Public participation: contributing to better water management

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

In the context of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), public participation (PP) is viewed as a means of improving water management through better planning and more informed decision-making. The active involvement of all interested parties and influencers in the deliberation and decision‑making process is generally expected to foster an environment of accessibility, receptiveness and mutual respect that ultimately promotes transparency and trust among participants and can then increase the success rate of policies due to better acceptance by stakeholders. Naturally, this kind of setting is highly desirable, especially when the topic under discussion is a cross-cutting issue involving multiple stakeholders and reflecting numerous interests. While the concept of PP is now well established, and commonly plays a part in the environment and sustainability agendas of international organisations and national authorities, its effectiveness in achieving European water-policy goals is still being assessed.

This report evaluates whether the provisions for PP included in the WFD actually contribute to achieving the objectives of the directive or at least support the ongoing implementation process by, for example, improving the integration of water management between different actors, incorporating local knowledge and promoting informed decision‑making. Common criteria are identified based on key principles of PP, and are tested by analysing eight case studies from across the EU. The report addresses the fundamental question of how PP can improve water-related policies, plans and implementation, especially in the context of river‑basin planning and the WFD.

A review of the existing literature establishes the theoretical background and outlines the principal objectives of PP mentioned above, as well as the core principles that constitute a good participatory process: openness, protection of core values, speed and substance. These core principles are broken down into a series of evaluation criteria, later used in the case study assessments.

The report considers three main themes of PP. The first is the governance of participatory processes, covering issues of scale, planning and scheduling, and the stakeholder role in organising consultations. The second theme concerns the actors involved in implementation of the participatory process, and the dynamics of their stakes: issues of inclusiveness and influence, and of mutual benefits and trade-offs come into play here. The third theme covers the methods used to engage stakeholders and members of the public, and their effectiveness in promoting social learning.

The review of the eight case studies showed that the institutional set-up, shared or ambiguous remits of authorities, and the links between natural and administrative boundaries can all reduce the effectiveness of participatory processes. These elements should therefore be carefully considered and factored in, in order to plan River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) effectively.

Furthermore, clarity appeared to be key for achieving effectiveness, first in terms of describing how the participatory process is planned and conducted, including feedback on how the information gathered will be used. Secondly, clarity and tailored approaches are needed concerning the technical level (and language) of the information provided to participants. This also relates closely to the best practice of fostering transparency and a sense of ownership through clarity and early involvement, respectively. And finally, trust appeared to be vital for good PP. Good practice here meant having technical experts engage in face-to-face discussions, appointing independent facilitators, and selecting tools targeting a specific audience.

As digital and information systems and communication structures like interactive tools and social media are rapidly evolving, it is likely that the current, second cycle of River Basin Management (RBM) planning and the associated PP will make more use of such means. This study reflects past developments, which exclude much of the current technical innovation in this field. Future studies could certainly take a different approach here and analyse the use of water information systems, more distributed data approaches and possibly the structured implementation and information framework (SIIF) approach proposed by the Commission.

The goal for PP is both involving members of the public, as well as involving organised stakeholders. The initiatives identified in the case studies showed that involving organised stakeholders is as important for a good planning process as the involvement of the wider public. However in some cases the involvement of the wider public, is even more challenging and needs appropriate tools and encouragement. It would be useful to look further afield for good practices and innovative approaches to inform members of the public and involve them in participatory processes. As an example the first successful European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI) would be very relevant, through which EU citizens recently stressed their earnest interest and the policy relevance of universal access to water and sanitation in the EU. The Commission has in answer to this initiative reaffirmed the importance of an open and transparent approach to water management, involving all actors including the public. The future impact of this specific initiative on the WFD’s implementation and that of the overall ECI approach could shed new light on the PP discussion.

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