Communication
May 7, 2012

Public participation: Sustainable solutions require shift in decision-making process

Governments face increasingly complex issues that often involve inter-related environmental, social, cultural and economic drivers, constraints and pressures – population growth, increased crime, environmental issues, energy development – compounded by rising public expectations of service delivery.

Yet, as society’s expectations of government to resolve issues and develop integrated and streamlined solutions increases, confidence in the capacity and skill of government appears to be decreasing.

To address the many issues facing communities, a shift is required in the way government officials perform and facilitate their resolution. By moving away from a silo-based approach to a more integrative process involving further understanding of what citizens truly think and value, trust and confidence in government will be strengthened, in turn improving government’s ability to successfully deal with the complexity of issues.

Below are a series of steps to guide an effective decision-making process for government to engage stakeholders, including citizens, in developing strategies to address concerns, meet public expectations, and develop solutions with increased transparency and accountability. The process reinforces the International Institute of Sustainable Development research, which indicates that to develop sustainable solutions, the decision making process must be adaptive with coordinated action that is integrated with meaningful public participation.

But first, a few words on the shift that is required in government to manage the complexity of issues facing communities.

The shift
Democracy is being further defined as citizen expectations and demands for engagement in developing meaningful solutions increases. A strong consultation and engagement process will not only realize citizen value, it will also build relationships needed for integrated and sustainable solutions.

To create sustainable solutions, however, requires a shift in government from a top-down hierarchical decision-making processes to a stronger collaborative culture both internally and externally with all stakeholders. In “Letter to a new public servant” (CGE, February 2009), Peter MacLeod argues that this involves government embarking on a process that challenges public assumptions and opinions, exposes people to new ideas and experiences, enables innovation in decision making and creates a space for citizens to be involved in reaching shared conclusions that are legitimized by the wider public.

By creating new democratic mechanisms where knowledge, expertise and creativity are collectively accessed by government and citizens, policy and decision making will be better informed. This approach will lead to collective results and increased confidence in government – stakeholders will be part of the decision-making process and integral to the achievement of the intended results.

The following steps will assist government and citizens to collaborate in achieving workable strategies and solutions to complex issues. Some of the steps will occur concurrently.

1. Establishing urgency
When critical issues are not addressed, they become more complex and a solution is harder to find. John Kotter’s work on change management reinforces that in order to deal with issues and identify solutions, urgency needs to be established. In fact, he stresses that when 75 percent of leadership believes the status quo is no longer acceptable, the opportunity is ripe for change.

Maintaining a sense of urgency is also required to sustain the solution over the long term. As problems begin to be resolved and the initial pressures causing the issue are alleviated, sustainability of the solution is at risk. Emphasis on the importance of the issue must be maintained throughout the process. Creating a sense of urgency among government and stakeholders is paramount.

2. Getting organized

Getting the right people involved and committed to addressing the issue is critical. Kotter conveys the importance of establishing a guiding coalition of leaders to champion the project. John Bryson’s work on strategic planning emphasizes that to achieve the intended outcomes, ideally the team should include at least one champion who is an elected government official to facilitate approval and passage through government.

3. Engaging citizens

Darren Swanson and László Pintér identify in their work on developing sustainable strategies that multiple perspectives are necessary to gain sufficient information to understand how a policy direction is affecting citizens, and how it might be improved. This can be accomplished through a stakeholder analysis and the development of a plan that identifies engagement processes. In Sherry Arnstein’s approach to citizen participation, transparency and the creation of common ground for issues and solutions are enhanced through identifying and mapping different ways stakeholders can become involved.

In developing an engagement plan, it is critical that the anticipated outcomes are identified and are clearly communicated to stakeholders to facilitate the alignment of expectations between the parties. Arnstein reinforces that ideally government needs to move beyond the traditional approach of participation and consultation to activities that facilitate engagement, empowerment and partnerships to ensure a shared responsibility for the initiative.

4. Optimizing success

Through their work on governance structures for national sustainable development strategies, Swanson and Pintérs also suggest that to achieve sustainability of the intended outcomes integration with existing government business planning, budget and reporting cycles must occur. This directly contributes to strengthening government’s commitment to achieve the priorities and ensure that financial resources are in place to attain the results. Specifically, this involves embedding the priority action in the business planning cycle in order to tie it to the organization’s goals and the performance contracts of senior officials.

5. The vision

Kotter highlights the importance of building a shared vision to influence decision making: this will provide a basis for shared solutions. In Robert Sexty’s research on developing approaches to understanding stakeholder relations, he identifies that engaging stakeholders in asking questions related to what they really want to achieve will ultimately contribute to increased investment and shared outcomes. The vision should be developed through a consensual and iterative process and should clarify the direction in which everyone needs to move. It should also provide the basis for establishing objectives and the steps to achieve intended results.

Most importantly, it should be clearly communicated to all parties. Kotter states that by using all communication channels, stakeholders and government officials should be able to understand, appreciate and commit to making the effort happen. The vision should motivate people to become involved, help align all activities, and provide the rationale as to why the direction is important.

6. Creating the foundation for decision making
Developing principles for decision making that reflect societal values will facilitate a common foundation on which all decisions can be made. The principles should identify the key components of the problem that will form the basis for addressing the underlying issue. The principles should reflect what is fundamentally important to citizens.

Bryson suggests that principles should be developed following stakeholder engagement as this will allow for consideration and application of their views and perspectives. Creating commonality through shared principles will contri

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