Catchment News

Public engagement & environmental policy

Simon O’Rafferty is an EPA-funded researcher who focuses on the design of environmental policy interventions for sustainable behaviour change. In this article, he talks about the different ways public engagement can work, using water catchments as an example, and tells us about some innovative case studies from Ireland and across Europe

What if the fundamental role of public policy was to promote community and ecological wellbeing? What issues might be prioritised by government and what issues might be prioritised by communities? Would they be the same priorities? How would existing policymaking processes have to change? Who would be involved and when? What goals or targets would be set, and how would we know if these policies were having an impact?

This is more than just an interesting thought experiment because there is recognition that current approaches to designing and implementing environmental policies are not facilitating the required social, technical and economic transitions quickly or deeply enough.

The reasons for this are varied, but include factors such as fragmented engagement between citizens and public bodies, inertia around pro-environmental behaviour changes, a lack of systems thinking and human-centred approaches in policy design, or structural barriers to the scaling of successful sustainable community initiatives.

Several broad strategic frameworks such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals have signalled that policy design and implementation should, among many other things, place a greater emphasis on public engagement and a wider demographic ethos.

Public engagement recasts the policy design focus away from the government and functions of public bodies to the local level. This in turn demands systems-oriented and place-based approaches that are adaptive to local contexts and local stakeholders.

Since at least the 1950s there have been many academic and practitioner arguments for and against different approaches to public engagement. Previous experience has shown that if done well public engagement has the potential to strengthen the legitimacy and accountability of democratic institutions, and build trust in public bodies.

Involving citizens in policy design can also provide real-time and relevant information about local needs and conditions, and if captured this can result in public services, regulations and other policy interventions that are more effective (and efficient).

Public engagement also has the potential to build capacity and empower communities by improving awareness, confidence, knowledge, and skills for engaging with local and national policy making.

This requires a shift away from the paternalistic approach of public engagement as being something done “to” people towards being something done “with” or “by” people. It may also require a change of traditional ‘command and control’ organisational models and ways of working.

On the other hand, if public engagement activities are poorly designed it can lead to frustration, disengagement and disillusionment amongst communities and public bodies alike. They can also reinforce social inequalities by locking out those communities potentially most impacted by policy decisions. For example, people living in deprived or marginalised communities often face multiple structural barriers to participation and have low levels of engagement. This can be a lack of financial resources, transport and childcare costs, language barriers, income barriers, scepticism, and motivational barriers, but primarily the public engagement may not have been designed with them in mind.

Figure 1: Key public engagement approaches and where they work on the policy cycle.

What is public engagement?

One of the challenges with public engagement is that there is no single definition as it addresses a spectrum of interactions between citizens, communities, stakeholder groups, and public bodies. Public engagement can range from general communication, public consultation, deliberative public fora, citizen panels and citizen juries, through to co-design and co-production of public services and policies.

Some people use the term public engagement to describe, in general terms, how people choose to engage and interact with, learn from, and respond to the world around them.

Using water catchments as an example, public engagement may be used to describe what people think, feel and do about water quality and the wider issues connected with water catchments. In this sense, public engagement is used to describe the attitudes people have towards a topic and ultimately how they may moderate or change their behaviour in relation this.

How people engage with the issue can also be very different, and range from active engagement to passive compliance with whatever rules, regulations or social norms determine what is ‘appropriate’ to do.

When public engagement is something that an organisation does to or with the public it can be seen in a number of different perspectives. For example, it may be:

  • An additive process for communicating with the public. For example, some organisations, such as research institutes, often see it as the mechanism to communicate research, policy ideas or other topics with various publics (the public)
  • An extractive process for consulting the public on issues, such as policy concepts or proposed policy interventions. It is extractive in the sense that the public are being asked about their preferences for a range of pre-determined policy options
  • A deliberative process for public bodies to engage the public in a process of consultation and debate around a topic. Processes such as mini-publics (e.g. citizen assemblies) are examples of this
  • A productive process for the public to participate in generating evidence to support policy making or service design. This can be through activities such as citizen science, citizen social researchers, open source smart cities, narrative neighbourhoods or as active participants in participatory action research projects
  • A co-creative process for the public to be directly involved in the design of policies, services and programmes. Co-creation requires different approaches to the governance of public engagement as well as mindset shift towards designing “with” as opposed to “designing for”

Public engagement in Ireland

Apart from the ongoing public engagement activities by local and national government and state agencies, Ireland has been developing a number of new approaches to public engagement in recent years. This includes the Public Participation Networks and Citizen Assemblies, as well as financing mechanisms that support social innovation within and between communities.

While these are welcome, Ireland still has a long way to go towards developing advanced and meaningful approaches to public engagement. In their 2017 “Better Life Index” the OECD ranked Ireland the 4th lowest country in terms of “Civic Engagement” in general and the lowest for “Stakeholder engagement for developing regulations” (Figure 2). They defined Civic Engagement as a range of factors such as voter turnout, and involvement of citizens and stakeholders in regulation and policy.

Figure 2: Stakeholder engagement for developing regulations. Source: OECD Better Life Index, 2017.

Relationships to water catchments

Because water catchments are complex places with multi-level interactions between land, communities, businesses, farmers, and a myriad of other stakeholders they are often contested places.

They are contested in the sense that they reflect and embody divergent beliefs, values, meaning, cultures and interests. Any social, technological or economic engagements with catchment areas implies a role for deliberation as well as the traditional analytic input to policy.

Some of the arguments for increasing public engagement within water catchments are:

  • effective and democratic governance of water catchments may demand public actions in the form of individual or community behaviour change
  • introduction of new infrastructure, governance models or land use patterns will require public support, perceived legitimacy, trust, and some form of community buy-in and return
  • policy makers and communities may also want to simply deliberate and debate around what type of society they want to live in, and how this relates to sustainable water catchments

To support this, public engagement processes could be designed in a way that move beyond tokenistic engagement towards building social networks, increased community trust, lifelong learning, and increase a sense of purpose and community wellbeing.

  • To be worthwhile and impactful, public engagement should:
  • Start with a clear set of objectives, an evaluation protocol, and a strategy for inclusion of marginalised groups
  • Clarify who you are looking to engage with (e.g. a population segment)
  • Be supported, aligned or integrated with the decision-making processes of local and national government, funding agencies, and other relevant public bodies
  • Be based on principles of experimentation and innovation, so that it rigorously shapes priorities and supports decision making

Simon O’Rafferty, EPA Research Fellow

Case examples

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of public engagement that provide valuable lessons on the points above.

Co-creative engagement – Ballyfermot Play Park

The Play Park project is an ongoing collaborative and participatory design project aimed at developing a new play area and skate park in ‘The Lawns’ at Le Fanu Park, Ballyfermot in Dublin 10. The site in Le Fanu Park was chosen by Dublin City Council in response to the growing need and desire for a free play and skate park in the Ballyfermot area.

The primary objectives of the project were the development of a play area and green space for local residents that encourages active citizenship, fosters community engagement, addresses inequality and disadvantage, exploits opportunities for inter-disciplinary learning, and employs a genuine participatory design process.

The initiative is being delivered in three phases through a process of high quality public engagement, an architectural competition, and construction. In the first phase of the project there were 10 public engagement events that combined aspects of consultation, public engagement, co-design, and participatory planning. Almost 370 residents of all ages participated in these activities.

Learn More:

Multi-Stakeholder Public Engagement – Every One Every Day

Every One Every Day is a partnership between Participatory City, and Barking and Dagenham Council, and is the largest participatory and public engagement project in the UK.

Every One Every Day is based on the principle of “Neighbourhoods made by everyone, for everyone”. It is a multi-million-pound five-year long project that will be engaging with 25,000 residents across the Barking and Dagenham borough to create over 250 neighbourhood-led projects, and form more than 100 new businesses.

As part of the initiative, residents are invited to share ideas for projects and community businesses they would like to create in their neighbourhoods. These projects include sharing knowledge, spaces and resources, for families to work and play together, for bulk cooking, food growing, tree planting, for trading, making and repairing, and for growing community businesses.

Every one, every day encourages local residents to come up with ideas for their community.

Learn More:

Who is involved?

Quite simply, everyone in Ireland has a role to play. This can be from something as simple as making sure you don’t pollute your local stream, or a local community working together to establish a Rivers Trust to enhance the rivers and lakes in their area, to a Government Department or Agency helping a Minister implement a new policy to help protect and enhance all our water bodies.

This website has been developed and is maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency, and is a collaboration between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Local Authority Waters Programme.


Local Authority Waters Programme

The Local Authority Waters Programme coordinates the efforts of local authorities and other public bodies in the implementation of the River Basin Management Plan, and supports local community and stakeholder involvement in managing our natural waters, for everyone’s benefit.


Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is responsible for coordinating the monitoring, assessment and reporting on the status of our 4,829 water bodies, looking at trends and changes, determining which waterbodies are at risk and what could be causing this, and drafting environmental objectives and measures for each.


Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage

The Department is responsible for making sure that the right policies, regulations and resources are in place to implement the Water Framework Directive, and developing a River Basin Management Plan and Programme of Measures that will be implemented after public consultation and sign off by the Minister.