Public involvement in decision-making is core to Planning Democracy’s work and as one of the charity’s trustees I’m often talking about creating a step-change in engagement. But lurking somewhere in the back of my head there’s always a niggling question – is it really possible? What would actually happen if important decisions were made with lots of people involved?
Images come to mind of dusty near-empty public meetings or infuriating committees with too many people never coming to a decision. I find it useful in these cases to remember all the pretty stupid mistakes or unfair decisions made by people in power that could have been avoided if they had taken the time to listen to those whom their decision affects.
So, where do these doubts about public engagement come from? Involve and the RSA have explored this in a recent report called From Fairytale to Reality. What is holding us back, they conclude, from a step-change in public engagement is a set of outdated myths.
The five myths From Fairytale to Reality identifies are:
- Engagement is too expensive
- Citizens aren’t up to it
- Engagement only works for easy issues
- Citizen power is a floodgate we should avoid at all costs
- Citizens don’t want to be involved, they just want good services
I have certainly heard, and thought, all of these at some point in my life. The report refers to these phrases as “myths” in the sense that they are untrue but also, more importantly, that they are stories and narratives.
People constantly use stories and narratives as a short-hand way of interpreting and understanding the world. It would, after all, get very tiresome if we had to constantly re-evaluate everything afresh. So short-hand myths are useful but they can also stop us innovating or being able to see another way is possible.
Breaking down our cultural myths and the barriers they form to our thinking is only possible by replacing them with a new story and a positive narrative about how engagement works thorough examples. The report gives six inspiring examples from around the world and a set of recommendations, many of which apply to land-use decision-making.
Supporters of public engagement in the planning system (like Planning Democracy) need to use more myth-busting practical examples and positive narratives to show how involving people, and limiting more powerful interests to level the playing field, delivers better outcomes.
The way the planning system currently operates means there are serious structural and cultural barriers to participation, this makes positive Scottish stories difficult to come by. Still, we’d like to hear about good stories and positive changes we can promote – feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.