Public Participation: How representative are the participants of the public?

Monday’s lecture on public participation got me thinking about cases in which I would have wanted to have a say in environmental decisions, but was never asked. At least in Chile, where I come from, members of the public rarely have an opportunity to participate in environmental decisions, its always the experts, the politicians and the scientists. But what about the neighbour who enjoys the view,  the surfer who likes the clarity of the water or the hiker who likes the sound of the birds? These are the voices of the public that are barely being heard, or are they being avoided on purpose?

WSP 2000 Participation.jpg

Source: WSP (2000)

The answer came to me shortly. Under the slide “Designing Public Participation” one of the points was choosing “who participates and how”. Confused I asked the guest lecturer what was this about, of course in public participation everybody interested can participate. Wrong! For practical reasons, there is a filtering of people, a selection of who has a say from members of the public. Done incorrectly, this filtering can cause major incoherence between what the public thinks and the message that is actually conveyed to the decision makers. Maybe some project proponents use this for their advantage…

Investigating what the literature has to say about this, there are two criteria  of acceptance which address this issue:

Criterion of representativeness: The public participants should comprise a broadly representative sample of the population of the affected public.”

“Criterion of independence: The participation process should be conducted in an independent, unbiased way.”


Rowe & Frewer (2000)

The criterion of representativeness accepts that there are practical constraints in its implementation as large samples are required which may be inefficient. Nevertheless the design should seek random selection of participants. On the other hand public participation designs should be carried out by independent organisations to avoid any bias favourable to a certain group. Same with the people selected, who should not be affiliated with any interested stakeholder. The correct implementation of these criteria will ensure a true representation of the public’s interests and not the selected view of a few. Different methods can achieve this to a different extent (figure 1), but independence and representativeness are the mayor goals Public Participation should be tackling.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 11.46.35 AM

Figure 1. Public participation techniques and their effectiveness according to representativeness and independence criteria. (Rowe & Frewer, 2000)


Rowe, G., & Frewer, L. J. (2000). Public participation methods: A framework for evaluation. Science, technology & human values25(1), 3-29.

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