There should be a national website with individual PPN areas or links. This is something social enterprises, NGO’s can do – why not government?
•There should be national insurance to cover all PPNs – again something available through national bodies.
I think the PPN poses an amazing opportunity to create a collaborative, inclusive society. I really hope government make the most of this opportunity.
As for learning – I wish I had more time to spend on this submission. Suffice to say that the thought, effort and consideration afforded to public participation in this initial consultation were as negligent as those afforded to the establishment of the Open Government Partnership in Ireland in the first place. Rushing it through over summer did not prove useful for OGP and it definitely is not enough for guidelines on how to include people in plans for their country. I only hope that more thought is given to consultation on the next draft.
Theresa O’Donohoe – October 9 2015