Advancing Public Participation in 26 Countries and Counting

An ancient Chinese proverb says, “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.” The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)  includes this quote in one of its student manuals, along with several other quotations, including this one: “If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu.”

IAP2 USA logo

On the topic of public participation, perhaps no organization on the planet has given more exhaustive thought to the issue than IAP2. Created in 1990 with the goal of fostering public participation, the group now has members from 26 countries. It publishes journals, provides training, hands out awards.

As IAP2 understands, public participation is something of an art form that needs to be encouraged, nurtured and recognized when done well. Effective public participation requires an array of attributes, including keen emotional intelligence and sharply honed talents for listening and diplomacy.

Above all, the best practitioners of public participation understand that people want their voices heard, especially on matters that directly impact their lives.

Credit: Danube Watch Magazine

Credit: Danube Watch Magazine

IAP2 has created a list of “core values” when it comes to public participation. While some of these values might seem intuitive, it’s not uncommon for these values to be ignored, sometimes with catastrophic results. The first of these values: “Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.” The second: “Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.”

Today Collaborative Services talks to Larry Schooler, President-Elect of IAP2 USA. Mr. Schooler wears many hats, he oversees community engagement, public input, and conflict resolution projects for the City of Austin  and has also worked as a mediator, author, teacher, and reporter. We welcome his thoughts.

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The International Association for Public Participation has become the leader in advancing public participation. How did IAP2 begin and how has it changed over the years?
IAP2 began out of an effort to help distinguish between the fields of public participation and public relations, marketing, and the like.  The field has been around for several decades, but IAP2 began in the early 1990’s as an organization for practitioners to hone their craft and work with other practitioners to advance the field.  It has expanded to include a variety of different kinds of professionals interested in promoting public participation, including elected officials, scholars, and the like. We have always been an organization very focused on training and professional standards, and we are continuing to strengthen and update those offerings while also becoming a leading voice for public participation.
As an international organization have you noticed different trends of public participation in different countries? Are there certain aspects of public participation that remain the same around the world?
This is a better question for some of my other colleagues who have done more work on the global stage, but I would say that in general, populations all over the globe are starting to recognize the significance of having their voices included in the public policy decisions made by their government. Cultures vary dramatically, so the methods for involving the public do as well, but as an example, I am part of a professional exchange with peers in Germany, and they have inspired me and other American colleagues with some of the tools they have utilized to engage their public in collaborative consensus-building.

Credit: VentureBeat

Credit: VentureBeat

How is IAP2 USA advocating for public participation in the United States today?
IAP2 USA is working with other organizations to promote public participation at many levels.  We have lent our voice and expertise to efforts orchestrated by the Office of Management and Budget as they develop guidelines for federal agencies on public participation, and we also have participated in “civility summits” aimed at changing the dynamics of our public discourse alongside other groups. We continue to look for ways to advance the cause of public participation beyond its current reach.

Credit: The United States Office of Management and Budget

Credit: The United States Office of Management and Budget

What are some of the most effective strategies, methods and tools that IAP2 advocates and provides?
We have a whole host of strategies, methods, and tools—perhaps more significantly than all of that is our framework for preparing a public participation process.  Our Spectrum for Public Participation helps organizations determine how they want to frame a public participation process, and our training helps them step through several key questions and considerations as they design that process. Our tools are abundant and are introduced in our certificate training and webinar series. In general, we advocate for a wide array of tools within any given process that help multiple audiences participate—some large events, some smaller events, some involving technology and some that do not and involve more “on-the-street” contact.
IAP2 conducts a certificate training for professionals aspiring to advance their public participation skills. What are the goals of this training  and what do you hope participants get out of these trainings?
The training really helps IAP2 spread our Core Values and other tools across the country (and the globe) and, in turn, helps improve the work of public participation. The more people equipped with these skills and knowledge, the more likely public participation will blossom and provide IAP2 members with opportunities to provide services to communities nationwide and worldwide.
With advancements in technology and the ever changing field of social media how has public participation changed?
Technology is really enabling much larger audiences to engage, and the potential is limitless, though there are challenges to address. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter certainly attract a lot of attention, and the utilization of those platforms for public participation can be very helpful.  Other, more custom-built sites that allow for discussion, prioritization, the sharing of ideas, and so on also allow people less comfortable or able to participate in-person to do so. Such tools really require a great deal of forethought and constant monitoring and oversight in order to become meaningful components of a public participation process.

Credit: LLC

Credit: LLC

IAP2 has a set of core values for the practice of public participation. How were these values developed and how are they incorporated in your practice?
That’s a great question about Core Values and I wasn’t part of the organization when the Values were formed, but I would say they serve as a highly helpful guide to governments and other organizations who want to establish some standard guidelines and foundational principles for their work. Cities like Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas have developed their own sets of public participation principles inspired, in part, by the Core Values, and we also (to answer the next question) use the Core Values to evaluate public participation processes for our Core Value Awards.

IAP2 2011 Core Values Winners

Members of the Johannesburg Development Agency who accepted the 2011 IAP2 Core Values International Award for “Organisation of the Year”.
(Credit: IAP2 South Africa)

How does IAP2 determine if a public participation effort was successful?
Our Core Values are a very helpful guide—the more we can see that an effort followed those values, the more likely it provided a safe, fair opportunity (or set of opportunities) for the public to participate. Success in public participation is measured less on the basis of whether a certain group of people “got what they want” in terms of a policy outcome and more on the basis of whether the public felt that its voices were heard and its input honored in some way.
Can you describe successes IAP2 USA has had with particular individuals, organizations, institutions or other entities?
IAP2 has made particular strides in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountain regions of the country, although we have active members across the entire U.S. Generally, IAP2 USA has helped numerous governments and agencies make major strides in its public participation work, helping adjust its practices and policies to fit the changing needs and demands of the American public for more involvement.

The Pacific Northwest region of the United States(Credit: Pacific Northwest Economic Region)

The Pacific Northwest region of the United States
(Credit: Pacific Northwest Economic Region)

Where is IAP2 USA headed and what are your hopes for the organization’s future?
I see IAP2 USA headed towards becoming the vanguard of this field—“ground zero” for anyone involved with making decisions, because those decisions impact others, whether decisions come from governments, companies, Non-governmental organizations, or other community organizations.  We envision our role as the leading provider of training, continuing education, research, guidance, and networking for this growing field of practitioners, scholars, and fans of this new era in decision-making.
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Thank you Mr. Schooler for taking the time to participate in our interview! We are pleased that IAP2 is  continuing to advance the understanding and practice of public participation around the world.

The Collaborative Services Blog Team

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