Public Participation – Summer 1993-94

26 May 2016 | Posted In: #129 Winter 2016, Community Engagement, From the Vault, Inner Sydney Voice – ISRCSD, Planning for People and Social Issues, | Author: Inner Voice

It is nice to know that public participation was fashionable in the summer of 1993/4 as recorded by Inner Voice. Twenty plus years on, with Westconnex and little dialogue with communities about urban renewal, it feels like the participation pendulum has swung to the other extreme.

As public tenants face engagement about estate renewal it is useful to be reminded of some of the pathologies or diseases that impact upon good participation that have been set out in the article below. They remind us of some of the games that get played that undermine public participation. Participation bingo anyone!



It’s taken a long time for Public Participation to enjoy the fashionable status it has now – a necessary inclusion in the planning processes of both government and private sectors. But in practice, says DR PETER STRICKLAND (a man of many committees) some consultation processes are used to thwart real participation by gagging or even exhausting the participants.

A Definition:

“Public participation is any process whereby any group or individual not directly involved in a decision or planning process can be a part of that process.”

“..not directly involved” means members of the public other than politicians, councillors and other elected representatives, public servants directly involved, proponents, company representatives, agents, owners. It includes people who can contribute to better decisions and not just those who are immediately affected.

It is about involvement in the decision process. It is not being told about decisions after they are made – or being sold the justification.

Benefits of True Public Participation:

  • addressing local concerns
  • gaining community support for decisions
  • reflecting local values
  • providing access to local expertise
  • avoiding counter actions
  • considering environmental and social values
  • enabling corrective action before it is too late

Some Mechanisms:

  • voting
  • submissions regarding exhibited plans
  • public meetings
  • workshops
  • advisory committees
  • precinct committees
  • council (functional and issue) committees
  • direct action
  • referenda (US propositions, resident initiated)
  • market research, sampling and polling
  • petitions
  • legal action
  • public inquiries
  • open Council meetings
  • publicity
  • resident, action and environmental groups – spokespeople
  • lobbying, delegations

We need to ask whether these provide for expert inputs or are measures of public opinion, whether they are proponent initiated or public initiatives.


Experienced participants come to recognise some of the pathologies of the process. Here are a few:

Token Participation – what looks like participation but, on critical assessment, isn’t really (eg. Xmas Rush).

The Arthur Dent DA – named after Arthur Dent of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” who found the development application to demolish his house in an inaccessible basement – not very different from DAs that are only available for inspection in Council offices during working hours.

The Concertina Effect – committees that expand and contract depending on who attends.

The BOMA Syndrome – comparing the ease by which a representative of commercial interests can join a committee, while a resident group must lobby and go through formal processes to be represented.

The Gag – Confidentiality of information limiting effective feedback by community represenatives to their groups.

Public Service Culture “Yes, Minister” – that public servants know how to provide for the public good and have superior knowledge, management and information processing skills.

Darling Harbour Effect – that a special case exists that requires normal consultation processes to be by-passed – Ministerial pronouncements, flexible boundaries (Olympics, Casino, Heliport and Australian Technology Park)

Meeting Power Games – using control of the meeting to the proponents’ advantage, eg where minutes are tabled at a meeting giving insufficient time for informed discussion (the counter to this is not allowing discussion of non-agenda items), who chairs the meeting, when and how often meetings are called.

No Real Sharing of Power – when there is no real aim to hav e participati on, only one-way consultation.

Restrictive Terms of Reference -setting boundaries on what is discussed or treating key issues as subsidiary issues, such as the Pyrmont Casino in City West.

The Martyr Effect – expecting community participants to have unlimited time and resources limiting participation to those of independent means.

The MSB Effect – where public authorities use the Cabinet ranking to override objective considerations.

The Narrow Window of Opportunity – where all the public participation has to take place in an afternoon, even though preparation has been going on for months, and analysis will take likewise.

Consumed by Participation – when committees are deliberately used to take up the time and effort of participants.

The pathologies are not all one-sided, so:

From the Environmentalist’s Viewpoint:

  • the protest becoming more important than the issue
  • ideologies dominating
  • prejudices and simplifications -judging people by their position such as whether they are from the private sector or a public servant, responding as Luddites to issues involving technology, chemicals, etc
  • lack of planning or effective preparation
  • preaching to the converted – not recognising that those whose opinions we seek to change need to be approached differently
  • treating options and ideas as firm plans

Requirements for an Effective System:

  • trust
  • constructive response to delays and difficulties
  • flexibility to cope with different mechanisms
  • access to relevant information
  • realistic timing and participation early in the development of options
  • open and objective processing of information
  • decision system that is transparent and understood by the public
  • real sharing of power
  • effective post-audit or monitoring system
  • adequate resources available to the public participants
  • seen to achieve real results and not just time-wasting or diversionary.

“Public Participation is about involvement in the decision process. It is not being told about decisions after they are made – or being sold the justification.”

INNER VOICE – Summer 1993/94  page 28-29