Introduction of public participation

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This article is part of the state of the art report on public participation in Europe. However, this article can also be read as an introduction of public participation in itself.

Public participation legislation

See also Public participation legislation

What is participation, who participates and how?

What is participation ?

The Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998) does not present a specific definition for participation, therefore when referring back to the general definition of public participation by Pring and Noé[1], participation means “the various mechanisms that individuals or groups may use to communicate their views on a public issue”. So it is the way that the public gets their views across on a public matter. The ways this may occur are numerous: voting, demonstrating, petitioning, lobbying, letter writing, debating, campaigning and many more.

One major principle of public participation is the principle of subsidiarity. This principle means that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level of organisation, as closely as possible to the citizen. For the EU this principle means that they do not take action “(except in the areas which fall within its exclusive competence) unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.” The prospective EU Constitution is supposed to include more binding provisions concerning the principle of subsidiarity.

Public participation is considered to be one of the eight principles of good ICZM. The EU defines it as: “ Involving all the parties concerned (economic and social partners, the organisations representing coastal zone residents, non-governmental organisations and the business sector) in the management process, for example by means of agreements and based on shared responsibility.”

According to the Aarhus Convention, the public means “one or more natural or legal persons, in accordance with national legislation or practice, their associations, organizations or groups.” The Aarhus Convention differentiates between “the public” and the “concerned public”, the latter basically meaning that part of the public which will probably be affected by, or which has a “special interest” in environmental decision-making. So the public does not include decision-making bodies or “bodies or institutions acting in a judicial or legislative capacity” like the European Court of Human Rights. As this terminology is specifically derived from the Aarhus Convention, which will be further explained later in the chapter about legislation. Another very simple definition is presented by the Regional Environmental Centre for Central and Eastern Europe (REC): the public are “people or organizations who do not represent the government” (pp. 36). The REC definition basically agrees with the Aarhus definition, even though it was publicized some years before in 1994.

In this paper, the Aarhus Convention definition will be used and this is mainly because it is much easier in this case to use a broader definition. When a narrower definition is used this might call for unnecessary exceptions that can complicate the research. Besides that, the Convention is one of the most important international pieces of legislation concerning public participation in environmental issues. Since it is so important, it makes sense to use the definition of public participation that it provides.

Who participates?

Stakeholder is a term frequently used in Integrated Coastal Zone Management projects. According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA), a stakeholder is “an institution, organisation, or group that has some interest in a particular sector or system”; in this case the coastal zone. This definition obviously does not exclude the public since the public can be part of an organisation or group, however, it also does not explicitly include the public either. This matter is also a question of culture; there are the so called “weak participation” cultures and “strong participation” cultures. In many Eastern European countries, even though much progress has been made in the past decade, it is not as common for the public to be involved in the decision making progress. One of the main reasons for this is that the public is often not aware of the possibilities concerning access to environmental information and the right to participation.

Is the public a stakeholder? This is a very important question because one can imagine there are different ways to involve different actors in a decision-making process. It can be argued that when the public is not included as one of the stakeholders, it is not true public participation because the public would be regarded as a separate group with different rights that are not equal to the other stakeholder (groups). This question was asked in the ICM participation questionnaire and many respondents acknowledged, without the question even being stated that way, that the public should be a stakeholder. However, four out of eleven regional respondents answered that the public is considered to be a stakeholder. Five answered that the public is not a stakeholder, and even though this is not necessarily bad practice, it does mean that the public is not automatically included in stakeholder meetings, consultations and therefore the participation process. Two out of eleven respondents said that neither of the answers applied, but that the public is included in a different way, which can also be good practice. Tim Badman, of the Dorset County Council says that “they' (the public) embrace a range of stakeholder groups, and individual perspectives. However the views of individuals need to be sought in a different way”. His view is that the public is not really a stakeholder, but they should be included deliberately. Taking all of this into consideration it is logical to say that whether the public is a stakeholder is partly a matter of opinion and perception, though it does matter for the level of public participation. Therefore, when the term 'full participation' is used in this paper, both stakeholders and the public are involved. Otherwise the term public participation, stakeholder participation, or stakeholder involvement will be used. Whether the public is considered a stakeholder or not, is largely a matter of culture. As a reader of this paper, it is however important to acknowledge and to at least be aware of these differences.

See also Stakeholder analysis.

Levels of Public Participation

A large number of sources in the past have identified the following elements of public participation:

  • access to information
  • a voice in decision making
  • transparency
  • post-project analysis and monitoring
  • enforcement and access to justice.

All of these elements keep turning up in this paper and in other works on public participation. The Aarhus Convention has narrowed them down to the three pillars of public participation. Public participation in ICM always includes several of these elements, like in a recent coastal planning project in Varna, Bulgaria where the citizen administration showed “transparency” by announcing their vision on future development of the coastal zone in a timely manner. In order to give the public a “voice in decision making” these methods and more were used: public opinion polls, meetings, phone enquiries, press announcements, workshops and TV information. The latter methods are all forms of public participation and can be used to determine what level is being reached on Arnstein's Ladder (see the next section).

A classic in public participation theory is Sherry Arnstein's “ladder of citizen participation[2]. It dates back to the 1960's but is still used today. The ladder illustrates the so-called “power” and “powerlessness” of people. The ladder of participation has 8 rungs with each one “corresponding to the extent of citizens' power in determining the end product”. Arnstein also indicates that these 8 rungs is not enough to accurately differentiate between the levels of participation because there are many more distinctions between the way people participate in policy and programmes.

Unfortunately, the Arnstein levels of public participation are not always appropriate for coastal issues. Furthermore, the questionnaire required a clear distinction between each level, with a brief explaination. The following information was added with the questionnaire, with a reference to Arnsteins’ work.

  • Level 1 - all decisions are taken by government;
  • Level 2 - committees for the main purpose of engineering support;
  • Level 3 - informed but no channel for feedback;
  • Level 4 - consultation i.e. opinions asked;
  • Level 5 - advisory role where adviceactually taken;
  • Level 6 - real negotiation between stakeholders and decision-makers;
  • Level 7 - decision-making delegated

Is public participation always a good thing?

Although public participation has numerous advantages in ICZM, there are several disadvantages to public participation.

Even when all stakeholders involved support the public participation process, the public participation process requires a lot of time and effort from all stakeholders. In practice, there may be numerous additional obstacles. A more centralized decision process is more efficient and may be more effective in certain circumstances.

Public participation does not necessarily add to the quality of the decision process. Although public participation should produce a more balanced decision, it is also possible that one or more stakeholder use the public participation process to unbalance the decision in their favour. A common example is the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) effect, where the public is in favour of a unpopular measure or facility (such as a waste facility), but does not want that facility in their direct surrounding.

Without public participation, coastal management is the responsibility of civil servants and coastal politicians. These groups have been trained and professionally involved in coastal management and can therefore be depended upon for suitable decision making. Although the public is the end user of the coast, they may not have the expertise to make good decisions.

In most public participation processes, the members of consultation boards and other public participation methods are often members of higher socio-economic classes and therefore do not represent the public as a whole. This may be a problem when these higher socio-economic classes do not represent the end users of the coast. Even when the public participation process is successful, the end result may not be satisfactory to all participants or stakeholders. This could result in frustration in the process and government distrust, also weakening further participation. See also Eight levels of public participation.

Public Participation and ICM

Integrated Coastal Management (ICM) is a way to support sustainable development by sustainably managing the coastal region. The terms ICZM (Integrated Coastal Zone Management) and ICAM (Integrated Coastal Area Management) are also used but all are approached and defined a little differently. This paper will use ICM as the default term, which defines ICM as a process which is “meant to combine physical, biological and human elements into a single management framework encompassing both land and marine coastal area, and ensures that the most important issues receive the highest priority of attention”. It is important to keep in mind that it is not merely a form of land-use planning but that ICM focuses on “linkages between different sectors” (interdisciplinarity) and in this way aims to get all stakeholders involved.

ICM has been embraced by the European Union and the first EU initiatives for ICM started in 1995. The first was the Commission Demonstration Programme for ICZM (which ended in 1999) that included the Baltic Sea, North Sea, the Atlantic seaboard and the Mediterranean Sea. Following this programme the EU produced several documents on ICM in EU coastal states and since the EU Recommendation, the member states have started to implement ICM practices -a slow but sure process. So what are the benefits of ICM? Why is this process so important in the coastal zone? There are several reasons:

  1. More jobs, better living standards and major profits. It has been shown that the benefits gained with ICM greatly outweigh its costs. Also very important is the focus on sustainable development, so short term economic interests do not form long-term risks
  2. Managing the impacts of a natural disaster, by for example strategically locating tourist resorts
  3. Restoring the loss of natural habitat, by for example introducing Marine Protected Areas.

However, in order for the adequate implementation of ICM to be successful, there are a few prerequisites:

  1. Political leadership: Politicians need to make sure that ICM is on their priority list. They also have to keep in mind that these coastal management plans may take more than a decade.
  2. Funding: Funding is of course extremely important and often hard to obtain for the same reason that is stated above, ICM takes long and most of the time it is not a very high priority issue and therefore it is often difficult to maintain long-term funding.
  3. International Cooperation: Coasts, seas and oceans do not stop at borders. It is important for coastal regions to cooperate.
  4. Good communication and relevant information: In this way the stakeholders can actively and effectively participate in the decision-making process.
  5. Full participation: The participation of all stakeholders, including the public is a "cornerstone" in the ICM process, and thoroughly discussed in this paper.

All of the legislation discussed above applies to Integrated Coastal Zone Management, since it is part of European environmental policy. There are however some specific documents on participation in the ICZM process. Recommendation 2002/413/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2002 concerning the implementation of Integrated Coastal Zone Management in Europe declares that “Member States undertake a stocktake to identify the main actors, laws and institutions involved in the management of coastal zones across all sectors and levels”. Hereby the EU promotes participation, but through soft law because such a recommendation is merely declaratory and non-binding. Recommendations do, however, cause pressure from the international community so it is certainly in a country's interest to strongly take these recommendations into account.

Is public participation needed on the coast?

As already mentioned before, public participation is an important principle of Integrated Coastal Management. In order to determine the importance of public participation in the coastal region, first an explanation is necessary of why the European Union has such an interest in the coastal region and therefore, ICM.

The European Union provides three reasons as to why an European-wide initiative concerning the coastal zone is necessary. First, it is established that the coast is a European issue that is shared by the member states and that its problems therefore cannot be solved by a single member state. Our coasts have a common natural heritage, transfers of pollutants and sediments, tourist flows and maritime safety. Second, European policy has a great influence on the development of the coast, in particular in the areas of fisheries, regional policy and agriculture. Third, there is a need for knowledge and experience exchange in the field of coastal management, especially in areas where there is high political and public demand for the sustainable development and conservation of the coastal zone.

Participation of all Stakeholders

There are many benefits to public participation in environmental decision making; all of these benefits also apply to the coastal region since many are principles and provisions for effective democracy. The general benefits of public participation in environmental issues are: educating the public and making them aware of environmental issues, using the knowledge and experience of stakeholders to improve plans and policies, more public understanding and supporting, more openness (transparency in decision-making), less disagreements, delays and misunderstandings and the implementation of sustainable development. If it is carried out at a higher level, public participation leads to decisions that are better for the environment because the public contributes with expertise and knowledge. This corresponds with the aim of the Aarhus Convention - “to further accountability of and transparency in decision making and to strengthen public support for decisions on the environment.”


In conclusion, it is essential to discuss the relationship between a common vision, legislation and public participation in European coastal zones. As we have noticed above, there are many European pieces of legislation about public participation in the European Union. However, many are not binding and therefore have considerably less influence.

National legislation also has an important additional role to play in public participation legislation. International legislation, as discussed above, must be ratified and implemented by each member state by incorporating it into existing national legislation.

It is not part of the scope of this report to include and explain all different provisions of national law on public participation in the coastal zone. It is however important to emphasize that all European Union states are subject to the same international legislation. One might even say that in a legally, EU member states do not differ that much. The main legal difference lies in the way international law is implemented nationally. Cultural, traditional and political differences between member states have led to differences in public participation traditions. Legislation is therefore a good catalyst for promoting a (more) common standard on public participation in European Coastal Zones.

See also


  1. Pring, G., Noé, Susan Y., International Law of Public Participation in Zillman et al., (eds.) Human Rights in Natural Resource Development, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 2002
  2. Ladder of citizen participation

The main author of this article is Kreiken, Wouter
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Kreiken, Wouter (2021): Introduction of public participation. Available from [accessed on 17-07-2024]