Public participation entails the implementation of procedures to allow citizenship to express its opinion on certain issues concerning their community daily life, neighborhood, town or city.
Recently, local governments have launched these processes to guide their government action and legitimize their action.
Those opposing to public participation processes argue it is a passing fad, that participants tend to be the same people always, that decisions should be taken by professional politicians because citizenship has elected them to do so, that political opposition can co-opt the processes or that local lobbies can have an undue influence, and the like.
But all those suspicions decay if we apply ICT tools that can easily open public participation to all citizens.
Anyways, public participation is a key element for city governance for several reasons:
- Public policies must be designed from proximity and not only to be based on…
- Electoral programs of winning parties, drawn up by a handful of local militants in a rush, when elections come.
- Intuitions and background of the local government team.
- Influences of local powers: well-organized lobbies, entrepreneurs, traders, landowners, …
- Opportunities generated by other levels of government (regional, national, European).
- Incorporating citizenship opinions along a four years mandate guides priorities and intensity of local actions, and also allows purposing new public policies from scratch.
Taking a chance on public participation
When city councils consider actions related to citizen participation, many doubts arise. Even though there is a will to broaden and deepen these processes, the most common thing is that local politicians and technicians experience difficulties, basically due to the lack of resources of two types:
- Time: a new function to implement appears, but obviously we cannot ignore those functions already running. A new workload can hardly be assumed within the same working day for the current team, and some difficulties are experienced when incorporating new personnel to deal with this matter.
- Knowledge: successful public participation needs a long learning process. Therefore, experimentation, knowing other experience and training (or advice) are required.
Sometimes local technicians appreciate that resources are always finite: lack of time, lack of manpower, lack of knowledge and lack of budget. Nevertheless, local technicians and political team are aware excuses to abort this mission are not acceptable.
Kinds of public participation processes
How is this process of collecting opinions implemented in order to involve local community in the decision-making process? To respond to this question involves techniques of public participation. Hereby we list some examples:
- To support civil society in the city to collect any kind of proposals -integral or sectoral- in order to incorporate them in the design of future public policies: public space reforms, urban issues, organization of services, mobility, youth, etc.
- Participatory budgets, where actions are defined and a budget is assigned for their implementation. There are different kinds:
- Collection of proposals open to all citizens. A budget must be allocated during a specific period of time (annual, biannual, three-year) to attend to the actions proposed by the citizens. Technically, the process consists of: 1. Collection of proposals, 2. Face-to-face presentation of already structured proposals, 3. Face-to-face and online voting to prioritize and 4. Implementation.
- A variation of the previous procedure may be that local government proposes a limited number of possible actions to implement -with its corresponding committed budget and execution period- and citizens prioritize them. Technically, the process is: 1. Presentation of the structured proposals, 2. Face-to-face and online voting 3. Implementation.
- Elaboration of future scenarios, where a certain collective idea about the future of the city or territory is created and shared, either integrally defining horizons, either in a sectoral manner (education, environment, productive sectors, etc.). Here we have different techniques: elaboration of a map for local agents, identification of key informants, interviews, focus groups, action plans elaboration.
- Possibility of submitting concrete action proposals in the local agenda, which are assumed by the local government. A good way to concrete it is an “Open Local Assembly” or similar, where neighbors and entities can make proposals. A selection and prioritization mechanism are needed before entering the local agenda to be implemented.
- Referendums or citizen consultations to guide or determine public action in a specific issue of the municipality. Normally, they are usually questions of high local impact and of transcendence beyond a mandate: the construction of a large facility (a seaport), the construction of new roads (a new highway), the construction of a great city facility (a theater or a large shopping center), among others. Usually, consultations do not assign a budget for implementation.
Nevertheless, beyond all these techniques of public participation, best practices mean to incorporate permanent participation instances at the time of thinking and designing public policies, and also at the implementation time.
At U·TRANS we firmly believe on civic engagement, and we bet to create the optimal conditions to generate public policies after asking, voting, consulting and prioritizing moving from paper to action.