Public Participation – a 2020 Challenge

Election cycles allow the permanent administration undo the dynamic work of visionary, change making elected representatives. Politicians can be closer to public opinion, undoubtedly communicate with the public and will probably bring new perspectives to their roles within government. In a representative democracy this can be a very muted form of public participation as the onus is on the politician to determine who’s needs they represent. The Public Participation Networks, PPNs bring a more deliberate methodology to representation with an onus on multiple forms of communication ensuring transparency and accountability with representation.

Some civil servants see how beneficial public participation is. Many more seem to fear, detest, can’t cope with it at all. Ironically enough, comprehensive public participation is an essential ingredient to successful planning and the system needs to change to incorporate it. Ireland inc has been told this repeatedly by Europe and from within some of it’s own advisory bodies for many years now. Non consultation has been a lifelong habit within the permanent government – why change now? It’s uncomfortable breaking habits of a lifetime.

I recently posted a blog about a public consultation on Irelands long term greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy – Non Consultation Is Key. This is just one of many non consultations over the past couple of years. There was a lot of unhappy people with that lack of consideration on the part of the government. Again. I’m definitely not the only one who believes that the consultation practices of the government are completely disrespectful, inconsiderate and dismissive of public participation. The following Facebook post went out on December 29th 2019 from Not Here Not Anywhere:

It’s no secret that the government wants to make it more difficult for environmental and social justice groups, and Irish people, to have our say on important policies. Time to pull them up on their dodgy behaviour! They tried to pull a fast one by launching a public consultation on something really important, Ireland’s long-term GHG emissions reduction strategy, with a really tight deadline of **5pm 31st December 2019**.

I often talk about the hard work and massive collaboration that went into the Peoples Energy Charter. How groups, individuals, Non Governmental Organisations and agencies from around the country worked together to ensure that Irelands energy policy would ensure comprehensive public participation in our national energy transition plans. When Minister Alex White launched the national energy white paper in December of 2015 he announced the National Energy Forum – a space for public participation in Irelands energy transition plans. That became the climate dialogue in the new programme for government and is pretty much non existent now.

The vision died with Minister Whites exit from government. The national policy he took ownership of as Minister had high hopes of a national transition to address climate collapse by facilitating the collaboration of state and public to design a just transition pathway that would secure a safe future for all. It is now very obvious to me that there was no real commitment to this vision from within the administration. Having attended one event in Kerry, being told by people extremely close to the process and from watching closely at how controlling the overseeing civil servants were I believe wholeheartedly that they are in the non changing category.

Trouble is ministers come and go, politicians can have a short life span. Alex White understood climate breakdown. He also understood public participation and how vital people planing and driving the energy transition and climate action would be. He made sure that the consultation on the national energy white paper was more extensive than is usual. We ended up with 12 public events, 4 of them regional, all streamed online and publication of the final policy one year later than the civil servants had planned. I imagine they were not impressed at all. Change being difficult and all that.

Never before had Ireland engaged so well in developing policy. I haven’t seen it since. The vision was that the public and communities would engage in planning their own energy transition, be informed and engaged enough to participate in the regional and national plans. The vision of comprehensive public participation discussed during the formation of the national policy was a network of community based dialogues raising awareness about climate breakdown and discussing possible solutions. Capacity building the public to take on climate action.

The Minister changed soon after with the general election and a new government. I expect the civil servants breathed a sigh of relief when Alex White left – now they could get back to their old ways of minimal, as under the radar as possible, consultation. A practice so desperately in need of change if we are to address climate breakdown and biodiversity loss as a nation. Instead of a participatory problem solving, solution focused agenda the climate dialogue was put on hold while the citizens assembly helped push out implementation and the call for change.

Then the Joint Oireachtas committee on climate action added even more breathing space for the administration. The recommendations were included, possibly even diluted, in the governments climate action plan and a series of mediocre to pathetic consultations on the way forward have been drip fed ever since.

I no longer have any interest in writing submissions. In being ignored. Having spent years forming ground breaking policy which is shelved I have lost heart and faith in the system. The last one I did was to Clare County Council on their climate adaptation strategy. They didn’t change one word in their draft despite 27 submissions. They wouldn’t even add climate or biodiversity into the title of a policy committee. Why bother? The civil servants live in a bubble.  A salary and promise of a pension. Oblivious to the actual facts on climate breakdown because until now there has been no real awareness raising within. Introductions to climate perhaps but no in depth understanding of the actual consequences. That only seems to happen when physical impacts are visible – that seems to be the general human response – if it’s not in front of me it’s not happening.

The trouble with that response to climate breakdown is that once it is in your face obvious it is near unstoppable. We have an Australian Prime Minister who still denies that climate breakdown is a problem while his country burns. Why? Because he mingles with like minded climate deniers. He wants economic growth at all costs. He doesn’t actually think it through. A pattern amongst a cohort of right wing, mainly male, leaders incapable of critical systems thinking. Their one track minds are focused on the economy. The fossil fuel industry happily distracts them from the climate crisis. They are absolute fools. I refuse to mince my words on that! Absolute fools who are squandering our childrens opportunity to support themselves on a healthy planet.

In contrast we have a rising movement of young people and others who totally comprehend our current route to extinction with the School Strikers – Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion. Ironically enough one is inspired by a young female with a capacity to look at the world holistically. Hopefully they will force change upon the policies that are saying one thing and doing another to keep us on this road to extinction.

What of comprehensive Public Participation? A New Years resolution for government perhaps? Is change even possible when those who must drive the change are comfortable in their own protected bubble?

Theresa O’Donohoe

December 30th 2019

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5 thoughts on “Public Participation – a 2020 Challenge

  1. Interesting that I read your words “I no longer have any interest in writing submissions” just an hour after I wrote an email saying that I can’t be bothered to prepare a pre-draft submission to wicklow’s county development plan this year but I’ll just resend the ones i sent in 1999, 2003, 2008 and 2014! They all say the same but still not much changes. 20 years ago the environmental sector were looking for compact settlement patterns, walkable communities and appropriate public transport, good public realm, high quality houses with low energy and water demand, protection of trees, hedgerows and ecological corridors, zoning quality soil and local agriculture etc, Instead we still have no employment options in wicklow, congestion on a long commute, tax payers subsidising retrofitting shoddy housing and more. I just hope others will pick up the baton and continue the long path to transformative change. Things have got better, but sooooo slowly.

  2. Interesting how you talk about Alex White. He ran in my constituency so I had a chance to question him on the doors about his white paper on energy. I asked why we weren’t supporting community owned wind farms as happened in Northern Europe, he tried to fob me off with platitudes, saying it’s complicated. I really didn’t feel that he knew his stuff at all, and that’s what I’d heard from people working in the department.

    I totally agree that some civil servants don’t want to engage with the public and never will and that they have to be forced to by Ministers, but the opposite is true. Knowing a few civil and public servants they’re often instructed to go through lengthy consultation processes but then the order comes down from the Minister to ignore a lot of it because it’s not politically palatable.

    Not sure how to solve this but I think you highlighting the issue is a great way. Well done on all your hard work.

    Elaine

    1. Thanks Elaine. I imagine the civil servants didn’t like his ministerial steer so can’t imagine they’d be singing his praises. Wind is complicated and that can be traced to the mess originating in the midlands with the 2 private companies proposing to export electricity to the UK. The fact is the energy mix we need has to be accommodated somewhere and best that communities are onboard, driving their option. Some may choose solar, geothermal, biomass, hydro, wind or a mix of everything. Alex got that. Dictating what way we go won’t work. We need a framework for public participation in designing our energy transition. We still don’t have it. Unless the lights go out a few times people won’t get involved. Sooner the better. T

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