Public Participation – What are the most effective strategies for involving the public in regulatory issues?

The strategies best suited to engaging the public in regulatory issues hinge on both political and cultural contexts, the reasons for including the public, and the particular regulatory issue. Some aspects of aligning strategies with culture and politics—such as country-specific norms, specific political situations, and forms of government—are beyond the scope of this FAQ. However, that is not to say that such specifics should be taken for granted—a country that has recently emerged from a conflict or other significant disruption may be ready to establish new norms for governance and public engagement that provide more stability and growth.

Readers are also encouraged to read the FAQ and narrative about managing the political context, focusing on the tactics and strategies for formulating or reforming a regulatory system.

Initially, it is critical to examine why it is important to engage stakeholders. Noting that there are many kinds of stakeholders and each requires its own considerations, this is characterized along four dimensions: Their ability to influence the formation or reform of regulation, the strength of their interest, their relationship to the development of regulation, and their abilities to be heard. This FAQ then describes when to engage stakeholders and various tactics for doing so, and concludes with a summary of a relevant case study from Rwanda.[1]

Why Engage Stakeholders

Stakeholder engagement improves the effectiveness of regulations and reforms, by enhancing their legitimacy and credibility. Legitimacy is improved because dialogue reveals the motivations of those leading the actions; credibility is enhanced because messages can be consistently delivered and borne out in practice.

Engagement also develops a factual basis for decision-making. As is described more fully below, sometimes decision makers have chosen to limit interactions with stakeholders based on the belief that this will yield no new useful knowledge. This has been proven wrong through experience, so decision makers should embrace all learning.

Working with stakeholders helps develop a common understanding of long-term needs and challenges. Respectful listening to stakeholders will help them listen to decision makers. Especially within the context of an effective dialogue (see the section on dialogue), new ideas can be shared and explored, thereby sharing knowledge while simultaneously avoiding misunderstandings.

Finally, engagement makes stakeholders feel valued because their perspectives have been heard, even if the decision makers choose other priorities. And keeping stakeholders engaged ensures that the formal process remains the focal point of discussions, helping decision makers to know when discussions have gone off track, when misinformation is affecting the dialogue, and when issues are not being fully discussed.

Stakeholder Dimensions

Stakeholder Dimension 1: Ability to Influence

Direct Influencers. Some groups and individuals—such as formal and informal community leaders, well-placed politicians, military leaders, and executives of financial institutions—can directly influence the regulatory strategy, whether by supporting or derailing it. They can, for instance, establish institutions, write laws, mobilize resources, and so on. Many are likely to be members of the guiding coalition described in the narrative. It is important for persons participating in the guiding coalition, carrying out regulations, or leading transactions to have effective and active relationships with each direct influencer, although the nature of each relationship will vary depending on the circumstances. One challenge for the regulator is to direct the input of highly influential stakeholders through proper, formal and transparent channels, even though such stakeholders may be more accustomed to using informal, non-transparent channels and pressures. Otherwise the regulator loses credibility and other stakeholders may view the system as corrupt and refuse to participate.

Indirect Influencers. Other groups and individuals—such as the media, other well-connected current or former politicians, and business leaders—can influence the direct influencers. It may be useful to include a few indirect influencers in the guiding coalition if they support the regulatory agenda and can influence direct influencers who are not part of the guiding coalition; however, such indirect influencers should be no more than a small minority in the guiding coalition since they cannot directly build the regulatory system. It is also important to maintain communications with the remaining indirect influencers, in order to stay current on their views of the work, find out what they know about how others are perceiving and being affected by the regulatory agenda, and to ensure that the indirect influencer has current and accurate information.

Weakly Influential. These people have little or no influence. This group might include the poor and minorities. It may be tempting to ignore them, but they can be important to groups and individuals who are more influential. In Mexico, for example, a proposed hydro dam would displace a poor and politically weak indigenous community that valued its homeland’s spiritual and ancestral significance. The direct influencers cared about this group and delayed the project until a solution could be found that effectively managed the group’s cultural loss. Engagement with the weakly influential should ensure an effective understanding of how the regulatory agenda’s success or failure affects them.

Stakeholder Dimension 2: Strength of Interest

Strongly Interested. These are individuals who are sufficiently motivated to carry out meaningful action on the regulatory agenda and should include all members of the guiding coalition. They may support reforms that improve sector performance, or they may be interested in preserving benefits such as subsidies from the old system. As described in the section on Relationship to Regulation <HYPERLINK>, they may be for or against the regulatory agenda, which influences the appropriate strategy for engagement. In the fragile state context, or any context for that matter, this includes people who lose power if a successful regulatory system is formed, especially one with independence. All members of the guiding coalition should be strongly interested. It is important to understand the nature of the interest of each person or group who is strongly interested, the types of actions they can take and are willing to take, and how their interest evolves over time.  Depending on each strongly interested person or group’s relationship to the regulatory agenda and ability to influence, it may be useful to nurture and build interest, or to weaken the interest.[2]

Weakly Interested. This category includes anyone who is not strongly interested. No members of the guiding coalition should be weakly interested. It is important to understand the ability to influence and the nature of the possible interest of each person or group who is weakly interested, in case it might be useful to motivate them to increase their interest, or else to ensure that they remain only weakly interested.

Stakeholder Dimension 3: Relationship to Regulation

The possible relationships to the development or reform of regulations, which are listed below, may vary over time and by issue. For example, a utility may support regulatory independence to create distance between investment and political pressures, but may resist demands for improved quality or additional investments.

Allies. Allies include those who support the development or reform of regulations. They might be supportive because they stand to personally gain from the initiative, or they might simply be looking to benefit the country, or they may have a positive personal interest in someone serving the regulatory agenda. The nature of that relationship, as well as the person or individual’s influence and strength of interest, drives strategy. Everyone in the guiding coalition should be an ally, but not an ally that has a personal interest in anyone serving the agenda. For example, in the formation of telecommunications regulation in Afghanistan, the militaries of the coalition nations and the US assistance workers formed a coalition with federal Afghani officials to coordinate regulatory development work. This included the designation of a single point of contact among all involved US government agencies so that the guiding coalition could set cohesive priorities and communicate effectively. Others may be concerned about the motives of such personal allies when difficulties arise, which could lead to suspicion and personal attacks rather than open, substantive debates. For each non-personal ally not in the guiding coalition, the guiding coalition should decide the appropriate strategy for harnessing the support of each non-personal ally who is not in the coalition. The individual supported by the ally should treat the ally as a mentor or advisor.

Opposition. The opposition includes those who stand to lose something should the regulatory agenda succeed. These losses might include a loss of power, authority, prominence, market, or resources. In post-conflict states in Africa, for example, military leaders had formed monopolies over fuel supplies or water distribution. The formation of effective infrastructure reforms and regulation means losses of money, power, and prestige for these leaders. In others the sector ministry had been performing regulatory functions and the formation of an independent regulator meant a loss of authority, including the ability to use the sector to provide political favors. It is important to understand the exact nature of each loss in order to know the opponent’s strength of interest (which can evolve over time) and to determine whether it can be mitigated. This is particularly important if the opponent is influential and strongly interested. Allies and those who are indirectly influential can be helpful in taking the temperature of the opposition, identifying the nature of the opposition’s loss, and mitigating the loss.

Casualties.  Casualties suffer an ultimate loss because of the regulatory agenda—for example, entrepreneurs who supply water and are put out of business by the development of an effective water utility, military leaders who control the supply of diesel for generators and lose business with the development of an effective electric utility, displaced workers who lose jobs when the utility services improve efficiency, or displaced community leaders who lose authority with the success of the reforms. Casualties are a form of opposition whose loss holds back the reform because the reformers care about the casualties. It is important to identify casualties and mitigate their losses to the extent this is consistent with the regulatory agenda, otherwise their losses will drain energy from the guiding coalition and other allies.

In most analyses of this type, casualties are limited to those that suffer because of the reform agenda. However, in the case of states that have undergone significant conflicts or other disruptions, there are casualties of the status quo. These casualties lose if the reform falters. It is important to know these losses and highlight them as they can be important motivators for advancing the reform agenda.

Stirrers. Stirrers are individuals or groups who by their nature surface issues and conflicts that others would prefer stayed below the surface. Some NGOs have played this role, for example, by drawing attention to neglected minority groups. Stirrers play an important role because, absent their work, the difficulties might stay below the surface for too long and surface only when they have festered and grown to such an extent that they are difficult to manage, perhaps resulting in the recurrence of violence. Also these difficulties represent important truths about the reforms that should shape the agenda, but will not unless they are surfaced. It is tempting to marginalize stirrers because of the uncomfortable knowledge that they represent. Indeed it is usual to observe stirrers being excluded from meetings, starved of resources, distracted with meaningless tasks, and personally attacked. Indeed stirrers are sometimes called troublemakers, which can have a negative connotation. However, because of their unique abilities and propensities, it is important for stirrers to be nurtured and coached so that they are effective and productive in helping the guiding coalition confront all of the challenges of the reform process.

Authority figures. Authority figures hold high posts in organizations and provide resources, such as people and funds, to the regulatory agenda. Some are direct influencers. Examples of authority figures include heads of government organizations, NGOs, World Bank offices, and infrastructure providers. They do not necessarily lead the regulatory effort, but their control over resources makes them critical to success. It is important to stay in communication with authority figures to ensure that they remain allies and to understand how they view the reform effort. Because authority figures have substantial responsibilities for important organizations, they often sense brewing difficulties before they become apparent to others because of how they cause disruptions to their work.

Self. Sometimes individuals are their own worst enemies. As one works on the reform process, it is important to engage with people who can help to see when habits, prejudices and so on are keeping decisions from being as effective as possible. They can also help to see when one should step back from the action, listen, and let others play active or prominent roles. In general, they help to see those hard truths that can hold the reform back if not confronted.

Stakeholder Dimension 4: Ability to Participate

Stakeholders vary in the resources they can commit, their knowledge and awareness of issues, and their opportunities to participate.  Some regulators assist less privileged stakeholders through educational efforts, making meetings more convenient, or facilitating the development of representative groups that can express these stakeholders’ interests. In other instances, regulators provide resources; undertake research or surveys to better understand these needs; or encourage the utility to engage in special outreach and provide information to the regulator.

When to Engage Stakeholders

This is discussed in three categories: (1) As it relates to the forming or reforming of regulation; (2) As it relates to performing regulation; and (3) As it relates to infrastructure projects.

The section on strategy in the narrative describes when to engage stakeholders when forming or reforming of regulation. For example it describes how to form and work with a guiding coalition, which is a critical group of powerful stakeholders, gathering input on priorities, and communicating success to stakeholders.

Regarding the performance of regulatory functions, absence of stakeholder engagement has led to notable failures. One regulator was confident in its view as to what is the right answer on an issue, viewing stakeholders – especially customers – as speed bumps on the way to reform.  As a result the regulator failed to anticipate the significance of public opposition and struggled to implement important cost-covering tariffs. Another regulator chose to ignore the public based on the belief that conflicting views only made the regulator’s job more difficult. But as can be seen in the Rwanda case study later in this FAQ, surfacing opposition is important for being able to effectively make difficult decisions. Finally, some regulators have resisted stakeholder engagement because such activities were contrary to political norms. But other countries have demonstrated that politicians learned to value the interactions and become part of the dialogue as this gave them important information useful in serving constituents.

Regarding infrastructure projects, there are at least three times it is important to engage with stakeholders. One is during the market reform stage, such as when an authorizing environment is being built for private sector investment or any other investment.  Stakeholder power structures should be assessed because, as we describe in the next section on Ability to Influence, the power structures will emerge and affect outcomes once investments are attempted and may thwart efficient development and performance if powerful interests are ignored. Also, the reform could re-enforce power structures, such as dominance of ethnic groups over oppressed minorities, which are problematic for the long-term health of the country.

Another time that stakeholder engagement is important is during transaction structuring. Here dialogue tends to be technical, relating to the design of specific investment projects. These designs affect the distribution of benefits across groups and so understanding how populations groups will perceive certain priorities can be critical to optimizing the value of investment. Stakeholders can also provide critical information on regulations and standards that need to be met, approaches for offering assurances, and commercial and political risks.

The third time is during the implementation stage. Here the dialogue tends to focus on whether the project is meeting the anticipated goals and whether broader benefits are being realized equitably.

How to Engage Stakeholders

Given the diversity of the public-group dimensions, and the differences in cultures and political situations, which we have not examined, it is safe to say that there are no standard, easy answers. The guiding coalition should identify who is in each category, develop strategies for engaging each group, and then implement those strategies.

The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) of New South Wales, Australia examined how best to engage with the public in regulatory decision-making.[3] It identified a spectrum of approaches:

  1. Inform. This approach includes workshops and other capacity-building instruments intended to provide the public with objective information that assists them in understanding regulatory issues and alternatives.
  2. Consult. This includes surveys and other information-gathering mechanisms intended to obtain the public’s input on analyses and upcoming decisions.
  3. Involve. Instruments of this type are intended to involve the public throughout the regulatory process to fully engage their concerns and aspirations.
  4. Collaborate. This includes negotiated settlement processes in which stakeholders negotiate an agreement with little regulatory involvement. The purpose is to effectively partner with the public in the decision, allowing the parties to determine the preferred decision.
  5. Empowerment. This defers regulatory decision making to the public. This was tried in the Philippines where much of the country outside Manila is served by relatively small electricity cooperatives. Because these cooperatives are more directly accountable to the local community than privately owned utilities, the regulator allowed the utilities flexibility in their charges for recovering investment, subject to each cooperative obtaining the endorsement from its customers. In practice the cooperatives have found it hard to get customers’ approval or in some instances appeared unwilling to propose price increases.

Strategies for engaging each group begin with listening, which can be even more important than talking. Many people trained to analyze situations and give answers, but analyses of jointly owned problems are best addressed jointly. A lack of public trust and a presence of tension often characterize problems associated with infrastructure in fragile and conflict-affected states. When groups are heard, they are in a better position to hear.

This approach to building support and a direction for reform is called engaging in a dialogue. Often one fails to solve difficult problems because of one approaches talking and listening. One failed approach to communicating is to emphasize telling—asserting truths about how things are or should be, and not allowing that others might have different insights. The mentality for telling comes from overconfidence, which is a well-established and widely held bias in which a person’s confidence in his or her judgments is systematically greater than their accuracy. Another failed approach is to listen primarily as a means for learning how to refute someone else’s opinion or to make the person feel heard.

In a dialogue, opinions are held as hypotheses to be jointly explored. Based on work done in South Africa to carry out the transition from white rule; in Colombia during its civil war; and in Guatemala following a significant genocide, the following are believed to be key features of an effective dialogue:

  • Examination of assumptions, reactions to others, anxieties, and prejudices.
  • Open expression of thoughts, objectives, and experiences, including open sharing of materials and making information intelligible for the non-expert.
  • A humble approach to knowledge, recognizing that personal beliefs should be treated as opinions and perspectives.
  • Engagement with the ideas of people who hold different, even opposing views, including avoiding judgment, active and empathetic listening, helping them flesh out their ideas, and stretching individual comfort zones.
  • Individuals stepping back from the action to reflect on their roles in the dialogue and in the problems they are trying to resolve, seeing where he or she is contributing to the status quo, and listening to him- or herself as others hear him or her.
  • Patience for answers to emerge from the dialogue rather than from individuals.
  • Honest testing of suggestions, noticing what happens, and sensing how the ideas affect others and relationships.

Case Study

The Rwanda Utility Regulatory Authority (RURA) uses public consultation to get stakeholder input before regulations are enacted.[4] The RURA Board requires that each Board paper provides a list of stakeholders contacted and their views before any regulation is approved.

The consultation process begins with appointing a task force (TF), which conducts the desk research and provides a working document on the relevant issues. TF membership isn’t necessarily limited to RURA employees.[5]

Once the working document is finished, it and a request for comments is sent to a list of stakeholders. The document is also published on RURA’s website, which facilitates participation by persons RURA had not specifically contacted, including persons and organizations outside the country. For example, comments on number portability were provided by individuals as far away as Lithuania.

RURA then assesses the comments. This includes identifying the positions of the various stakeholders and the information each provides. In instances where some stakeholders are strongly opposed, separate meetings are held to examine the nature of their opposition and if and how their needs might be addressed.[6] RURA then revises its consultation document and calls a meeting with all stakeholders to explain how their views have been considered in the new document. RURA believes it is important for there to be no strong opposition from stakeholders, so if there is strong opposition to the new document, RURA may engage in further investigations before the issue is approved by the Board.

Conclusion

This FAQ provides a framework for developing strategies for public engagement. This framework groups the public along three dimensions: Their ability to influence the formation or reform of regulation, the strength of their interest, and their relationship to the development of regulation. Given the diversity of these groups, and the differences in cultures and political situations, which we have not examined, it is safe to say that there are no standard answers and no easy answers. But the guiding coalition should identify who is in each category, develop strategies for engaging each group, and implement those strategies.

[1] Although a proper examination of this issue is beyond the scope of this FAQ, it is important to note that persons employed within regulatory institutions are also stakeholders. In general we expect them to be loyal to their employers, but sometimes their loyalties lie elsewhere, for example in situations where their employment came about because of the influence of outside stakeholders. It is important to keep in mind how such loyalties influence the organization’s work. In one African country, the staffing of a sector regulator was delayed for over five years after the authorizing laws were put in place. Then the rush to hire employees made it hard for the hiring authorities to emphasize completely professional hiring standards, resulting in a staff with divided loyalties.

[2] It may be useful to weaken interest in the case of opposition (see the section on Relationship to Regulation) who are strongly interested. This might be done by decreasing the losses these stakeholders would experience with reforms. For example the formation of an independent regulator might cause powerful politicians to lose their ability to direct utility investment. This loss might be mitigated by actively engaging with the interests these politicians represent to ensure their needs are understood and addressed, and given the politicians credit for being influential in representing their constituents’ interests.

[3] See IPART, “Customer Engagement on Prices for Monopoly Services,” IPART: Sydney, Australia, February 2012; and IPART, “IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum,” IPART: Sydney, Australia, January 2012.

[4] The guidelines were issued by the prime minister’s office as part of a larger cabinet manual for policy development. See “Cabinet_Manual_Second_Edition_2013.pdf,” which can be found at http://primature.gov.rw/index.php?id=106&tx-filelist-pi1-208[path]=Important%20Documents&cHash=8688781c18983efc10c51c1a549c07e9.

[5] Care must be taken when including outside persons, as they may represent particular stakeholder interests and bias the work.

[6] It is important to make at least some information about these meetings available to the public to avoid any appearance of favoritism. Some regulators, for example, release summaries of the topics discussed and the evidence obtained in such meetings.