Public participation in sustainability and environmental protection is critically important. This is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals, which were not only created using unprecedented public outreach but also specifically call for “responsive, inclusive, and participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”. Public participation also will be a central topic at the 2019 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

This discussion brief provides an introduction for policy-makers, researchers, and others interested in better understanding both the promise and challenges associated with expanding public participation. The authors summarize the core rationales for increasing the public’s role in policy-making processes, and provide a framework for making sense of the diverse array of participation spaces and mechanisms, both within and outside formal state procedures.

This brief also outlines the challenges – drawing particular attention to how social norms can undermine inclusive and equitable engagement – and suggests areas for future research.

This brief is based on Laura Berry’s master’s thesis, “Protest, participation, and policy: The role of citizens in environmental decision-making.”