Participation, democracy, sustainability

Tag: democracy

Participatory governance for scaling-up Nature-based Solutions

On January 18th 2024, I presented a seminar as part of the CCRI seminar series entitled “Participatory Governance for Scaling-up Nature-based Solutions: Social Science Insights from a fast-paced, impact-focused interdisciplinary project.”.

In the seminar, I discussed how, within the context of dual biodiversity and climate crises, how Nature-based Solutions (NbS) address societal challenges with multiple benefits for people and nature. Advocates argue that NbS fundamentally have ecological and social goals, and as such have attracted considerable attention from national to international scales. However, there were concerns about the potential exclusion and marginalisation of local communities and other groups. Participatory and democratic approaches are often promoted as an antidote to these issues, ensuring more equitable and inclusive decision-making outcomes.

The seminar explored how different framings and messages around NbS can work to open up and close down opportunities for participation, and the implications of this for delivering multiple socio-economic and ecological outcomes in a way that is equitable and sustainable. It presented insights from a fast-paced, solutions-focused interdisciplinary project at the University of Oxford on Scaling-up Nature-based Solutions in the UK. This work was part of a larger NERC-funded project called the Agile Initiative, aiming to revolutionize how research responds to urgent global environmental policy and practice challenges, and the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery. In particular, I focused on the social science contributions, reflecting on also the lessons learned from contributing social science expertise to a fast-paced, solutions-oriented interdisciplinary project at the science-policy interface.

Watch the seminar on YouTube and download the PowerPoint slides below.

Are you a practitioner interested in engagement and participation for Nature-based Solutions? Sign up to a free webinar in February 2024 which launches our new guidance, the Recipe for Engagement. Sign up here.

How can we build trust and integrity for connected communities and transformative democracy?

Participatory, decentralised governance, and citizen engagement is often promoted as a key part of the solution to the world’s most pressing societal challenges. There is a critical opportunity for leveraging participatory approaches to bring people together, promote collaboration and deliberative discussion, and help tackle existing power structures.

The evidence-backed benefits of participatory and democratic processes include: building trust and integrity, enhancing the perceived credibility of decisions and decision-making institutions; negotiating political divisions and polarisation, promoting solidarity and togetherness; improving socio-economic and environmental outcomes through more plural, flexible and anticipatory governance processes; enhanced quality of knowledge and evidence through the incorporation of diverse knowledge types and realities; and fostering empowerment, collective action, and community benefits through localised and bottom-up approaches.

In July 2023, I presented a seminar titled “How to build standards of trust, accountability, and inclusion for sustainable places” to the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). I presented in collaboration with Oxford University’s Agile Initiative and Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery projects.

The talk was part of the DLUHC 2023 Science Seminar Series, curated by the Chief Scientific Advisor’s Office, which aims to seamlessly integrate scientific evidence into DLUHC’s focus areas, aligning with their research interests and priorities. Our aim was to bridge the gap between academic research and real-world applications in the realm of urban planning and regeneration, housing, and fostering sustainable, thriving and connected communities.

Our core message revolved around the power of ‘engagement’, which is part of broader transformative efforts for more participatory and deliberative democracy and justice. We underscored the significance of involving the public in decision-making processes concerning local places and communities. The evidence we presented shed light on the connection between engagement and the establishment of trust, inclusion, and integrity in political decision-making.

A key highlight of our presentation was the exploration of digital tools for engagement. This was particularly relevant to DLUHC’s initiatives for digital planning and ‘PropTech‘ which aim to promote innovative tools and technologies for citizen engagement with planning policy and practice. We delved into both the technical and ethical aspects of technological innovation, offering insight into their application. While digital tools can undoubtedly enhance the effectiveness of engagement in many ways, it is crucial to be cautious about the ethical risks, such as issues related to digital literacy and infrastructure. Our recent academic paper pre-print (free to download) explores these technical and ethical debates around digital tools for democratic and participatory engagement, making relevant recommendations for practitioners and policymakers.

The seminar also emphasised the necessity of embedding a culture of democratic engagement within DLUHC, and also across Government more broadly. We stressed the importance of building the capacity and capability to implement best practices in engagement processes, ensuring decisions align with development, sustainability and local community needs.

Our research gains particular relevance in the rapidly evolving landscape of democratic and digital transformation in the UK. With increasing calls for democratic reform and citizen participation, and an ever-growing toolkit of digital technologies and platforms at our fingertips, the dynamics of planning and environmental decision-making are undergoing a significant shift. On a global scale, influential organizations like the OECD and the European Union are promoting digital tools as catalysts for fostering more interactive, human-centred approaches. Closer to home, the United Kingdom is making bold strides in digital transformation, positioning digital technologies as the front and centre of public service provision and engagement.

Our presentation not only enriched the learning of DLUHC staff, but is also available for viewing to the broader UK public sector. The presentation slides can also be downloaded here.

In a world where democratic reform, sustainable transformations and community empowerment has never been more critical, our seminar served as a reminder of the pivotal role that engagement plays in driving standards of trust, accountability, and inclusion in decision-making and public institutions.

This blog post has been adapted from its original version, posted here.

10 recommendations for best practice stakeholder engagement

I collaborated with Natural England to produce outputs for embedding an evidence-led, best practice culture of engagement. This included delivering recommendations which are useful for any organisation thinking about improving their strategy for public and stakeholder engagement.

The available evidence for best practice public and stakeholder engagement was reviewed in a report and summarised in an accompanying infographic pack. Engagement is a process by which members of the public (or other key stakeholders like local authorities, businesses, and charities) can become involved in decisions which affect their lives. Engagement is essential for healthy democracies and ensuring that people are at the heart of tackling environmental issues, helping us to make better decisions for more sustainable and equitable outcomes for everyone.

The outputs from this research are suitable for anyone who is thinking about engaging, including practitioners, practice enablers, researchers, and policy makers who aim to involve members of the public and other key stakeholders in decision-making processes. While this work was focused on engagement in environmental decision-making, it is more broadly relevant to other areas of research and practice.

The report provides the evidence behind what engagement is and why it is important, what the benefits are, the potential risks of ‘poor’ engagement and how to mitigate them, how different ‘types’ of engagement can provide useful classifications for practitioners, and how practitioners can use theory (i.e., different ways of thinking and knowing) to inform best practice. This includes the challenges and opportunities of engaging during COVID-19 and in an increasingly digitised world, particularly considering the ethical implications of digital technologies.

The report outlines how the available evidence can be used to inform the creation of an evidence-led, best-practice engagement culture. It outlines 10 recommendations which consider engagement strategies, frameworks, standards, models, methods, toolkits (and so forth).

One central message in this review is that ‘best practice’ engagement and its outcomes will vary between different situations. Practitioners should recognise that the quality of the process and outcomes will change depending on the purpose and objectives for engaging, as well as organisational cultures of engagement, institutional capacity, wider socio-economic and political contexts, and the characteristics of participants.

The 10 recommendations in the report are:

1. Engagement is an ongoing process, not just a one-off activity.

2. Take time to understand the local context in which engagement is being carried out.

3. Engage stakeholders in dialogue as early as possible in the decision-making process.

4. Recognise the importance of integrating local and scientific knowledge and implement this in practice.

5. Manage power dynamics effectively, for example by using skilled facilitators who can help marginalised voices be heard and build trust in the process.

6. Think about the length and time scale of the engagement process and how often it might be necessary to engage with participants. 

7. Recognise that different (digital/remote and in-person) tools and approaches for engagement will work differently in different situations.

8. Engagement coordinators need to manage participants’ expectations of the engagement process.

9. There are risks to engagement, some of which can be managed or mitigated.

10. Frameworks for engagement need to be institutionalised within organisations as a culture of engagement.