Collaborative Public Involvement
What is collaborative public involvement?
Collaborative public involvement goes beyond the basic requirements of public participation by creating opportunities for the public and agency staff to exchange information and influence one another’s thinking. In effect, the agency partners with the public to explore the best approach to making policy. When done well, this approach can effectively address the most challenging public issues in a constructive way.
The goal of a collaborative public involvement program is to ensure that public policy decisions:
- Achieve the agency’s goals,
- Satisfy the needs of diverse community members,
- Incorporate the best information and expertise of both
agency and community,
- Reflect collaborative development of plans and alternatives,
- Sustain effective communication and dialogue through all phases of planning, implementing and evaluating public policy.
What is the Center's approach to collaborative public involvement?
The Center for Collaborative Policy works with public agencies in three ways to help them achieve their goals for public involvement to enhance projects and programs.
- CCP will assist a public agency in designing and carrying
out public involvement regarding specific projects or plans.
CCP can provide consulting and coaching to agency staff
and/or manage the public involvement process depending on
- CCP will assist a public agency in assessing and enhancing
its on-going public involvement program. CCP will also provide
follow-up consulting, interactive training, and problem
solving to implement changes in the on-going public involvement
- CCP will design and carry out research to help an agency assess the effectiveness of its existing public participation program. For details see "Gauging the Effectiveness of Participation."
At the Center for Collaborative Policy, we focus on the critical elements necessary for a successful collaborative public involvement program:
- Credible working relationships between agency and public
based on respect and trust;
- Clear agency commitment about what it will and will not
do with the information provided by the public;
- Understanding and respect in both agency and public about
the types of information each can provide and its relevance
- Transparent explanation of how the agency will use public
information during the decision-making process;
- Sustained communication between agency and public during
implementation and future revisiting of the issues in question;
- Enhanced capacity for the agency and the public to deal with each other collaboratively in the future in addressing major issues of mutual concern.
How do you deal with skeptical or antagonistic community members?
Often skepticism or antagonism stems from a fear that an agency will seek only to manipulate community opinions, concerns and judgment into a form of support for predetermined plans and policies. At the same time, public agencies often fear that an involvement process will be subverted by the limited agendas of narrow interest groups and will not reflect the diverse opinions of the general public the agency serves.
To address these fears and build a productive process, the Center ensures that the public and the agency agree as early as possible on the most practical and effective ways of communicating with each other. Involvement of the public in design and organizing all phases of the process can be just as critical to project success as community meetings and other events that are the primary opportunities for communication. To deal with past misunderstanding, agencies can build trust through responsiveness to community concern about how and under what conditions information is exchanged. This early involvement must be done with sensitivity to the time and resource constraints of both the agency and members of the public.
What collaborative public involvement services does the Center provide?
A good example can be found in the description of the collaborative
public involvement process the Center is conducting for the
restoration of the South San Francisco Bay Salt Ponds:
Services we provide for collaborative public involvement can include:
- Assessment. Interview affected parties
(stakeholders); map agency and stakeholder issues and interests
in the decision-making process; discuss options and methods
available for the design of a public process.
- Organizing the Process. Work with agency
staff and the public to create—and fine-tune along
the way—a practical public involvement program that
blends with the agency decision-making process and timeline.
- Collaborative Coaching. Assist agency
staff, officials, and members of the public with finding
collaborative ways to get their needs met. Assist agency
staff and officials with understanding, incorporating, and
responding to public needs without compromising their own
mission. Assist members of the public with understanding
and responding to agency needs and constraints.
- Public Information Exchange. Assist
with planning and executing a public information exchange
and media strategy. Assist with organizing and facilitating
informational briefings or workshops for interested groups
and develop ways for members of the public to share their
knowledge with the agency.
- Conducting the Process. Plan, organize,
and facilitate public meetings, workshops, advisory groups
and other forms of stakeholder and citizen involvement.
- Follow-up with the Public. Maintain communication
and dialogue opportunities between agency and public during
the implementation phases after the planning and decision-making
have been completed.
- Facilitate Ongoing Problem-Solving. Provide a neutral channel of communication and dispute resolution between and among agency staff and members of the public.
What is the difference between collaborative public involvement and traditional public participation?
All agencies must obey laws that prescribe certain public participation procedures. These requirements give the public the opportunity to get their comments into a written record of decision-making. However, members of the public are often not satisfied with that more formal aspect of public participation. They are not sure what the agency does with their input. They often wonder if agencies are “going through the motions” and not actually considering any ideas that differ from what they already had planned to do.
Some traditional public comment methods—like hearings—are not designed to allow for discussion or explore new ideas. Their purpose is to build a record, and they do that well. The communication they provide is generally one-way, formal, and static (agency to public, then public back to agency) rather than networked, informal, and dynamic (which can lead to creative joint problem-solving). On challenging issues, limiting communication with the public to these formal techniques can deepen misunderstanding and polarize opinion. The public often believes they are most effective when they apply advocacy tactics, such as packing public meetings with members of one interest group, or organizing mass letter writing campaigns. While these tactics may get attention, they do not translate into better decision-making.
A collaborative approach, as outlined above, can help to avoid these problems by encouraging strong, creative, high-quality, and responsive lines of communication between agencies and the public.
What are the potential benefits of a collaborative approach to public involvement?
- Improved decision-making resulting from better knowledge of the whole system to be affected by agency actions;
- Better, more durable outcomes that enjoy more support from community members, leading to easier implementation;
- More efficient and effective use of limited public resources due to better match of agency efforts with public priorities;
- Improved relationships between agencies and members of the public;
- Early warning of potentially costly agency missteps or errors; and
- Ending or averting gridlock or litigation on controversial issues.
When is it appropriate to use a collaborative approach vs. traditional public participation?
Lack of resources often sets practical limits to how much agencies can do to involve the public. When efforts are constrained, it is important to consider the long-term costs vs. benefits to including some or all of the elements of a collaborative public involvement approach. In general, the more elements of a collaborative approach that can be applied to a public decision, the better it is for the decision and for the agency’s relationship with the public.
The collaborative approach is especially useful for:
- Decisions that are highly visible and / or controversial, or are likely to become so.
- Decisions that will have a direct and dramatic impact upon community health or quality of life.
- Situations where an agency would like to improve its relationship with the public.
However, standard methods of public participation will suffice if:
- The decision to be made is simple, routine, or unlikely to arouse public interest; or
- Standard methods of public participation have been effective for similar decisions in the past.
Where can I find additional resources?
- CCP Publications — Reframing Public Participation:
Strategies for the 21st Century
Innes, Judith and Booher, David. Planning Theory & Practice, Vol. 5, No. 4, 419–436, December 2004
- CCP's Core Services — Collaborative Public Involvement
- International Association for Public Participation
- US Environmental Protection Agency’s gateway website
of manuals and tools for public involvement