How to Use These Instruments
The preceding pages have dealt with the organization of public participation and the instruments required. It is hardly possible to list all the available possibilities. Much depends on the resourcefulness of the participants. And, actually this is unlimited. The only common feature is that there has to be a legal framework for public participation, in which the basic principles or preconditions are established and defined, including: 1) access to information, 2) the right to participate, and 3) the right to complain, appeal and sue. However, as said before, apart from these legal requirements there are many informal, democratic ways to voice one's opinion or to address comments and/or complaints. A common fact is that two parties are involved in public participation: the policymakers (usually the government) on the one hand, and the (interested and involved) citizens and NGOs on the other hand. Both parties have their own specific roles in the process and their respective responsibilities.
The principles of public participation are laid down by law, the part played by the policymakers mainly implies listening and giving information, not passively whenever someone passes by and asks a question, but actively. An active role usually requires a lot of organizational work. The citizens have to be informed about the opportunities for public discussion (laws, plans, permits), where they can obtain the required information or can have a look at it, how they can participate (e.g., hearings), and how and where they can lodge complaints. The various possibilities and instruments have already been elaborated in the preceding chapters.
Two aspects deserve special attention: education and financial resources. As we already stated several times, environmental matters are often quite complicated. The interested and engaged citizens often do not have the required know-how. In this respect the policymakers have an advantage. Not only do they have more information, but they also have the required know-how. Public participation can only be effective if this gap is narrowed, e.g., through education. The educational element can be addressed by full-scale campaigns, in institutional courses (e.g., policy or environmental sciences) or by financing them. The NGOs can play an important part in this. Many countries, therefore, call on the NGOs for participation and assistance with educational activities. For the authority who makes the decisions they are a useful instrument for giving shape to public participation, and for this reason they are subsidized. This subsidy enables the NGOs to play an active, useful, and expert part in advisory committees, hearings, etc. At the same time, they are an important source of information for the government to develop informative and educational activities for interested and engaged citizens.
The danger in this kind of close cooperation between official bodies and NGOs is that the organizations can become encapsulated and become promoters of the official policies. Of course this is not the intention of public participation. On the other hand, if there is an established and official (legal) system of public participation, this also means a financial commitment from the official side to facilitate the activities of organizations and/or individual citizens in order to execute public participation activities.
In this respect the situation in the Netherlands may be rather unique. In recent years there has been a growing relationship between the NGOs and official authorities. In many instances the organizations are completely or partially subsidized by the government, thus creating a situation in which the government finances opposition directed against itself and its own decisions. On the other hand such a situation emphasizes the fact that the government values close contact with its citizens and its desire that this should work in both directions. This "partnership" is considered as a resource for new ideas, as a "watch-dog" for environmental protection, identifying damaging activities, planning and policies, informing the public, raising public awareness, and developing educational activities.
Apart from core funding, there are possibilities for target or project funding for NGOs or citizen groups, e.g., making funds available to finance a counter assessment, to develop information or awareness campaigns on specific issues. In some countries this kind of project funding exists as a necessary component of a system of public participation. The European Union, as well as the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development provide opportunities for project funding related to public participation activities, mostly described as "capacity building".
Against this background one can come to the conclusion that the official authorities, national as well as international, are quite aware of the advantages of public participation and that they are obliged to make financial funds available to make the system work.
The other party in the public participation process, individual citizens and their representative organizations (NGOs), is faced with complex issues. In fact, they are so complicated that citizens are hardly able to respond independently to decisions, plans, or laws. Organization and cooperation are therefore prerequisites to successful public participation. We have already dealt with these aspects in detail in the preceding pages. Therefore, we can simply state that public participation does not mean anything without some form of organization and cooperation, even if it is laid down by law. It is even to be expected that without an organization and without any cooperation among the NGOs themselves, citizens and groups of citizens will be played off against one another. The instrument of public participation then turns against the citizens. Policymakers can sail under false colors: enforce decisions without taking the opinions and the arguments of the citizens into account because their isn't a collective, representative voice with whom they can communicate and negotiate. For public participation to be successful and effective, a sound and clear organization can be considered a precondition. And as stated above, this can consist of a simple pressure group of local residents, or of a more official body, association, or foundation, and everything in between, provided that it is clear what aim is pursued and who is responsible.
Organization and cooperation are the means to acquire know-how in a group, to collect facts and data connected with the aim that is pursued, and to raise funds through membership fees or donations, but also to develop informative and educational activities. If organizations are successful in pursuit of these goals, they will also be in a better position to receive government support.
In this way, fragmentation of knowledge, energy and funds can be prevented. Besides, when special environmental matters are at issue, coalitions can be formed with other interest groups, for example, agricultural organizations, consumer organizations, or organizations of employers and employees. Public participation, therefore, is not only the responsibility of the government - the citizens and their organizations also must take initiatives. This is the only way to achieve optimal results by employing the above-mentioned instruments.
What is the best approach for each situation? This question can hardly be answered. It would be impossible to create a public participation guide that would apply to everyone and cover every potential issue in any country due to their social, cultural, and economic disparities. This task would also be made impossible due to the great diversity in legal and constitutional systems. In many situations public participation therefore has to be "custom-made", adjusted to the individual circumstances, legal systems, and constitutional structures, regardless of the question, even if the principles described in the preceding chapters are generally accepted. Without the above-mentioned preconditions, public participation is not possible, or only a formality.
However, we can give a kind of general checklist of the most important issues. The answers can be collected on the spot, in every single country, and in a real situation. This checklist can be an aid for anyone realizing and starting a system of public participation:
- Who is responsible for environmental policy on national, regional and local levels?
- What regulations (laws, rules, programmes, plans) for the environment exist on national, regional and local levels?
- For what parts of the environment do they apply: water, air, soil, waste substances, chemical substances, noise, conservation?
- How are these regulations adopted?
- Where can these regulations be found and how can they be consulted?
- How are the regulations applied (permits, standards), what are the effects (Environmental Impact Assessment) and how are the citizens (NGOs) involved?
- What rights do the citizens (NGOs) have and which procedures apply for participation and for whom?
- What role do the judiciary authorities play, which procedures apply for participation (possibilities for appeal and/or lawsuits)?
REC * PUBLICATIONS * MANUAL ON PUBLIC PARTICIPATION * PUBLIC PARTICIPATION AS AN INSTRUMENT FOR ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION