Public participation in the digital age

Public participation is a core principle in contemporary politics and policy used to involve people and communities in problem solving and decision-making discussions.

The result of doing so is producing a product (e.g. infrastructure, education or healthcare) that either directly collaborates with the community or solves a problem voiced by the community.

The importance of doing so stems from two factors. Firstly, a problem directly affecting a community is being solved. But secondly, and more importantly, the community who is being effected is directly involved in solving the problem.

Though trivial, as communicators it’s a tactic we practice regularly. Similar to our use of analytics and engagement to scope our audiences’ interests, public participation gathers the same information aiming to keep a community’s best interest at the heart of future of projects and development.

In short, the result is understanding the problem from within, making it easier to fix from the outside. It’s putting people at the heart of projects assuring their best interests are met. And in the 21st century, this task couldn’t be easier.

Modern public participation

While it may seem like a long-winded process, appreciating the importance of community satisfaction is key to any project, whether digital or physical. Before providing a fix, you need to understand what it is you’re fixing, and more importantly why.

And to gather such information, public participation is the tool to do so.

In a modern context, according to Kylie Cochrane, International Board Member for the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2), the role of public participation is to acknowledge the wants and needs of different communities assuring their voices are being heard both before and during major projects.

The importance of doing so stems from what Kylie acknowledges as understanding the identity individuals build around their community. It would be like building a carpark in a neighbourhood full of cyclists. Maybe the data suggests one thing but in reality, it doesn’t reflect the community.

And that’s the importance of using public participation – from a citizen perspective it produces direct results and from a government perspective it increases trust and citizen engagement. And at a time when trust has been on a steady decline, Kylie believes public participation is a tool to bring it back.

Digital participation

At this point I can understand this may feel like an overwhelming practice. But to put it into context it’s no different to the way brands approach their audiences on social media or how media outlets write for their readership. Research was key to discovering such information.

Whether through qualitative interviews, data-driven research or quantitative surveys, they found an evidence-based approach to engage their audience.

Regarding ways governments can increase public participation, Kylie recommends making the most of all available channels and build a unique narrative for each. By understanding the differences among different communities and groups, targeting them becomes an easier process.

And once you understand your target community (through research) you can begin digitally engaging them. The most effective tool, according to Kylie, is engaging communities through storytelling and involving them through narrative.

IAP2 understands the importance of doing so and advocates for governments to approach public participation through digital outlets. The ultimate goal is to enhance communities through engagement and provide more efficient ways for them to communicate. Learn more.

Bringing it all together

As a tool to inform and involve citizens, public participation aims to assure their voices are heard both before and during major projects. With the use of digital media, this process has become easier and a great way to reach out to communities.

Through this engagement, according to IAP2 and Kylie Cochrane, it will lead towards rebuilding trust between citizens and governments.

Hear Kylie discuss public participation in government on the GovComms Podcast.

What are your thoughts on public participation?

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