Excellence in public participation and consultation

I was delighted to contribute to Regulation of Extractive Industries: Community Engagement in the Arctic – a compilation of expert opinion on consultation and communication, edited by Rachael Lorna Johnstone & Anne Merrild Hansen and published this week.

The book demonstrates how effective public participation is fundamental to the process of change brought about by extractive industries.

Not only should residents be involved whether as a legal requirement or simply through courtesy, but feedback from the community – from anecdotes and folklore to information about current uses of a proposed site – significantly benefits a proposal. In this context, ‘public participation’ is viewed as the long term process of engagement, not necessary linked to a specific extraction project but concerning community relations between an extractives company (or companies) and a community over many years; in contrast to ‘consultation’, which typically refers to the process of gaining feedback on a specific proposal and as such forms part of a broader public participation programme. Both involve extensive research, multiple stakeholders, an appropriate (and therefore diverse) selection of dialogue methods and comprehensive evaluation. A strategic approach provides the framework to do this in a cohesive manner.

While each unique project requires a unique approach to public participation, a standardised approach to strategy can ensure that all relevant factors are taken into account and produce an appropriate public participation programme.

My chapter will exemplifies best practice strategy and tactics for consultation, and new methods of engagement as used in the UK, Australia and Canada.

Communications theorist Grunig identified four models to demonstrate ‘excellence’ in communication: press agentry, public information, two-way asymmetrical and two-way symmetrical. His epitome of excellent communication is the two-way symmetric model – an entirely symmetrical relationship:

that is based on research and that uses communication to manage conflict and improve understanding with strategic publics.

Individual countries’ legal requirements to consult on a planning proposal vary considerably. For example, the granting of an exploration licence for onshore mining activities in Greenland does not require a social impact assessment; which contrasts sharply with the UK, where community engagement in relation to similar schemes must follow a stringent process – the NSIP process, which is detailed in the 2008 Planning Act.

Regardless of whether there exists a legal obligation to consult, there is not a legal obligation to uphold the majority views revealed in the consultation. Consultation is not a referendum. According to the UK’s Consultation Institute, consultation is:

The dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based upon a genuine exchange of views, with the objective of influencing decisions policies or programmes of action.

Recommendations for change following consultation take into account both technical and financial factors alongside stakeholder views – which, technically, may or may not be upheld by the decision-makers.

So, neither consultation nor public participation results in a definitive decision, but the notion that public participation can benefit planning decisions is unequivocal. Effective public participation can create lasting positive relationships between a developer and a community, can produce local insight which significantly benefits any resulting development (specifically in tailoring it to the local community), and through dialogue, identifies appropriate community benefits.

Extract from Chapter 12 Achieving Excellence in Public Participation and Consultation by Penny Norton in Regulation of Extractive Industries: community engagement in the arctic, edited by Rachael Lorna Johnstone & Anne Merrild Hansen and to be published by Routledge in April 2020.

Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice was published in March 2021.