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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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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