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Principles of Public Participation



Public participation in democratic society is both vital and problematic. Some public meetings are so dysfunctional that observers end up wishing someone in charge would bring an end to the chaos and misery. Sometimes extensive public input is sought in numerous forums, only to have all that input ignored.

Two groups -- The International Association for Public Participation and The Community Development Society -- have proposed excellent guidelines for public participation. Both, however, fail to deal with the collective intelligence (and co-stupidity) dimensions of public participation. So I've added a set of principles based on current understandings of co-intelligence. The three lists together provide very powerful criteria for evaluating or improving the status of public participation in any community or project.

All three lists are current as of May 23, 2008.

-- Tom Atlee

The International Association for Public Participation's Core Values

1. Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

2. Public participation includes the promise that the public's contribution will influence the decision.

3. Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.

4. Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.

5. Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.

6. Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.

7. Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

The Community Development Society's Principles of Good Practice

1. Promote active and representative participation toward enabling all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives.

2. Engage community members in learning about and understanding community issues, and the economic, social, environmental, political, psychological, and other impacts associated with alternative courses of action.

3. Incorporate the diverse interests and cultures of the community in the community development process; and disengage from support of any effort that is likely to adversely affect the disadvantaged members of a community.

4. Work actively to enhance the leadership capacity of community members, leaders, and groups within the community.

5. Be open to using the full range of action strategies to work toward the long term sustainability and well being of the community.

The Co-Intelligence Institute's Principles to Nurture Wise Democratic Process and Collective Intelligence in Public Participation

Wise democratic processes are those which utilize a community's or society's diversity to deepen shared understanding and produce outcomes of long-term benefit to the whole community or society. Not all public participation serves this purpose. Public participation can either enhance or degrade the collective intelligence and wisdom involved in democratic processes such as making collective decisions, solving social problems, and creating shared visions. The principles below offer some guidance for designing wise democratic processes.

1. INCLUDE ALL RELEVANT PERSPECTIVES: The diversity of perspectives engaged in a wise democratic process will approximate the diversity of the community of people affected by the outcome. In addition, community wisdom and buy-in come from the fair and creative inclusion of all relevant perspectives -- all related viewpoints, cultures, information, experiences, needs, interests, values, contributions and dreams. Furthermore, those who are centrally involved, peripherally involved or not involved in a situation each have -- by virtue of their unique perspectives -- uniquely valuable contributions to make toward the wise resolution of that situation. Creative inclusion of perspectives generates more wisdom than mechanical inclusion of people.

2. EMPOWER THE PEOPLE'S ENGAGEMENT. To the extent people feel involved in the creation or ratification of democratic decisions -- either directly or by recognized representatives -- they will support the implementation of those decisions. This is especially true to the extent they feel their agency and power in the process -- i.e., that they clearly see the impact of their diverse contributions in the final outcome. Thus, it serves democracy and collective intelligence when expertise and leadership are on tap to -- and not on top of -- the decision-making processes of "We, the People" and anyone democratically mandated by the people to care for the common welfare.

3. INVOKE MULTIPLE FORMS OF KNOWING. Community wisdom arises from the interplay of stories (with their full emotional content), facts, principles, reason, intuition, imagination, inspiration, and compassion or empathy. To the extent any one of these dominates or is missing, the outcome will be less wise.

4. ENSURE HIGH QUALITY DIALOGUE. The supreme test of dialogue is its ability to use commonality and diversity (including conflict) creatively. There are three tests for the quality of dialogue towards desirable outcomes: Is it deepening understanding? Is it building relationships? Is it expanding possibilities? Most public forums need good facilitation to ensure high quality dialogue. For approaches to dialogue see "A toolbox of co-intelligent processes for community work."

5. ESTABLISH ONGOING PARTICIPATORY PROCESSES. Since intelligence is the capacity to learn, and learning is an ongoing process, collective intelligence can manifest most powerfully in democratic processes that are ongoing, iterative, and officially recognized by the whole community or society. One-time events (such as public hearings and conferences that are not part of a larger ongoing democratic process) are limited in their capacity to generate collective intelligence for a whole community or society. The institutionalization of official periodic citizen deliberations according to these principles maximizes collective intelligence. For examples, see "Citizen Deliberative Councils" and, especially, Wisdom Councils.

6. USE POSITIONS AND PROPOSALS AS GRIST. Early focus on positions and proposals can prevent the emergence of the best possible outcomes. In general, collective intelligence is supported by beginning with an exploratory approach which notes existing positions, proposals and solutions as grist for exploring the situations they were created to handle. Exploring the assumptions, interests, needs, values, visions, experiences, etc., that gave birth to these particular proposals tends to deepen understanding and relationship so that new and better solutions can emerge. See "Beyond Positions: a Politics of Civic Co-creativity."

7. HELP PEOPLE FEEL FULLY HEARD. To the extent people feel fully heard, they will be able to hear others and, ultimately, join in collaborative deliberation and co-creative problem-solving. Among the approaches to helping people feel fully heard are Active Listening, Nonviolent Communication, and Dynamic Facilitation.


See also:

The Spectrum and Ladder of Public Participation at Designing for Community Intelligence

Designing Multi-Process Programs for Public Participation

Process and Participation -theory and practice


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