Larry Susskind and Australian Counterparts Discuss Public Engagement

In this conversation transcript, CBI's founder Lawrence Susskind debates with his Australian counterparts in the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). They discuss the theory and practice of public engagement as well as the IAP2's "Spectrum of Participation", which breaks engagement activities down into five levels based on their degree of public impact.

Lyn Carson: 
Larry, I use the IAP2 Spectrum routinely for teaching purposes (with university students and, in the wider community, with policy makers). I know, too, that members of IAP2 find it an extremely useful explanatory tool, for example with their consulting activities. Despite its usefulness for me as a teaching tool, I have reservations about it and believe that you do too. To begin, can we explore your concerns?

Larry Susskind: 
I don’t find the spectrum particularly helpful—either from a theoretical or a practical standpoint. To put it as bluntly as possible: the first step on the spectrum—“inform”—is not really a form of participation. It involves a totally passive role for the public. Having information sent to you does not mean, in my mind, that you are participating in a meaningful way. At the far end, “empower” is misleading because there is no way in any democracy I know about that elected and appointed officials can actually “turn over” to a random assortment of citizens the statutory authority to make decisions. The officials involved would be delegating away their statutory authority. That’s illegal in most places. So, the last step is an illusion and should be dropped because it is misleading.

The third and fourth steps—“involve” and “collaborate”—are the same thing. If a government agency seeks to involve a set of stakeholders in the process of decision-making, it better mean to collaborate with them, or the offer to participate is a hoax.

And, finally, with regard to the second step, I’m not sure that I favour any form of consultation that does not guarantee true collaboration. That is, asking people to respond to a pre-made list of policy or design options without inviting those participants to help structure the options and the questions being asked about them, is so limiting as to be unacceptable to me as a form of participation.

So, in the end, there is really just collaboration...

Lyn Carson: 
That invitation to explore your concerns yielded such a colourful handful of threads that I’m perplexed about which strand to pick up because I want to play with each one. There were places where I wanted to say, “yes, I like that and I agree completely” and a few where I thought, “hmm, I’d want to examine that much more closely.” Let me start with a place where I agreed.

When I use the Spectrum, I find myself describing it as a continuum, then saying I won’t spend any time talking about the left-hand columns. Of course, it’s important to inform constituents, and open governments should do this routinely, but I dismiss that column in particular as unworthy of my attention in any discussion about public participation (P2). 
So, for sure, I’d like to see the Inform column either dropped or mentioned by way of a footnote as an essential prelude to P2 but not classified as P2. However, to be fair this is not simply entitled a Public Participation Spectrum, the sub-heading notes that it’s about Increasing Levels of Public Impact.

But, like you, I’m still bothered by the presence of Inform despite that caveat. Having said that, I know of community relations/communications people doing ethical work in this area and I guess they would feel rather excluded by the omission.

I took exception to a statement about the extreme right-hand side, Empower, so perhaps I’ll jump over to that column. This statement captured my attention: that “there is no way in any democracy I know about that elected and appointed officials can actually ‘turn over’ to a random assortment of citizens the statutory authority to make decisions”. There is not a claim in relation to statutory authority. There’s a promise to implement what you decide. I know of instances where this has happened and it has been empowering and statutory authority was quite irrelevant. For example, there are local governments that have allocated budgets to a community to take care of community resources such as sporting fields. There is a state government minister who has allowed the affected community to make controversial land-use planning decisions and promised to implement their decision...

Download the complete conversation transcript.