Public participation is a political principle or practice, and may also be recognised as a right (right to public participation). The terms public participation may be used interchangeably with the concept or practice of stakeholder engagement and/or popular participation.
Generally public participation seeks and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision. The principle of public participation holds that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process. Public participation implies that the public's contribution will influence the decision.
In the context of knowledge management the establishment of ongoing participatory processes is seen by some in the facilitator of collective intelligence and inclusiveness, shaped by the desire for the participation of the whole community or society.
Public participation is part of “people centred” or "human centric" principles, which have emerged in Western culture over the last thirty years, and has had some bearings of education, business, public policy and international relief and development programs. Public participation is advanced by the humanist movements. Public participation may be advanced as part of a “people first” paradigm shift. In this respect public participation may challenge the concept that "big is better" and the logic of centralized hierarchies, advancing alternative concepts of “more heads are better than one” and arguing that public participation can sustain productive and durable change.
The role of public participation in economic and human development was enshrined in the 1990 African Charter for Popular Participation in Development and Transformation.
 Public policy
In some countries public participation has become a central principle of public policy making. In the UK it has been observed that all levels of government have started to build citizen and stakeholder engagement into their policy-making processes. This may involve large-scale consultations, focus group research, online discussion forums, or deliberative citizens' juries. There are many different public participation mechanisms, although these often share common features (for a list over 100, and a typology of mechanisms, see Rowe and Frewer, 2005).
Public participation is viewed as a tool, intended to inform planning, organising or funding of activities. Public participation may also be used to measure attainable objectives, evaluate impact, and identify lessons for future practice.
In the USA public participation in administrative rulemaking refers to the process by which proposed rules are subject to public comment for a specified period of time. Public participation is typically mandatory for rules promulgated by executive agencies of the US government. Statutes or agency policies may mandate public hearings during this period.
 Participatory budgeting
Participatory budgeting is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, in which ordinary city residents decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. Participatory budgeting is usually characterized by several basic design features: identification of spending priorities by community members, election of budget delegates to represent different communities, facilitation and technical assistance by public employees, local and higher level assemblies to deliberate and vote on spending priorities, and the implementation of local direct-impact community projects. Participatory budgeting may be used by towns and cities around the world, and has been widely publicised in Porto Alegre, Brazil, were the first full participatory budgeting process was developed starting in 1989.
 Public trust
In recent years loss of public trust in authorities and politicians has become a widespread concern in many democratic societies. Public participation is a regarded as one potential solution to the crisis in public trust and governance, particularly in the UK, Europe, and other democracies. The idea is that public should be involved more fully in the policy process in that authorities seek public views and participation, instead of treating the public as simply passive recipients of policy decisions.
The underlying assumption by political theorists, social commentators, and even politicians is that public participation increase public trust in authorities, improving citizen political efficacy, enhancing democratic ideals and even improving the quality of policy decisions. However, the assumed benefits of public participation in restoring public trust are yet to be confirmed.
 Accountability and transparency
Public participation may also be viewed as accountability enhancing. The argument being that public participation can be a means for the participating communities to hold public authorities accountable for implementation.
 Participatory development
In economic development theory the school of participatory development. The desire to increase public participation in humanitarian aid and development has led to the establishment of a numerous context-specific, formal methodologies, matrices, pedagogies and ad hoc approaches. These include conscientization and praxis; Participatory action research (PPA), rapid rural appraisal (RRA) and participatory rural appraisal (PRA); appreciation influence control analysis (AIC); “open space” approaches; Objectives Oriented Project Planning (ZOPP); vulnerability analysis and capacity analysis.
 Environment and sustainable development
In recent years public participation has become to be seen as a vital part of addressing environmental problems and bringing about sustainable development. In this context the limits of solely relying on technocratic bureaucratic monopoly of decision making, and it is argued that public participation allows governments to adopt policies and enact laws that are relevant to communities and take into account their needs.
 Public participation in environmental governance
With growing complexities of the environmental issues, public participation has come to the fore in academic analysis concerning the contemporary debates about environmental governance.
There have emerged a number of arguments in favour of a more participatory approach, which stress that public participation is a crucial element in environmental governance that contributes to better decision making. It is recognised that environmental problems cannot be solved by government alone. Participation in environmental decision-making effectively links the public to environmental governance. By involving the public, who are at the root of both causes and solutions of environmental problems, in environmental discussions, transparency and accountability are more likely to be achieved, thus secures the democratic legitimacy of decision-making that good environmental governance depends on. Arguably, a strong public participation in environmental governance could increase the commitment among stockholders, which strengthens the compliance and enforcement of environmental laws. GIS can provide a valuable tool for such work (see GIS and environmental governance). In addition, some opponents argue that the right to participate in environmental decision-making is a procedural right that “can be seen as part of the fundamental right to environmental protection”. From this ethical perspective, environmental governance is expected to operate within a framework coinciding the "constitutional principle of fairness (inclusive of equality)", which inevitably requires the fulfillment of "environmental rights" and ultimately calls for the engagement of public. Further, in the context of considerable scientific uncertainties surrounding environmental issues, public participation helps to counter such uncertainties and bridges the gap between scientifically-defined environmental problems and the experiences and values of stakeholders. Through joint effort of the government and scientists in collaboration with the public, better governance of environment is expected to be achieved by making the most appropriate decision possible.
Although broad agreements exist, the notion of public participation in environmental decision-making has been subject to a sustained critique concerning the real outcome of participatory environmental governance. Critics argue that public participation tends to focus on reaching a consensus between actors who share the same values and seek the same outcomes. However, the uncertain nature of many of the environmental issues would undermine the validity of public participation, given that in many cases the actors come to the table of discussion hold very different perceptions of the problem and solution which are unlikely to be welded into a consensus due to the incommensurability of different positions. This may run the risk of expert bias, which generates further exclusion as those who are antagonistic to the consensus would be marginalised in the environmental decision-making process, which violates the assumed advantage of participatory approach to produce democratic environmental decisions. This raises the further question of whether consensus should be the measure of a successful outcome of participation. As Davies suggests, participative democracy could not guarantee the substantive environmental benefits ‘if there are competing views of what the environment should be like and what it is valuable for’. Consequently, who should be involved at what points in the process of environmental decision-making and what is the goal of this kind of participation become central to the debates on public participation as a key issue in environmental governance.
 Right to public participation
In some jurisdictions the right to public participation is enshrined by law. The right to public participation may also be conceived of as human right, or as manifestation of the right to freedom of association and freedom of assembly. As such the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, have public participation and freedom of information provisions in their legal systems since before the Middle Ages. Democracy and public participation are closely connected democratic societies have incorporated public participation rights into their laws for centuries. For example, in the US the right to petition has been part of the first Amendment of the US constitution since 1791. More recently, since the 1970s in New Zealand numerous laws (e.g.: health, local government, environmental management) require government officials to "consult" those affected by a matter and take their views into consideration when making decisions.
Effective public participation depends on the public having accessing to accurate and comprehensive information. Hence laws regarding public participation often deal with the issue of the right to know, access of information and freedom of information.
The right to participation may also be advanced in the context of equality and group rights, meant to ensure equal and full participation of a designated group in society. For example in the context of disabled people.
 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
The Rio Declaration of 1992 enshrines public participation in its 27 principles. Principle 10 states that "environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level”. The Rio Declaration continues, drawing a close link between access to information and public participation:
"At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided."
 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
The 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognised that "disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others" and that "persons with disabilities continue to face barriers in their participation as equal members of society."
The Convention makes participation of disabled one of its principles, stating "The principles of the present Convention shall be:...Full and effective participation and inclusion in society;", subsequently enshrining the right of disabled to participate fully and equally in the community, education, all aspect of life (in the context of habilitation and rehabilitation), political and public life, cultural life, leisure and sports.
 See also
- Deliberative democracy
- Involve (think tank)
- Neighborhood planning
- Participatory economics
- Participatory GIS
- GIS and environmental governance
- Participatory justice
- Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action (PCHP)
- Public participation in patent examination
- Strategic lawsuit against public participation
- Visual preference survey
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