There are many structures for participation which have evolved from different historical and cultural contexts. They can be divided into two major classes: formal and informal. Formal procedures are often mandated by law or regulation. Informal ones are those that follow certain customs or unstated policies, or those that occur because of personal factors. Participation can of course take place at both the policy-making and implementation stages (Korten and Quizon, 1991).
Formal structures are varied; they include public meetings, advisory bodies, official gazettes and appeal processes. Normally public meetings are called for review and comment on a proposal. The meeting is announced in the news media. Material describing the proposal is made available to those who request it. Comments are usually requested in writing, even if they are to be presented orally at the meeting.
Public meetings work well when the issue is a local concern or an emotionally charged, well-publicized matter. These meetings are unlikely to attract large numbers of people on very specific or technical proposals. They do allow for both sides to hear each other, and can encourage a consensus.
Another similar approach is the "public comment period". Usually, after an official publication or announcement of a proposal, interested parties can provide a response within a certain period of time. After the close of the comment period, the regulatory body will review the comments and incorporate changes to reflect them. It may also publish reasons for not acting on certain suggestions.
A comment period, if well publicized, is an effective means of getting response from a large number of people. However, it is not interactive. Since it is the role of the bureaucracy to make final judgements, an innovative solution may often be missed. A comment period can be useful in gauging the acceptability of a proposal, and if no consensus is found, an additional consultative process can be started.
Advisory bodies are another source for obtaining different views. An advisory body is usually made up of experts and representatives from different interest groups. It can be ad hoc, with members chosen for a specific issue, or it can be a standing body with a long-term mandate.
The main strength of an advisory body is that it facilitates an exchange of ideas and can generate innovative approaches. However, the make-up of such a group needs to be well balanced to ensure that it is truly representative and not biased. This approach is very useful when technical matters are being addressed. Since the body is only advisory in nature, its effectiveness will be hampered if the recommendations made are routinely ignored.
Stakeholder round tables are expected to draft actual proposals rather than just provide advice or recommendations. The aim is to achieve a consensus proposal which will be acceptable to all parties. Since this approach is time-consuming and costly for the sponsor of the round table, it is normally used for major policy matters only. If true participation of all stakeholders is assured and there is willingness to arrive at a compromise, this is an excellent way to develop a genuinely representative solution.
Another process is an appeal procedure by which a person or group who believes that his, her or their rights have been breached or that due process has not taken place can apply to the courts for a legal ruling. This approach is very expensive and can lead to long delays. Given its adversarial nature, it frequently does not result in creative solutions to the problem. This approach has often been taken in the United States, where industry and citizens' groups will often bring a government agency to court, with one claiming the rules are too strict, the other too lax. To overcome this, several United States agencies have moved towards negotiated rule-making. This is similar to the round-table approach described above.
A referendum allows the electorate to voice opinions on an issue or proposal. Citizens are given a choice of options. However, since they are not necessarily involved in the development of these options, it may happen that none of the proposals is optimal. A drawback of this approach is the difficulty of ensuring that all voters are well informed and truly understand the question posed. Another is that unless there is full participation, the results may not be truly representative.
Polls can be used to gauge the range of opinions and degree of support for different viewpoints on certain issues. Governments may use polls to guide their actions based on popularity, but these have the same weakness as referenda. This may be especially true if the issue of concern is not at the forefront of public debate at the time the poll is taken.
Informal approaches include circulation of materials for comments and arranging meetings and one-to-one discussions. The main difference between formal and informal procedures is that the latter are not set out in policy or required by law. They are dependent on the initiative of individuals. Informal approaches work best where there is trust and a long-term association between the parties involved. They can be used to mediate disputes. Their biggest weakness is that they can be seen as favouring a select group unless a particular effort is made to approach all stakeholders.
To be successful, any scheme, whether formal or informal, must involve all the major stakeholders. The ideal approach will differ depending on the size of the country, cultural expectations and legal structures. Because of the greater transparency and accountability of formal procedures, these are usually preferred by consumer advocates as means to influence policy-making.
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