The idea of public participation in spatial management in Poland: state-of-the-art and practical skills

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Abstract

The idea of public participation in spatial management finds an ever-expanding number of supporters and implementers in Poland. An increasing number of references to the subject are incorporated in Polish acts of law and other legal regulations. Despite progress in the field, the status quo cannot be considered satisfactory. Acceptance an idea does not always go hand in hand with skill in applying it. The reason for the many failures and misunderstandings are the defects and errors in the methods of its application as well as false representations concerning the whole idea and its constituent parts. Far from being clear, at face value cases of participation occurring in this context may meet the requirements and yet bring none of the expected benefits. A caricature of participation, they discourage further attempts. This article presents a list of defects, shortcomings, flaws, errors, and myths that make the implementation of participatory projects difficult, if not impossible.

Abstract

The idea of public participation in spatial management finds an ever-expanding number of supporters and implementers in Poland. An increasing number of references to the subject are incorporated in Polish acts of law and other legal regulations. Despite progress in the field, the status quo cannot be considered satisfactory. Acceptance an idea does not always go hand in hand with skill in applying it. The reason for the many failures and misunderstandings are the defects and errors in the methods of its application as well as false representations concerning the whole idea and its constituent parts. Far from being clear, at face value cases of participation occurring in this context may meet the requirements and yet bring none of the expected benefits. A caricature of participation, they discourage further attempts. This article presents a list of defects, shortcomings, flaws, errors, and myths that make the implementation of participatory projects difficult, if not impossible.

The idea of citizen participation in architecture took on an international dimension in the 1960s (Arnstein 1969; Healey 1997). Although known earlier to academics, it was only following 1989 that the Polish political system rendered attempts at implementing this concept possible. This is a fully democratic idea, and its dissemination is a symptom of intensifying democratic relations – taking them to a level superior to just democratic elections (Prawelska-Skrzypek 1996; Pawłowska 2001). The first evangelists of the idea of participation in Poland were Poles who had had experience of the concept, both in theory and practice, when working or studying in Western states where it was winning an increasing number of supporters (Skalski 1999). At the time the idea did not find an excessive number of supporters in Poland, and practical attempts, few as they were, were not very successful. These were usually efforts following Western models (Creighton 2005). It was ever more obvious that the Polish civil and cultural circumstances are different from those in the countries from where the models were drawn. Polish citizens had no appropriate habits and skills nor any faith that their participation in public projects would bring any positive result. Architects, and urban and spatial planners did not want to enter any dialogue with non-experts, and public authorities were quite reluctant to share their power. In the 1990s nearly every public statement promoting participation encountered the following argument from its critics: the Polish people have not matured to democracy, therefore it will take time to wait until they have. I do not subscribe to the opinion that a passive vigil is a proper method of furthering development. Now that those times are about 30 years in the past, it is evident that the condition of Polish society has certainly changed significantly in the meantime. Does the concept of citizen participation find better soil for development in these new circumstances? While this is hard to measure, let’s take a look at the condition of participation in contemporary Poland.

The idea has certainly not died, rather the opposite is true as it has become far more popular and is more frequently applied in practice. It has been acknowledged in Polish legislation: e.g. every new amendment of the Act on Planning and Spatial Management (Ustawa o planowaniu i zagospodarowaniu…) has been a little step forward in this direction. The laws governing practice in this area cannot yet be considered satisfactory however these little steps are better than nothing. It is highly likely that the change of beliefs among the people, whether citizens, public authorities or spatial management professionals, has been of greater consequence for the practical development of the idea than written law. Those groups support and have an ever greater understanding of the idea of participation. However, the failure of many practical attempts results in discouragement and doubts about the sense of the concept.

One of the reasons for such failures is the existence of false representations, if not myths, concerning the very idea and the lack of practical skill in its application. Worse still, this lack is usually unconscious. Such myths, errors, and defects will be discussed in this paper. In listing them, I would like to avoid the impression that I am launching a broadside criticism of all the views and efforts of this type in Poland. Be then forewarned: this criticism does not concern everyone but rather the average state of affairs.

As in a sense I am going to discuss what participation is not, I’d like to present what participation is (after K. Pawłowska (2008)). Its full programme is summarised in Table 1.

Table 1

Programme of public participation in planning, conservation, and design projects

Source: Pawłowska et al. 2010: 25–31

Successive stages of a project and phases of participation
No.Stages of the projectNo.Phases of participation
IProgramming1Informing stakeholders
2Needs analysis
IIDesign
3Presentation and elucidation of the project
4Project discussion
5Negotiating points of dispute
IIIMaking decisions
IVImplementation6Potential participation of stakeholders in project implementation

The left-hand column in the Table 1 contains the stages of a project, and the right – the phases of participation. Their combination in the horizontal rows is far from co-incidental. The successive phases of participation should

be synchronised with the stages of work on the project as shown above, rather than taking place any earlier or later.

The first stage of the project is programming. At this level, the developer (or public authority playing that role) decides, for example, to build sports grounds or perhaps renovate a specific public area, and draft a spatial development plan. Thus the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ are already known, yet the ‘how’ is not yet defined.

The second stage is the design, when professionals prepare a design option or options. The third is the approval of the draft design, which ends with the making of the final decision. The final fourth stage is project implementation.

To be able to call the programme of participation complete, the first phase of participation should take place as early as and parallel to the first stage. This means sharing information about the developer’s intentions with the stakeholders. This comes this early in order to give the stakeholders a positive attitude to the cause. Hiding away the decisions raises suspicion and may lead to conflicts.

The following phase of participation is the pre-design social research. This phase should certainly be held before the design stage. It assists in learning the opinions and needs of the stakeholders and in eliciting inspiration for the project from them, should they have any. The results of this study should be fed to the designers to be used by them. This makes it probable that, as far as possible, the design will take account of the position of the stakeholders. Existing and potential conflicts can already be discovered at this stage, which makes it possible to embark on an amicable solution as early as possible.

In the third phase of participation, the project should be presented and explained to the stakeholders.

The fourth phase is public discussion of the project. It can bring various results. One can be general acceptance, which opens the path to final decisions. It does, however, happen that certain issues remain open. These should be negotiated, which is the fifth phase of participation.

Negotiation allows one to achieve a full understanding, which opens the path to final decisions. However, discussions or negotiations may result in working out certain recommendations and/or new solutions to be introduced into the project. Then the process should return to the second stage, and repeat phases 3, 4, and 5. There are methods of participation that recommend not one but two and even more such iterations (Lennertz & Lutzenhiser 2006).

The last stage of a project is its implementation. Depending on the type of intention, volunteer stakeholders can be included in this phase, which is a particular pinnacle of participation. It boosts the sense of buy-in, the affiliation of people to the place in whose design and construction they have participated.

If, despite all the efforts made, no consent is achieved, the decision-maker may give up the original intention. However, if they stand stalwartly by their opinion, now at least they know precisely that they are opposing public opinion, and have to take all the consequences of such a decision into account.

The programme explained here should be carried out as a whole. This makes success most probable. However, there are many cases when attempts at participation have already been undertaken. There is a decreased chance of success if participation occurs after the site has been designed, or under the duress of protests at the threshold of project implementation.

Here comes a list of false impressions, shortcomings and flaws that render the fulfilment of the idea of participation difficult.

  1. Public participation is not quite equivalent to public consultations. Should you compare these two terms on theoretical and terminological planes, you could perhaps find plenty of similarities. Yet what I mean here is the phenomenon that is generally referred to in the media as consultations, and which is today very often resorted to in Poland. Such consultations mean that the powers that be present their intentions to the citizens without, however, the intention of considering the opinions of the citizens consulted, or even without listening to such opinions. Such consultations only offer insincere participation; as a practice they ridicule the idea and discourage those participating from later involvement. Decisive factors for authenticity or its lack in this case are the intentions of the authorities that oversee the organisation of the participation. If society at large finds yet another proof in the consultations that the authorities are not interested in people’s opinions, it is better that they are not organised at all.

  2. On the other hand, public participation does not mean direct ‘power to the people’, something which public authorities and professionals in spatial management alike are often afraid of. One has to be reminded that participants in such an exercise are neither professionally prepared nor indeed entitled to make final decisions, if only because they don’t shoulder responsibility for the consequences. There are exceptional situations when we give two or more options to participants that the decision maker can accept. If this is the case, a vote (referendum) can be announced. If all the valid stakeholders have had an opportunity to participate in such an opinion poll, the result can be considered valid and binding. However, such cases only happen rarely. In other cases it should be clear beforehand that participation means taking part in a discussion and sometimes also in project design and implementation. If the authorities and designers treat public opinion seriously, participation will be authentic. Nonetheless, in no exercise can they promise that they will take account of all the proposals from the participants, especially that such opinions and suggestions are as a rule contradictory, and because the one who makes decisions is the one held responsible for them, and the citizens in participatory projects bear no responsibility. Moreover, you mustn’t offer promises that cannot be fulfilled: this is an iron rule that is followed by experienced organisers of participation, who claim that trust is the most important condition of success.

  3. Often, reacting to the difficulties and controversies around a specific project, public authorities organise a so-called meeting with locals. One must not be deluded that such a spontaneous meeting, organised in a familiar yet unprofessional way, can end in success. On the contrary, it can end in a fiasco, if not be at the origin of conflicts or aggravate them. Participation is a multiphase process that calls for plenty of time and money, although thanks to the Internet and so-called e-participation, for far less than it used to until recently.

  4. One of the fundamental motives that prompts sceptics to enter participatory projects is fatigue with social conflicts (Deutsch 1973; Aureli & de Waal 2000; Deutsch & Coleman 2005) around the management of space. Endless conflicts denote loss of time, money, the conceptual ideas of the designers, prestige of the authorities, etc. When this is the case, tired of conflict, the powers that be begin to consider meetings with the locals, negotiations, and other forms of reaching consensus. However, the error is vested in the fact that they turn to participation only when it is too late and the chance of success is low: certainly lower than if they had embarked on organising such a participative effort earlier and on their own initiative and not under the pressure of conflicts. Conflict management theory (Deutsch 1973, Gut & Haman 2001; Haeske 2005; Deutsch & Coleman 2005) explains that conflicts tend to escalate with the passage of time. What happens is that the content-related reasons of the dispute are reinforced by psychological reasons, which at times may even take their place (Chełpa & Witkowski 1999). After years of dispute, we are no longer quarrelling about the proverbial hedge but about the honour of the family, about who’s going to win, who has been right, etc. In matters of spatial management, the civil party is not inclined to reach an agreement after a long dispute, as they believe themselves to have been disregarded, and the powers that be do not want to lose the money, time, prestige, etc. invested in the development. Attempts to solve conflicts after a decision has been made, instead of concerning the essence, usually address legal and procedural controversies, while the actual purpose should be a solution that, while obviously legal, is good and not just legal. The conflict must be managed from the earliest stages lest it become a disaster; yet it is even better to foresee it and look for a solution before it breaks out. Such a solution is offered by participation.

  5. The participants in such an exercise should all be parties that belong to a given community and have an interest in (i.e. are stakeholders of) a given case. Stakeholders are the people (also groups, institutions, and organisations) who are connected to the given case in such a way that the decisions made in that case have a significant impact on their lives and/or interests. For that reason stakeholders have a right to express opinions and also to participate in the making of decisions concerning the matter, along the democratic principle of ‘nothing about us without us’. In other words, the stakeholders are the ones who have the right to participate. This right is, albeit does not have to be, sometimes validated with special provisions of the law. It results directly from the fundamental principles of democracy.

To organise participation correctly, a list of stakeholders must be made at the outset. This is neither simple nor easy, yet the very awareness that such a list is useful, and the very attempt at making it is better than taking haphazard steps. The number of stakeholders in some projects is low, and in others high. The strength and nature of the connection of stakeholders to the case may also be different. There is no space here to present a detailed instruction how to draft that list, let’s only focus on who should not be identified with the stakeholders.

  • First, the civil stakeholders go far beyond the group whose participation in spatial management procedures is ensconced in the provisions of the law, so these are not only the neighbours of the plot where the construction is planned who have a connection to the case that justifies the right to express their opinions.

  • Secondly, stakeholders are far more than just interested parties. A stakeholder is not only the one who knows about the given case and shows an active interest, but also the one who at a given moment does not know about it or is passive towards it. However, such a person has a moral right to be interested in it, especially should they realise they have been omitted. This is the reason why I do not subscribe to calling the stakeholders “actors”. This metaphoric term implies solely active people, and disregards the ones who have the right to become active.

  • Thirdly, stakeholders are not synonymous with protesters. Quite often, when, under the pressure of conflicts, the powers that be make a decision to embark on a dialogue with the citizens, they invite protesters to the dialogue, or rather, have them join it of their own accord. Later such a dialogue is referred to as consultations with citizens, if not straight participation. The error lies in the fact that protesters as a rule are not the whole range of stakeholders, nor even their representatives. In most cases they are part of the stakeholder group, and at times their number includes individuals who do not belong among stakeholders: hecklers, loudmouths, cry-mongers, and peace-breakers by vocation. Not caring for the representative nature of their partners in talks and negotiations, authorities limit themselves to discussing with protesters, thus sentencing themselves to defeat, as they do not make use of the support that they could gather from a different section of the stakeholders, whose opinions differ from those of the protesters.

  • First of all, not everyone has sufficient inborn talent to be involved in it: it is an art that may, and should be, learned. Yet many people, including plenty of enthusiasts of the idea of participation, know nothing about it, and even worse: they don’t even know that they know nothing.

  • Communication is the art of understanding one another, and not winning against an opponent. The expectations of the people who try to learn that art are often different. All they want is to learn to win; nothing more. Such expectations crop up both on the side of the authorities and designers and on the citizen side. Communication is no competition.

  • Neither is public communication manipulation, although the methods the two use may be similar. However, it is the intentions and not the methods that decide what a specific action actually is (Witkowski 2004; Tokarz 2006).

  • Very often professional designers lose heart in undertaking participation as they cannot find understanding amongst non-professionals. The recipient of a message does not understand the message coming from the sender, or misunderstands it. The logical fallacy lies in the fact that the sender blames the recipient for their lack of understanding. Yet it is primarily and almost solely the sender of the message who is responsible for the success of communication (Gibbons 2007). The sender must know whom they address and how they speak, and adjust the means of passing information to correspond to the traits of the listener, which are often extremely different from the speaker’s way of thinking (Quebin 1999; Oczkoś 2000; Załazińska 2005).

  • 7. Participation begins with information about the intention. There are a plethora of intermediate states, between making plans in secret, behind closed doors, and the efficient sharing of information with all stakeholders. The situation in this area has greatly improved over the last 30 years. Nevertheless, the disclosure of information that is obligatory by law is what many representatives of the authorities still consider sufficient. If you want to pass your message to an extensive and representative group of stakeholders rather than a haphazard bunch of people, you need to make an effort. There are ways to achieve your goal, yet all you have to do is to not only open the door ajar, but to fling it wide open and invite the stakeholders in. This active invitation is valid not only for the first but also for all the successive phases of participation.

  • 8. The planning procedure as outlined in the legislation includes the stage of collecting insights and conclusions. The stage is often treated as if these were pre-project studies. Although they can really be counted in this category, they are very insufficient, not to say vestigial, if they are perceived as that alone. The insights and conclusions are a set of random opinions of the people who are, as a rule, too few to be treated as a representative group of the totality. Even if their numbers were high, they are not properly selected, as they themselves selected themselves, and did that according to a certain specific key. Claiming that everyone had their opportunity to join does not provide an answer to this situation.

  • 9. Trying to run pre-project surveys, organisers of public participation frequently lack awareness that a questionnaire is not the only available method of research. Their number is far greater (Krueger 1988; Brzeziński 1999; Stewart & Shamdasani 1999; Daniłowicz & Lisek-Michalska 2000; Konecki 2000; Oppenheim 2004; Babbie 2006; Jak przetworzyć Miejsce… 2009), and the questionnaire itself operates in many varieties. Each method of investigation should be adjusted to the characteristics of the group of stakeholders and to the specific purpose of the study. For example, a questionnaire is not a good means of gathering inspiration for the project from stakeholders, and workshops are not a good means for obtaining accurate statistical data.

  • 10. The planning procedure also includes the stage known as the presentation of the plan. It cannot be treated as sufficient as an explanation of the project. Moreover, making it available at this stage is not sufficient either; one should, as efficiently as possible, invite the broadest possible ranks of stakeholders and explain what the project means with equal efficiency.

  • 11. In practice the meetings that are organised frequently combine phases 3, 4, and 5. This is something I strongly discourage as the purpose of each of these phases is different, and the individual elements should be adjusted to the purpose they serve. The simultaneous explanation of what the project is, arguing it and negotiating the points of contention, results in chaos and renders the drawing of valuable and ordered conclusions that would provide a step forward towards mutual understanding downright impossible. Arguing over a project that stakeholders still don’t understand or misunderstand results in turmoil and futile conflicts. Such a meeting may easily turn into a session of public bickering, and aggravate conflicts: in a word, cause nothing but harm.

  • 12. An error that significantly challenges the sense of dispute is the lack of clearly defined deliverables that the discussion is expected to bring. Unfortunately, the current legal regulations allow one to organise discussions without purpose, which makes people lose heart about participation right from the start.

  • 13. An error committed overwhelmingly often in the discussion phase is to nominate one of the parties to the potential or already extant dispute as moderator of the discussion; this can be, for example, the designer of the controversial project. The dispute should be chaired and facilitated by an independent and non-partisan moderator taking no stance on the material issues.

  • 14. Of the two styles applied in the art of negotiation, that is win-win and win-lose, the latter is only recommended in those cases in which we do not intend to negotiate any more with a given partner and we don’t care about the mood in which the loser will depart from the negotiating table (Pruitt 1981; Nęcki 1994; Fisher & Ury 2003; Benien 2005; Lewicki et al. 2005; Ury 2007). If the negotiations are conducted between the authorities and the citizens, the authority should not be indifferent to that mood. By the power of their entitlement to take decisions, authorities can easily win each such case, yet the stake should not be victory but trust. Losing again and again, citizens will not be a cooperating partner but an opponent protesting ever more vehemently.

Conclusions

‘The Polish people are immature, therefore one needs to wait until they have matured’, the beloved argument of the opponents of participation is usually followed by an appeal to educate society, whether on architecture, heritage protection or on the understanding of landscape. I have nothing against teaching society at large, but I do not believe in the efficiency of such attempts. In my doubts, I am reinforced by the fact that these appeals have not changed at all in at least 50 years, and nothing has changed about the case. What I am going to appeal for here is a different form of education. Two aspects should be considered here:

  • The education of public authorities and designers in public communication, and

  • The preparation of echelons of specialists in communication, i.e. moderators, negotiators, and mediators, to act in spatial management projects.

Education within these scopes carries a far greater chance of success than education of the entire community, for this is a far smaller group, and better educated as well. In turn, society at large should be educated by practice, that is participation in attractive participation projects and, moreover, ones that bring real benefits.

Education thus construed has one of the most crucial claims to being necessary for success in this field.

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Aureli, F. & de Waal, F. B. M. (2000) Natural conflict resolution, University of California Press, California.

Babbie, E. (2006) Badania społeczne w praktyce, PWN, Warsaw [in Polish].

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Brzeziński, J. (1999) Metodologia badań psychologicznych, PWM, Warsaw [in Polish].

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Creighton, J. L. (2005) The public participation handbook Jassey-Bass, San Francisco.

Daniłowicz, P. & Lisek-Michalska, J. (2000) Focus – zogniskowany wywiad grupowy. Zarys metody Kultura i Społeczeństwo, 44(1), 213–231 [in Polish].

Deutsch, M. & Coleman, P. T., eds., (2005) Rozwiązywanie konfliktów. Teoria i praktyka (2005), Wyd. Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Krakow [in Polish].

Deutsch, M. 1973) The resolution of conflict; Constructive and destructive processes Yale University Press.

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Haeske, U. (2005) Konflikty w życiu zawodowym, Mediacja i trening w rozwiązywaniu problemów Jedność, Kielce [in Polish].

Healey, P. (1997) Collaborative planning – shaping places in fragmented societies Macmillan Press, London.

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Konecki, K. (2000) Studia z metodologii badań jakościowych. Teoria ugruntowana PWN, Warsaw [in Polish].

Krueger, R. A. (1988) Focus groups. A practical guide for applied research SAGE, Newbury Park.

Lennertz, B. & Lutzenhiser, A. (2006) The Charrette handbook, National Charrette Institute, Portland.

Lewicki, R. J., Saunders, D. M., Barry, B. & Minton, J. W. (2005) Zasady negocjacji; Kompendium wiedzy dla trenerów i menedżerów, Wyd. REBIS, Poznań [in Polish].

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