Public participation has a lot of benifits but it also may introduce some risks in the decision making process, or it may reveal shortcomings in societal organisation, such as;
Traditional public participation (public involvement) is often structured as an internal/external, us-versus-them, zero-sum conflict relationship. In such a context, the strategies of both the agency and the public are more likely to become competitive rather than collaborative. (Wondolleck, 1988). Therefore, any emergent creativity comes in spite of the structure of public participation, not because of it.
In addition, public participation occurs in a fairly rigid format. Because the agency's public participation activity is largely the result of external mandates, there is a considerable body of legislation, regulation, and case law that collectively defines the adequacy of those efforts (U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1992). The requirements are usually crafted in terms of specific periods for public comment, each with a minimum number of days, a minimum number of local papers in which legal notices must be published, etc. Quite understandably, a common agency response is to comply with those minimums, and not undertake additional or different kinds of public participation, which might risk additional delay or an unforeseen procedural error. Going beyond the letter of the law is not precluded, but there seems to be little incentive for doing so.
Often, developers, investors and project leaders see public participation as a risk because as soon as people are asked to get involved, their expectations and will need to be integrated. In other words, it forces them to make compromises on some aspects of the project, especially for projects defined by a top-down approach. In this latter case, public participation is seen as a way to improve people appropriation of the project whereas it could also be seen as a way to redefine it together for a better adaptation to local population needs.
To reduce the risks of public participation, the public including all the main stakeholders should be involved early in all the stages of the projects. Moreover, the public should be well informed about the details of the project and the related important technical aspects should be explained well. Additionally, the interest of the public should be resolved in a clear and transparent way, and the administrators need to be clear and transparent to gain the confidence of the public.
Example: Bitumen terminal in Lomonosov town, Russia
The construction of the bitumen terminal in Lomonosov town, on the Gulf of Finland of the Baltic Sea would damage the historical landscape of the coastline, where the Lomonosov Master Plan foresees beaches and recreational areas. In addition, the presented business plan looked unfeasible in terms of payback period. The deputies thought that the municipality (which is also a district of St. Petersburg) would not get any benefits from the planned activities and that the promises of investment into the district would not be kept.
The process of public participation started in 1999 after Lomonosov NGOs saw and discussed the video film about the problem. The decision was taken to file the request for hearings on the terminal development to the deputies representing all levels of representative power (councils, assemblies, etc) on the territory concerned. After the hearings the deputies of Lomonosov Municipal Council refused to approve of the project. The hearings in the municipal council were repeated in May 2001. Not all stakeholder groups were represented at that time. The debates proved to be inefficient.
Main problems related to the process of public participation in the project were:
- Passive attitude of the project initiator and contractor of providing information and involving the public into discussions.
- Town administration kept away from public hearings on the project.
- The investor very formally followed the procedure of public hearings, stipulated in the mandatory Environmental impact statement.
- The public participation process did not have targeted funding, it was supported of the budget of municipalities and by non-governmental organisations.