Tackling the Climate Emergency: The value of Community Engagement
Many people are cynical about public engagement and consultation: “why should I get involved, no-one will listen”, or “they will just do what they want anyway”. What these remarks really mean is that people do want to have their say but don’t feel that it makes a difference to the decision-making process. They don’t see the point and so can’t be bothered. Poor public engagement and consultation lead to a low turnout in public consultations, distrust, and community division.
Not everyone in local communities want to be actively involved. Some people are not interested so long as experts are involved in the decision-making process. Others just want to be kept informed so they can opt to get involved if they want to. Some want to feel that they have a say in decisions, and others might be termed as activists – who want to be continuously involved.
Community engagement must speak to all these people. It is necessary to provide good quality information in a variety of channels to all the different groups in local communities. But it also has to provide real opportunities for people to get involved if and when they want to. And above all, it must be genuine, not a tick-box exercise, fostering real empowerment of local people.
This two-way street – allowing people and communities to express their views and concerns can, in turn, help inform the development and improvement of options and services. Councillors and council officers do not always know best – there is a huge reservoir of untapped local experience, knowledge and good ideas that potentially can be very helpful at coming up with good solutions to local issues.
What is public consultation?
People often confuse consultation with public engagement. Consultation is a more specific activity that has a well-defined scope, start and end dates, formalised methods to gather views, best practice for analysis, interpretation, and feedback. It is also subject to a large body of legal judgements. It is most effective when it follows a process of good public engagement.
Ideally, community engagement activity should take place in the developmental stage of drawing up proposals. Such engagement is likely to see important feedback from local communities that can help improve any proposals that are subsequently put out for a formal consultation process.
In the case of the climate emergency, there will be a need for a process of long-term community engagement involving many different techniques, including occasional formal consultations.