Determining appropriate level of public participation for project success

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake, Chartered Engineer As a consequence of century-long colonial rule, certain communities of our society still suffer from the dependency syndrome where the State is viewed as the service provider for most of the cases. A probable remedy to overcome this situation will be community involvement in many tasks carried out by the State agencies. In fact, positive developments of community involvement in development projects can be seen at present. Public participation is a vital factor for the success of most projects as project success can be ironically defined as the degree to which it fulfills public expectations. Whenever a project fails to deliver public expectations to a satisfactory level, it will not only ne subject to public criticism but also end up with many unnecessary conflicts. In other words, a project which is in line with economic and financial objectives cannot be taken for granted unless it meets societal needs to the expected level. In this regard, social equitability is a vital factor to be considered when formulating a development project. It should be noted that the present sustainable development concept has considered society as one important aspect among the three constituents, with environment and economy being the other two. (See figure 01). Economic viability and environmental bearability are areas that can be handled by the professionals involved in the project with their subject knowledge. However, to have an idea about the public aspirations towards the social deliverables of the project it is a must that one works together with the society. Importance of public participation Public participation will bring new ideas, experiences and novel ways of working to a project wherever necessary. At times, public may act as ambassadors to the project team. In a multi ethnic and multi cultural country like Sri Lanka, it is very important to get public participation to an appropriate level if we are to overcome present-day challenges successfully. All projects irrespective of scale can involve public participation. However, public participation is a two-sided coin. Sometimes, public participation may adversely affect project success unless their capacity and skills are not correctly understood. Further, the public may respond emotionally when they have to negotiate with certain sensitive issues. Therefore, it is very important to decide the required level of public participation according to the nature of the project, its expected deliverables and the potential role the public can play. The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has developed a Public Participation Spectrum to demonstrate the possible types of engagement with stakeholders and communities. Following criteria which illustrates five levels of public participation can be used as a tool. The five levels have an increasing degree of involvement by the public. 1. Inform At this level you simply tell the public what you are going to do, where it is assumed that project formulating agency has got a thorough knowledge and public assistance is not required. Therefore, the community is informed what the project is all about. The good side of this one-way process is that it can make people feel valued. However, at this level the project team has to be aware of things from scratch and they are fully responsible for the total outcome. Informing is considered as a passive way of involving public. 2. Consult You may have a few options. You ask the public to give their opinions. Thus, the public is able to select an option if a few proposals are available or else you can redraft your proposal considering their ideas. At this level one should be really interested in getting feedback and only realistic options should be offered to the people. An indirect benefit of consulting is that people will feel that they have been heard. 3. Involve At this level you directly involve the public in the decision-making process. The public is transformed from audiences into key contributors of the project. Public issues and concerns are considered and they are given the chance to come up with their own ideas. 4. Collaborate At this level, equal decision power is shared with the public. The public equally participates in the activities of the project with higher commitment becoming a visible part of the project. 5. Empower Empowerment can be defined as a process where people take control over the factors that affect their lives. Accordingly, the community is given the opportunity to choose what they want. Therefore, the role of the project team is to facilitate the community to implement what they decide. Determining the appropriate level It is important to determine the appropriate level of public participation suitable to a project. The level of participation will differ according to different circumstances when economic, environmental and social concerns are taken into account. If the level of participation is lower than the level expected, project deliverables may suffer – especially in a society where political interests are at the top of the agenda. On the other hand, if the level of public participation is higher than what is suitable, that may create many unwanted situations like overruling technical criteria merely to satisfy the public and only in the long run will the public understand what has gone wrong. Therefore, determining the appropriate level of public participation for a project is an important judgment we should take as engineers. References n n