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About taking people seriously – and how that could actually work

Dipl. Ing. Dr. Kerstin Arbter

Since 1998 Kerstin Arbter has headed a landscape planning consultancy mainly concerned with strategic environmental assessment, sustainable development and public participation. She designs and supervises participative planning processes in the environment and sustainability field.

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For around ten years now I have been supervising participation processes in connection with strategic planning, e. g. for waste management plans, city development plans or transport strategies. Here civil servants, working together with environmental NGOs, the environmental ombudsmen's offices, the Chambers and outside experts, draw up plans which they can all support and which are good for the environment, too. These are round-table planning processes.

My experience has been that just how seriously the participants are taken can decide whether the process succeeds or fails. And that taking people seriously is often harder than it sounds. There is plenty of scope, as cases that actually occurred in practice reveal:

  • If the head of a planning department hears that the environmental NGOs feel they have been short-changed, he can arrange a special workshop to investigate their concerns, even though that costs time and money – or he can dismiss their misgivings without trying to understand them.

  • If various planning options are elaborated in a workshop, the outside experts can incorporate these 100 % in their reports and assess each option on an equal footing (and independently of who originated the idea) – or they can tacitly pass over "unwanted alternatives".

  • If the results of a workshop are recorded in minutes, the people in charge can conscientiously take the decisions made there into full account for the next procedural steps and correct what has been criticized – or they can pick and choose later on, gambling on no one having time to check whether the agreements made have in fact been implemented.

  • If, at a feedback workshop with more than 50 participants, statements are made in response to the draft plan presented, they can simply be recorded on flip-charts, photographed and circulated together with the minutes – or the participants can receive an additional report explaining, for every single comment, whether/how it has been taken into account in the planning process. Where individual comments are not incorporated in planning, comprehensible reasons are given for this.

  • If members of the general public make statements in response to a draft plan that has been put on public display, the official reaction can consist in explaining insistently why the draft plan was of course above criticism and the responders were in the wrong – or one can attempt to track down the concerns and needs that the responders wish to table, and tactfully examine whether/how the arguments and ideas in question can be incorporated in planning. Of course taking people seriously involves informing the responders about what has happened to their statements.

I believe that, apart from an appreciative attitude (which does not necessarily come easily), taking people seriously often requires that one steps back a bit from the planning process, so as not to fall straight into the “justification trap”, and to be able to accept responders' statements as valuable contributions rather than cross-fire. Here people not directly involved in the actual planning, such as facilitators, can provide useful support.

At all events I see taking people seriously as something that all participants are jointly responsible for. Both the administrative departments which invite participation and the organizations taking part are challenged – as of course the policymakers who ultimately decide to implement the plan are. For instance, if the responders pay tribute to the quality of the draft plan presented, or if tribute is paid to a planning department's willingness to sit down together with other departments and lobbies in a joint planning process, this can work magic – just the planners' paying tribute to the quality of ideas tabled (or even criticisms made) can.

In my view the crucial point is that genuine appreciation is expressed. It turns out that most people can tell the difference between politically correct, courteous-sounding phrases and remarks meant seriously; after all, in one case the words are not followed up, in the other things actually happen.
As a facilitator I sometimes wonder if taking people seriously is not the key to successful public participation, and how we in our role can encourage taking people seriously in participation processes to the greatest possible extent.

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