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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making
outside the process there are vast differentials in resources, power, and influence. This is at the heart of many concepts of legitimacy and capacity building. However, differences in power and influence always exist and those with more power are more likely to have more influence, directly or indirectly, on the choices made about the framing of issues, the nature of participation (e.g., a bounded versus unbounded process), the logistics of meetings, and how the results will be used, mirroring the balance of power in the external playing field. In other words, unless explicitly addressed, collaborative design of a process can be more difficult to achieve the greater the imbalance of power in a situation. This, in turn, can affect the inclusiveness of participation and the transparency of the process, even if all who do participate have the same opportunity to express their views.
Intentional diagnosis and sensitive discussion of the relative power or influence of different groups can promote the principle of collaborative design in a meaningful and realistic way by providing the basis for an informed decision by both organizers and participants as to whether they can convene a process that provides sufficient incentives for inclusive participation. Such understandings are often recorded in ground rules or “terms of reference” for a process. Discussion of relative influence during the diagnostic stage also can enhance a realistic understanding, and sometimes acceptance, of the possibility that some of the parties will seek other forums if they can achieve more of their objectives in that way and, thus promote realistic understandings of the limits of a public participation effort.
Generally, public participation is structured so that a few voices do not dominate the discussion. In some cases, inclusiveness may require subsidies to those with limited resources to compensate for travel costs and time lost from other responsibilities. It may also require providing them with improved access to expertise.
By recognizing existing inequalities and designing and implementing participatory processes so as to minimize their effects, agencies can enhance the quality of input for environmental decision making. The process can be structured to ensure that all stakeholders are motivated to participate and that all parties’ voices are given serious consideration in the process. It is also important to be realistic that those involved will be comparing how participation in a process compares with other process alternatives. Those who do not feel they have sufficient influence in the process may seek to increase their power through other strategies, such as community organizing, media outreach, referendums and initiatives, lobbying, and litigation; and those with influence will assess what their influence can accomplish through similar means. Thus, the burden is on the convener to understand the balance of power and influence in a situation and to design a process that motivates participants to work within the process. (Good faith on the