Unpacking “public participation”

By Miharu Hirano*

A few years ago I saw the CEO of an Australian water utility talk about managing water supply in a period of unprecedented water scarcity. She said a key element of the utility’s success in changing consumer behaviour and reducing per capita water usage was a broad and deep process of public participation. She also said that the process had been challenging, that it took a shift in company culture, and that done badly public participation could impede progress and undermine a utility’s message.

Imagine, then, that you work for a drinking water service provider. Your boss asks you to carry out public participation during an upcoming tariff revision, but the company has never done this before and there are no specific guidelines to help you be successful. Your colleagues may not take public participation seriously, and the public, your customers, are unlikely to be in favour of higher tariffs.

What do you do?

While we know that public participation is an important driving force for improving water services management, there is no “magic bullet”, no single technique or model to involve our customers and all interested parties in the decision-making process. What is considered appropriate needs to be decided case-by-case, and must consider specific cultural and institutional peculiarities.

Nevertheless, there are proven approaches to effectively incorporate public participation into tariff-setting. The ‘3 I’s of public participation framework’ can help you “unpack” public participation and improve decisions.

Back in our fictitious utility, your public engagement efforts, will also be undermined unless your colleagues who are responsible for drafting and revising tariffs, and your institutional counterparts who advise and approve tariffs, such as regulators and consumer bodies, find this process beneficial and welcome feedback from the public. In other words, public institutions that have stakes in the decision-making also need to support public participation.

Without this, the expectations raised by public participation will not be realised and trust in the process and company can be irreversibly lost. In our 3 I’s framework, integrating public participation into the tariff-setting process from the start, is the first thing to consider.

Next, we need to look to the public domain to identify the “public”. The “public” is never a homogeneous group. It consists of individuals and groups who have different interests and needs. Some may be supportive, some may be obstructive, some may be indifferent, and some may not yet have an opinion. Participants should not be labelled for their positions. Stances and nuances of their opinions may easily change during the course of open dialogues, learning and reflections.

The focus should not be on the position they hold–“for”, “against” or “neutral”–but rather on understanding the interests underlying those positions, which can uncover hidden concerns or problems. A careful approach is needed to understand those concerns and find ways to make progress.

Once you’ve identified your counterparts involved in tariff-setting process, and public stakeholder groups, it’s time to link the two through implementation planning. As the public participation planner, you need to find the WhenWhy and How of public participation, remembering that no size fits all. Applying different techniques for public participation at each stage of the decision-making process can help.

With some stakeholder groups, you may want to engage them in face-to-face discussions at an early stage. With others, social media may be an appropriate tool to obtain input once tariff proposals are ready. Importantly, techniques should be chosen to fit the objective of each stage in the decision-making process.

Ultimately, you may conclude that there’s no need for public participation given your local circusmtances. Thinking through each “I” can help you understand your needs before rushing to conclusions.

*Miharu Hirano is a Specially Appointed Researcher at IWA, and works in the area of public policy and regulation. He is also a Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and is currently enrolled in the PhD programme at Kyoto University, Japan, where he specializes in public international law.