Fix N.S.W. Transport!

Public Participation and the NSW government

What usually happens in New South Wales is that public participation is viewed as either a nuisance imposed by legislation or a sort of safety valve to stop affairs from boiling over. For large projects, there is consultation about trivia; a few disadvantages of the project are hinted at but there is no way the public can stop or significantly alter the project. The full extent of the disadvantages will only be known if members of the public put a lot of their own time into critically reviewing the project. Even so, the project and its disadvantages power on.

There are other tactics that governments can use to thwart public participation in a project. One is to fend off a question, such as how many seats the new trams will have, by saying that's a detail that can be changed easily and will be decided later.

A good reference on citizen participation is this article by Sherry R Arnstein. Here is Arnstein's ladder diagram, showing eight levels of public involvement.

Ladder of citizen participation by Arnstein

Sham consultation isn't limited to the general public. Local councils which are adversely affected by a minister's pet project are arrogantly ignored, even if their complaints are valid and well-expressed.

There are some precautions that governments could consider before undertaking, or pretending to undertake, public consultation1.

First, be absolutely certain you really do want to consult community members, as opposed to provide them with information. Consultation implies a degree of responsiveness and power sharing that you need to be comfortable with. Organisations that are not clear on these distinctions would do well to refer to the spectrum of public participation produced by the internationally-recognised International Association for Public Participation.

Second, be clear about any non-negotiable boundaries to your consultation. Be upfront about them and repeat them often. Saying afterwards you made it clear in the fine print that the decision would be yours regardless of what community members really want doesn’t help when stakeholders are excited to see the impact of their input. This sounds like sour grapes, and smacks of an elitist approach to organisational decision making that could be seen as being at odds with the concept of consultation.

Think about whether you might be better off providing community members with the chance to make a guided choice from a number of options that your organisation finds acceptable. This is what Kraft eventually did after its iSnack 2.0 fiasco.

Finally, if you do find yourself backed into a corner through consultation, think carefully about how to respond. Crying foul over the outcome of a democratic process that you have initiated won’t make your organisation look good. Even worse, such a response could damage the credibility of consultation as an important component of the managerial toolkit generally.

1 by Anne Lane, Subject Area Coordinator Public Relations, Queensland University of Technology

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