As officials gather this week for the High-Level Political Forum, improving public participation is high on the agenda. The theme—empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality—rightfully centers on citizen engagement as key to sustainable development. But to be successful, policy-makers need to move beyond the message and focus on the nuts and bolts.
When done right, public participation is a vital means to successful policy. While the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are global in scope, policy development and implementation occur mostly at the national, regional, and local levels. Policymakers must translate the global targets into local policy options that reflect real world conditions. Often this translation is top-down; experts and elites dominate. This produces ineffective policies that conflict with local priorities and disregard specific development contexts.
Public participation turns this process on its head to include those who are most affected by its outcomes. Incorporating impacted communities provides policy-makers with unique insight into local conditions. This allows policy-makers to prioritize more effectively and identify unintended consequences. Beyond yielding better policy options, public participation further smooths implementation by reducing conflict.
But the promise of public participation hinges on its design and execution. Poor process produces little benefit (and may, in fact, be counterproductive). While there is no universal “best practice”—what works best is always context-specific—there are principles that apply broadly.
Here are three that should inform the discussion at the High-Level Political Forum.
First, actively seek out and engage marginalized communities. “If you build it, they will come” doesn’t cut it. There is an inherent tendency for public participation to reinforce existing inequalities. Without explicit attempts to include disenfranchised populations, those with privilege are most apt to participate and, as a result, gain even greater influence. This isn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t equitable.
Next, do the work to support meaningful participation. As noted, development is frequently expert-driven. Many people self-censor in the face of such “expertise”. This is especially true of people on the margins. To overcome this challenge, invest in making sure that communities have the knowledge and skills necessary to contribute meaningfully to policy-making and send clear (and obvious) signals that policy-makers not only welcome but also truly value indigenous and local knowledge.
Finally, transparency is paramount. In offering the public the chance to provide input, policymakers naturally boost the public’s expectation of influence. Failing to meet this expectation breeds cynicism and erodes trust in governance institutions. For this reason, communicate early and unambiguously where the public has a say. Also, report back on what you heard and what impact it had. This is how you build trust and foster legitimacy.
None of this is cheap or fast. But it matters if Agenda 2030 is to successfully meet its ambitious development goals. Perhaps more importantly, it is the right thing to do. Historically, the Global North and experts have decided what counts as “development”. This time, we have an opportunity to turn that top-down process bottom-up and expand the voice of impacted communities in defining “progress”. Inclusive and equitable public participation is the key.
The formation of Agenda 2030 already benefited from unprecedented public outreach. More than 7.5 million people from over 190 countries participated in the United Nations’ online survey. If policymakers want to meet the goals of Agenda 2030, it is now time to deepen that engagement.