Participation and accountability

Democracy means that people ought to engage as equal participants in political decision-making, implementation and scrutiny. As well as being recognized as a constituent part or goal of sustainable development, participation is arguably also crucial to its realisation – for example, if we are to bring together wider sources of knowledge and expertise, and enable increased awareness and understanding of critical challenges.

As part of the development of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Bill, and as a pilot for future initiatives, The Wales We Want national conversation engaged about 7,000 people around the challenges and opportunities facing Wales. The final report summarises the key messages, along with seven values or foundations for the future wellbeing of Wales, which influenced the development of the Bill.

Useful general sources for participatory techniques, complete with evidence on their relative impacts and effectiveness, include Participedia, a crowd-sourced portal to “strengthen democracy through shared knowledge”, and Participation Compass, a gateway to techniques for promoting involvement.

The challenge of FDSD and others is to better understand which of the many participatory initiatives are best suited to dealing with the different issues generated by the demands of sustainable development.

Sceptics believe that people are unable and unwilling to participate. But there is growing evidence that, if well-designed, public participation can generate commitment amongst participants, increase knowledge, generate new ideas, legitimise tough political choices, and challenge the power and influence of vested interests.

Nick Pigeon and colleagues explored the role of participation in strategic policy-making, finding that: “Publics are willing and fully capable of engaging critically with energy system transformation. Despite the complexity of the research topic publics gave considered responses and as a result offered important insights into their values, attitudes and acceptability. Policy-makers are advised to provide public engagement opportunities to ensure different perspectives and knowledges are brought to bear…”

A crucial part of democratic checks and balances is the accountability of those who claim to represent others. This can take the form, for example, of information provision on actions taken as well as formal and informal scrutiny, or legal redress for non-compliance on the part of affected people.

Lots of current participatory work focuses on specific policies or issues. There seems to be much less concentration on how it best relates to broader sustainable development strategies; or in relation to implementation – including scrutiny, and monitoring.

FDSD Trustee Graham Smith addresses these issues in Options for participatory decision-making for the post-2015 development agenda, commissioned by a UN Expert Group Meeting on the Sustainable Development Goals.

The extent to which current and proposed institutions, designed to embed sustainable development, embody participatory principles is of particular interest to FDSD.