11 July 2019
From Top-Down to Bottom-Up: Three Steps to Improving Public Participation in the 2030 Agenda
Photo credit: TAP Network
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As officials gather this week for the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, improving public participation is high on the agenda.

When done right, public participation is a vital means to successful policy.

This article sets out three principles that should inform the discussion at the HLPF.

As officials gather this week for the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), improving public participation is high on the agenda. The theme—empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality—rightfully centers on citizen engagement as key to sustainable development. But to be successful, policymakers need to move beyond the message and focus on the nuts and bolts.

When done right, public participation is a vital means to successful policy. While the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are global in scope, policy development and implementation occur mostly at the national, regional and local levels. Policymakers must translate the global SDG targets into local policy options that reflect real-world conditions. Often this translation is top-down; experts and elites dominate the policy process. This produces ineffective policies that conflict with local priorities and disregard specific development contexts.

Public participation turns usual policymaking on its head to include those most affected by its outcomes.

Public participation turns this process on its head to include those who are most affected by its outcomes. Incorporating impacted communities provides policymakers with unique insight into local conditions. This allows policymakers to prioritize more effectively and identify unintended consequences. Beyond yielding better policy options, public participation further smooths implementation by reducing conflict.

But the promise of public participation hinges on its design and execution. Poor process produces little benefit (and may, in fact, be counterproductive). While there is no universal “best practice”—what works best is always context-specific—there are principles that apply broadly.

Here are three such principles that should inform the discussion at the HLPF. First, actively seek out and engage marginalized communities. Without explicit attempts to include disenfranchised populations, those with privilege are most apt to participate and, as a result, gain even greater influence. As a result, public participation can actually reinforce existing inequalities. This isn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t equitable.

Next, take active steps to support meaningful participation. As noted, development is frequently expert-driven. Many people self-censor in the face of such “expertise.” This is especially true of people on the margins. To overcome this challenge, invest in making sure that communities have the knowledge and skills necessary to contribute meaningfully to policymaking and send clear (and obvious) signals that policymakers not only welcome but also truly value indigenous and local knowledge.

Finally, transparency is paramount. In offering the public the chance to provide input, policymakers naturally boost the public’s expectation that they will have influence. Failing to meet this expectation breeds cynicism and erodes trust in governance institutions. For this reason, communicate early and unambiguously about the processes in which the public has a say. Also, report back on what you heard, and what impact it had. This is how you build trust and foster legitimacy.

None of this is cheap or fast. But it matters if the 2030 Agenda is to successfully meet its ambitious development goals. Perhaps more importantly, it is the right thing to do. Historically, the Global North and experts have decided what counts as “development.” This time, we have an opportunity to turn that top-down process bottom-up and expand the voice of impacted communities in defining “progress.” Inclusive and equitable public participation is the key.

The formation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs benefited from unprecedented public outreach. More than 7.5 million people from over 190 countries participated in the United Nations’ online survey. If policymakers want to meet the goals they then set, it is now time to deepen their engagement with the public.

The author of this guest article, Jessica Koski, is a climate policy associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute’s US Center and a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow. For more on the promise and challenge of expanding public participation, read the SEI brief, Making space: how public participation shapes environmental decision-making.

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