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How to design more effective participatory decision-making processes

How to design more effective participatory decision-making processes

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Published by AberdeenCES
Working with stakeholders is often challenging. There seem to always be difficult characters to deal with, and you often end up working with people who are in conflict with one another – or worse – in conflict with you. But the promise of stakeholder participation is still alluring: democracy in action; smarter and more popular decisions, designed by and supported by the people who have to implement them. So how can you design participatory processes that can effectively engage stakeholders in policy decisions? How can we harness participation to achieve social and environmental benefits, but avoid the pitfalls? This policy brief provides answers from published peer-reviewed literature and ongoing research projects that should help you design more effective participatory decision-making processes.
What can
Working with stakeholders is often challenging. There seem to always be difficult characters to deal with, and you often end up working with people who are in conflict with one another – or worse – in conflict with you. But the promise of stakeholder participation is still alluring: democracy in action; smarter and more popular decisions, designed by and supported by the people who have to implement them. So how can you design participatory processes that can effectively engage stakeholders in policy decisions? How can we harness participation to achieve social and environmental benefits, but avoid the pitfalls? This policy brief provides answers from published peer-reviewed literature and ongoing research projects that should help you design more effective participatory decision-making processes.
What can

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Published by: AberdeenCES on Jul 07, 2011
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How to design more effective participatory decision-making processes
Working with stakeholders is often challenging. Thereseem to always be difficult characters to deal with, andyou often end up working with people who are inconflict with one another
 –
or worse
 –
in conflict withyou. But the promise of stakeholder participation is stillalluring: democracy in action; smarter and morepopular decisions, designed by and supported by thepeople who have to implement them.So how can you design participatory processes that caneffectively engage stakeholders in policy decisions?How can we harness participation to achieve social andenvironmental benefits, but avoid the pitfalls?
What can published literature tell us?
A recent review of published literature sheds some light on these questions (Reed, 2008):
1. Start talking to people as soon as you can
Stakeholder participation should be considered right from the outset, from concept development andplanning, through implementation, to monitoring and evaluation of outcomes. Engagement withstakeholders as early as possible in decision-making has been frequently cited as essential if participatory processes are to lead to high quality and durable decisions. Typically, stakeholders only getinvolved in decision-making at the implementation phase of the project cycle, and not in earlier projectidentification and preparation phases. Increasingly they may also be involved in monitoring andevaluating the outcomes of the decision-making process. However, unless flexibility can be built into theproject design, this can mean that stakeholders are invited to get involved in a project that is at oddswith their own needs and priorities. This may make it achallenge to motivate stakeholders to engage with thedecision-making process, and those who are engaged maybe placed in a reactive position, where they are asked torespond to proposals that they perceive to have alreadyhave been finalised. In contrast to this, a number of projects have shown how stakeholders could be activelyengaged in sampling design, data collection and analysis,in addition to more traditional roles.
 
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Make sure you’re talking to the right people
 
One of the main ingredients for successful participation, and at the same time one of the mainchallenges, is the selection and actual involvement of appropriate participants. It is often difficult toidentify who should be involved, but getting the right mix is crucial for the legitimacy of the process. Theselection of participants also significantly influences the nature of the outputs.
As a result, “s
takeholderanalysis
is increasingly being used to systematically represent those relevant to environmentaldecision-making processes. Stakeholder analysis is a process that: (i) defines aspects of a social andnatural system affected by a decision or action, (ii) identifies individuals and groups who are affected byor can affect those parts of the system (this may include non-human and non-living entities and futuregenerations), and; (iii) prioritises these individuals and groups for involvement in the decision-makingprocess. A wide variety of tools and approaches have been used for stakeholder analysis to: (i) identifystakeholders; (ii) differentiate between and categorise stakeholders; and (iii) investigate relationshipsbetween stakeholders (for more details, see: Reed et al., 2009).
3 Make sure you know what people want to talk about
In order to design an appropriate process using relevant tools, it is essential to clearly articulate thegoals towards which the group will be working. This is closely linked to stakeholder analysis and maytake place as part of such an analysis, where system boundaries and issues are identified alongsidethose who hold a stake in what happens to the system under investigation. This may requirenegotiation, and different stakeholders may have irreconcilable objectives. If the goals are developedthrough dialogue (making trade-offs where necessary) between participants, they are more likely totake ownership of the process, partnership building will be more likely, and the outcomes are morelikely to be more relevant to stakeholder needs and priorities, motivating their ongoing activeengagement.
4. Be flexible: base level of participation and methods on your context and objectives
Participatory methods can only be chosen once the objectives of the process have been clearlyarticulated, a level of engagement has been identified that is appropriate to those objectives, andrelevant stakeholders have been selected for inclusion in the process. For example, there are manymethods that can be used to communicate (e.g. information dissemination via leaflets or the massmedia, hotlines and public meetings), consult (e.g. consultation documents, opinion polls and
referendums, focus groups and surveys) or participate (e.g. citizen’s juries, consensus
conferences, task-forces and public meetings with voting) withstakeholders. Methods must also be adapted to thedecision-making context, including socio-cultural andenvironmental factors (for example, methods thatrequire participants to read or write should be avoidedin groups that might include illiterate participants).Depending on the power dynamics of the group,methods may need to be employed that equalize powerbetween participants to avoid marginalising the voicesof the less powerful. Those who feel marginalised
 
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during decision-making may delay or preventimplementation through litigation.
5. Get a facilitator
Don’t underestimate the power of a good facilitator
to bring people together and deliver high qualityoutcomes. The outcome of any participatoryprocess is far more sensitive to the manner in whichit is conducted than the tools that are used. Highlyskilled facilitation is particular important in theuplands, given the high likelihood of dealing withconflict, for example between conservationists andresource users. Different facilitators can use thesame tools with radically different outcomes, depending on their skill level. Such skills include technicalexpertise in the use of different tools. However, it is sometimes the most seemingly simple of methods,such as informal group discussion, which require the greatest expertise. A successful facilitator needs tobe perceived as impartial, open to multiple perspectives and approachable. They need to be capable of maintaining positive group dynamics, handling dominating or offensive individuals, encourageparticipants to question assumptions and re-evaluate entrenched positions, and get the most out of reticent individuals. Such skills are difficult to learn and tend to be developed through years of experience, intuition and empathy.
6. Put local and scientific knowledge on an equal footing
The need for scientific information and analysis to inform stakeholder deliberation has been identifiedby many authors as an essential ingredient in any participatory process. It is argued that localstakeholders may be able to learn from scientific sources of knowledge and so make more informeddecisions in highly technical decision-
making contexts, for example using Citizens’ Juries. Equally, by
taking local knowledge into account, researchers may have their assumptions and validity of resultsquestioned, leading to further investigation and a more rigorous understanding of the issues they areinvestigating. Following from this, cross-fertilisation of ideas between these different sources of knowledge may provide more comprehensive information upon which to base decisions, which mayincrease their robustness and durability. Having said this, opponents argue that local knowledge may beexaggerated or
distorted, and irrelevant to “scientific” nature of much modern environmental
management. On this basis, concerns have been expressedthat integrating scientific and local knowledge bases willinevitably involve a trade-off between meaningfulparticipation and scientific rigour. However, the same critiquecan be made of scientific knowledge, which should also notbe uncritically accepted without evaluating the uncertaintyand associated value judgments in the claims being made. If we consider local and scientific knowledge to be equally valid,it is necessary to subject each to an appropriate level of scrutiny, before considering what exactly may be integrated.

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