It may send a shiver down the spine of many a cautious public servant, but public participation in government decision-making can help improve both the quality of output and citizens’ perception of government processes.
Yet while the importance of engaging the public is is increasingly recognised and is already helping improve government work, the public service is still learning how best to go about it.
The Victorian Auditor General’s Office is hoping to help agencies do better.
“Governments have acknowledged the value the public bring to understanding problems and risks, and to crafting solutions that are more likely to work. The public perceive decisions that arise from open and collaborative processes to be more credible,” said auditor general Andrew Greaves in a report tabled last week, Public participation in government decision-making.
“In contrast, inadequate public participation can alienate sections of the community, undermine trust and can result in poorly informed decisions.”
Notwithstanding the current government’s professed enthusiasm for it, performance in this area is “consistently poor” across the Victorian public sector, the audit noted. This is not helped by the lack of an overarching public participation framework to drive activities and promote consistency of practice — a problem the Department of Premier and Cabinet has said it will fix by next year.
All other jurisdictions except the Northern Territory and Western Australia already have a current whole-of-government framework for public participation.
Previous problems with public engagement, which have been examined by the auditor, have heightened concerns about government transparency and accountability. They have also increased agencies’ awareness of the potential impacts of inadequate public participation, such as poor-quality decisions, increased financial costs and the undermining of public trust.
The report found the job done by the agencies it audited, chosen for their treatment of engagement as a priority, was probably better than most. Still, performance was inconsistent.
The audit included two central agencies — DPC and the Victorian Public Sector Commission — and three portfolio agencies — the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Level Crossing Removal Authority.
Achieving best practice in public participation
“When managed well, public participation activities in Victoria are demonstrably making a valuable contribution to government decision-making,” says the auditor. There is plenty of room for improvement, however.
According to the International Association for Public Participation, better practice 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.
- includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.
- promotes sustainable decisions by recognising and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision-makers.
- seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
- seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
- provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
- communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.
Co-design, VAGO noted, is a popular means of engaging the public, though confusion about the use of co-design techniques and how they fit in with other types of engagement can limit their application.
Improving practice across the board requires a whole-of-government approach. The OECD recommends governments embed public participation as part of their core business by providing:
- strong leadership and commitment.
- coordination of public participation across and within government agencies.
- adequate financial, human and technical resources.
- appropriate guidance and training.
- a supportive and accountable organisational culture.
Planning is an important part of conducting successful activities with members of the public. To be effective, such activities must have:
- clearly defined objectives and scope.
- an appropriate methodology that reflects understanding of affected stakeholders and their needs.
- a plan for identifying and mitigating risk.
- appropriate resources and timelines.
- plans for review and evaluation.
Timing is critical: in two of the programs looked at by the auditor — the bushfire management plan and the mental health plan — public participation activities were delayed, leading to some not being completed, and others occurring too late in the process to make a difference to the final plans. This caused disappointment among stakeholders — particularly problematic in areas where the community is already sceptical of government’s capacity to meet their needs.
Stakeholders need to be fully informed throughout the public participation activity to ensure they have a good understanding of the reasons their feedback is being sought. Past negative experiences with government engagement can make citizens question whether it’s worth their time and effort working with government, so demonstrating how the information they give is used helps built trust. Good practice includes:
- informing stakeholders about the purpose and scope of public participation and ensuring they understand them.
- providing relevant and timely information and resources to stakeholders to enable them to give meaningful input.
- informing stakeholders of viewpoints given during public participation activities and how this information was used to inform decision-making.
- giving stakeholders an opportunity to provide feedback on the public participation process, to help assess which aspects worked and which could be improved.
Evaluation is another important part of improving on previous efforts. While the auditor felt evaluation of two of the programs could be improved, it noted that DHHS did not evaluate the public participation processes, outcomes or stakeholder satisfaction of its mental health plan.
All agencies accepted the auditor’s recommendations and provided detailed action plans and timeframes for implementing them.