Community Engagement Trends

3 Principles of Public Participation You Should Act on Right Now

June 17, 2020
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Image source: Pixabay

 The new decade has begun – also in public participation. Maptionnaire founders and experts on community engagement, share with you three principles of public participation that you should follow. These guidelines will help you respond to the new demands and good practices of community engagement in this and the coming decades.

Principle 1: Ensure Everyone’s Voice Is Heard


The fundamental principle of public participation is that everyone is presented with the possibility to say what they think about places that are important to them.

We need to remember that cities are not only buildings, parks, and people – they are political and societal manifestations. This makes the residents a part of that societal debate – whether they actively choose to do so or not, or whether they are given the possibility to participate, face-to-face or online.

In the history of public participation, different groups such as resident associations, collective movements, and different unions have been driving the societal discussion. These are usually a group of well-educated people or people who are in the know. This is not to say that these people shouldn’t be part of the discussion. What we are saying is that they should not be the only ones.

We need to ask ourselves if we’re really reaching everyone we should be reaching. Are we offering everyone the equal opportunity to participate in the discussion?

In the era of digital transformation, we might get blinded by the opportunities we think it offers for making public participation more inclusive. It can also happen that we’re actually enabling new kinds of groups to form and to become more powerful. If we, for instance, decide to use digital tools that are not intuitive and user-friendly, we might be excluding those who are not comfortable with digital participation (e.g. the elderly). 

Action point: Check the current status of your participation toolbox. 

Are you lacking something when the aim is to be more inclusive and transparent? Are you making sure everyone’s voice matters, and that it’s heard? Do you have the needed tools available and are you applying suitable methods in your participation processes?

Principle 2: Be Mindful of the Data You Collect and Use


In recent years, big data and AI have reigned – also in the domain of public participation. The amount of data that’s available is increasing rapidly, but at the same time people are more aware and more concerned about their personal data ending up in the wrong hands.

Residents are also wondering about how and what their data is actually being used for. However, with all this data available, can we rely on it?

How much attention should we pay on getting more precise and reliable data to support our decisions?  And how can we ensure we are compliant with the requirements of e.g. the GDPR?

Your initial thought might be that, well, we’ll just use some kind of digital identity technology to make sure that this person is the one we’re after. Did you know, though, that the GDPR allows the users to retract or alter their responses? In digital public participation tools this can be avoided by letting the respondents control their own data. 

But actually, even the GDPR and its requirements as such are not that problematic. What is worse is collecting personally identifiable information (PII). This is data that is extremely sensitive. However, if you gather information  through a questionnaire and you have data included that is considered sensitive, it needs to have a safeguard in place so this information is not accidentally published anywhere.

Additionally, PII is usually  gathered to make sure it’s not a troll that is answering your questionnaire. This is often unnecessary as it ends up being so that you’re then in hold of personally identifiable information - in a way by accident. With proper public participation tools you can have the respondent register before they answer your survey but you still won’t have access to this sensitive information that you don’t actually need for any other purpose than to separate trolls from actual people.

Action point: Think about the data you’re collecting.

What needs to be collected anonymously and when do you need to identify the respondent? Be mindful about forcing people to register. But if this is needed,  make sure you have the tools to do this easily. Remember that it should also be easy and safe for the respondent to register so you won’t lose them along the way. 

Principle 3: Show the Influence of Public Participation

If people don’t see what prompts the government to respond, they will fail to understand a basic dynamic of participation, because the nexus between the citizen’s voice and the government’s response tends to disappear.
Hollie Russon-Gilman, Lecturer in Technology and Public Participation at Columbia University                    

The core idea  of public participation is that society allows people to have a say and share their thoughts. And when you say what you think, it creates a reaction that  eventually leads to action. But unfortunately this rarely is the case in real life. This is where participation often fails.

If people don’t see the results and actions, or they don’t see their insights are being used for doing something concrete, they end up being frustrated — no matter what means or tools we use or how efficient we are in collecting feedback and ideas.

However, if we want to be as inclusive as possible we can’t assume that every idea is acted upon. That’s not the point. What we need to make sure is that the public understands who is using this data and how: how does it affect decision making? The ultimate goal is to increase trust and transparency. That’s why this is important. That’s what it means to react.

Action point: Systematically measure and report about the actions and results of participation in a clear way.

Learn and fine-tune. This way we can see and show what the impact of our participation in planning is, and we can improve our way of working. With reporting, we can also  verify if inclusiveness is realized. With additional communication tools, it’s easier to show the journey from idea/initiative to public participation and finally to a decision.

Are you interested in hearing more about online public engagement? You can watch recording of a webinar where we share some best practices about digital participation. You will get some advice and hear examples that will help you with your urban planning and community engagement projects.   

*Source: Citizen Engagement. Emerging Digital Technologies Create New Risks and Value by Tiago Peixoto and Tom Steinberg. TheWorld Bank Group.

We’d be happy to have a chat about your public engagement strategy for this year and beyond.

Let’s talk more about your current situation and look for ways of how we could advise you in your online efforts.
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