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(1) Environmental Policy Studies

Public Participation in Environmental

Decision Making

Recent decades have seen the emergence of a very widespread consensus that ‘public participation’ is a crucial element of good and democratically legitimate environmental decision making.

Consensus around public participation can be seen at every level, international, regional, national, and local. We see the public values inherent in an environmental decision, which mean that ‘experts’ have no monopoly on judgment.

Public participation in decision making is very often put forward as a way through the tension between technical and popular input into decisions, and has become a conventional element of any discussion of ‘good governance’ for the environment. In the words of Sherry Arnstein, ‘The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you.’

Notwithstanding agreement on its desirability, however, the precise meaning of ‘public participation’ remains unclear. We might include the most basic form of political participation, voting in elections; this can be contrasted with highly visible unofficial forms of participation, such as mass public demonstrations, protests, and civil disobedience.

The bottom rungs of the ladder are  (1) Manipulation and  (2) Therapy.

These two rungs describe levels of ‘non-participation’ that have been contrived by some to substitute for genuine participation. Their real objective is not to enable people to participate in planning or conducting programs, but to enable power holders to ‘educate’ or ‘cure’ the participants. Rungs and progress to levels of ‘tokenism’ that allow the have-nots to hear and to have a voice: (3) Informing and (4) Consultation.

 When they are proffered by power holders as the total extent of participation, citizens may indeed hear and be heard. But under these conditions they lack the power to insure that their views will be heeded by the powerful.

When participation is restricted to these levels, there is no follow-through, no ‘muscle’, hence no assurance of changing the status quo. Rung (5) Placation is simply a higher level tokenism because the ground rules allow have-nots to advice, but retain for the power holders the continued right to decide.

Further up the ladder are levels of citizen power with increasing degrees of decision-making clout. Citizens can enter into a (6) Partnership that enables them to negotiate and engage in trade-offs with traditional power holders. At the topmost rungs, (7) Delegated Power and (8) Citizen Control, have-not citizens obtain the majority of decision-making seats, or full managerial power.

Obviously, the eight-rung ladder is a simplification, but it helps to illustrate the point that so many have missed – that there are significant gradations of citizen participation. Knowing these gradations makes it possible to cut through the hyperbole to understand the increasingly strident demands for participation from the have-nots as well as the gamut of confusing responses from the power holders.

It is difficult to pin down a meaning of public participation for all purposes. For current purposes, rather than attempt the thankless task of defining public participation, we take an approach to public participation that looks beyond basic political participation through periodic elections, and involves the three different elements:


  • Access to environmental information, without which any further opportunities for public participation are meaningless;
  • Tautologously, public participation in environmental decision making, which could range from (4) upwards on Arnstein’s ladder;
  • Access to justice, addressing the potential for judicial or other dispute resolution or review in respect of an environmental decision.


These three elements of public participation are the three ‘pillars’ of the high profile Aarhus Convention, the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998).

 The Aarhus Convention is the most significant international innovation in this area, and in order to put some flesh on the bones of the current enthusiasm for public participation. We will go to examine each of the three pillars of the Aarhus Convention in turn. Rather than examining United Kingdom implementation of these pillars, we consider the Convention’s embrace by the European Union (EU): ratification ‘is a political priority for the Commission’.

Binding and enforceable European Community (EC) law has the potential to give the Aarhus Convention real teeth in the Member States. And although the Aarhus Convention is widely accepted, the detail of participatory arrangements remains controversial, going rather deeply into national democratic arrangements and administrative processes. However, the fact that every Member State of the EU has signed the Aarhus Convention gives Commission proposals on public participation considerable political weight.

Whilst increased participation in environmental decision making is largely welcome, it should not be considered uncritically, we outline some of the main difficulties inherent in a move to public participation. 



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