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Providing Better Information for Public Participation in Contentious Decisions

[+] Author Affiliations
P. Orr

Environment Agency

D. Collier

Greenstreet Berman, Reading, UK

Paper No. ICEM2003-4568, pp. 1531-1537; 7 pages
  • ASME 2003 9th International Conference on Radioactive Waste Management and Environmental Remediation
  • 9th ASME International Conference on Radioactive Waste Management and Environmental Remediation: Volumes 1, 2, and 3
  • Oxford, England, September 21–25, 2003
  • Conference Sponsors: Nuclear Engineering Division and Environmental Engineering Division
  • ISBN: 0-7918-3732-7 | eISBN: 0-7918-3731-9
  • Copyright © 2003 by ASME


It is widely recognised today that involving stakeholders and members of the public in decision-making has a number of significant benefits, such as increasing the legitimacy of decisions and incorporating lay values and perspectives. This has focussed attention on how to allow for meaningful participation by stakeholders. Much research has been done to develop and evaluate different methods for public participation. Looking beyond the specific techniques employed, to questions such as relations of power between stakeholders, it becomes clear that the provision of information, both on the nature of the process itself and on the issues under consideration, is at the heart of all participation. Using information to increase openness and effective input from a diversity of stakeholders is especially challenging when the issues are technically complex and contentious. Risk communication research has demonstrated that perceived transparency and objectivity in the provision of information are factors that contribute to public trust in experts and institutions. Progress has been made in understanding what procedures are appropriate for giving information at different stages in the decision-making process. In the UK, less attention has been paid to the content of the risk information itself. A review has, therefore, been undertaken of the experience of the Environment Agency of England and Wales of developing and providing information in the context of major public consultations on contentious environmental issues, in particular, for proposed environmental licences for discharges from nuclear power plants. The review has identified a number of areas in which progress needs to be made with respect to: • information to support stakeholder involvement in “framing” the issues; • the scope of information that is appropriate in different decision-making contexts; • level of detail; • the use of diverse — and even conflicting — sources; • handling questions outside the competence or remit of the organisation; • time and resource issues. These questions are important since the kind of information and the way it is provided in consultations on contentious issues affect the decisions that are made. When stakeholders are not told about the issues that they see as important or when they feel excluded from debate by the use of technical language, they will often be unwilling to participate in the process on the terms proposed. Consequently, the decision-maker may be deprived of valuable knowledge and experience, putting in question the validity of the decision, or even face stakeholder action to block the entire process. This has significant implications for the development of activities seen as having an environmental impact, and can often involve both public institutions and private operators in heavy costs. The results of this work are relevant to practitioners who are seeking to improve public participation processes, particularly on complex or contentious issues.

Copyright © 2003 by ASME



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