The organisation and mitigation of a successful public particpation procedure is not an easy task. Many parties, different kinds of information and different possible ways of involving the public will make the process complex and difficult to predict.
Some criteria can be distinguished for succesfully mitigating the process of public participation (ECOM Program, 2002):
- make use of a clearly defined objective declared by the process organiser and shared by its participants;
- prepare and present different alternatives and their impacts to the coastal zone: public hearings are senseless without consideration of well communicated alternatives;
- explicit feedback from public in the final product: analysis of comments and their incorporation into the final decision; it is also the main criterion for a public participation programme efficiency evaluation;
- availability and accessability of adequate information and learning possibilities during the process, including technical support for participation;
- public participation in early stages of project development; involvement of the public at late stages practically excludes the possibility to exercise the principles of optionality and feedback;
- involvement of all parties and stakeholders concerned: nobody can be excluded from the process on any discriminating grounds (i.e.: sex, age, profession, nationality, personal qualities);
- transparency and accountability of the public participation procedure, feasibility of objectives; all proposals, comments and amendments in the project should be reflected in the documents available for the process participants;
- co-ordination of the process in relation to the project scheduling (e.g. in case of areas with difficult access); this implies timely involvement of concerned parties belonging to the local, regional and federal levels;
- location-specific organisation of discussions on the project in the area of its implementation taking into consideration local traditions and possibilities of the locals to participate;
- balance of rights and responsibilities - the party, which does not have sufficient rights cannot carry the responsibility for the process; the extended rights are accompanied by the extended responsibilities for the effects from the taken decision;
- rationality - the use of proven methodological basis for the organisation of public participation processes and checking its results, strict adherence to the legally established procedures.
Southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, Eastern Baltic Sea (© BFN)
Case Study: Focus groups as an innovative method of public participation (Estonia)
The Emajõgi River is 101 kilometres long with10 rural municipalities (average population of 1000-2500) and one city (100,000 inhabitants) lying near the river. There are extensive untouched natural areas with two wetland nature reserves. Public participation has gained wide recognition as a key principle for modern environmental resource management. However, in most central and eastern European countries, there is not a long history of public participation. One major problem is that amongst ICZM managers there is not enough knowledge about practical and effective approaches to public participation and empowerment or about the tools that enable the public to make informed decisions in coastal management issues. There is also little awareness of the different methods and channels which are available for the involvement of various stakeholder groups.
A Focus group is still a rather unknown management tool within ICZM as it is more often used in market and social science situations. It is a planned discussion among a small group of people on a specific topic. Information is obtained through a social interaction setting, and the group situation allows individuals to use the ideas of others as cues to more fully elicit their own views.
Focus Groups can be widely defined as groups that have been designed to obtain perceptions on a defined area of interest in a permissive, non-threatening environment. They can be a suitable method for getting a brief understanding of an area not previously covered. It is generally a planned discussion among a group of six to eight people on a specific topic which lasts one to one and a half hours. In a relaxed atmosphere and with the guidance of a moderator, a group share their ideas and perceptions. The group members influence each other by responding to the ideas and comments of others. For the participants this methodology offers an excellent possibility to learn from the experience of the other group members. The advantages of the group setting are that it is possible to obtain information more quickly because people can use the ideas of others to express their own opinion more clearly and information obtained is by social interaction.
In 2003, Peipsi Centre for Trans-boundary Co-operation conducted 9 focus groups on water management issues with all the major stakeholders in a river basin. The discussions involved environmental organizations, schoolchildren, owners of recreation homes, fishermen, farmers, officials from local authorities, water recreation groups, NGOs and people from the water tourism companies. Focus groups demand detailed planning from the beginning and a flexible time schedule during the process.
Source: OURCOAST, Integrated Coastal Zone Management, Participation Practices in Europe (European Union, 2010)