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International Cooperation

Public Participation Guide: Glossary of Guide Terms

Active listening: A form of listening designed to elicit as much information as possible from the speaker so as to understand the content of what is being said, the speaker’s emotions, and make the speaker feel that she or he has been heard. Active listening involves the use of non-verbal behavior to demonstrate interest in what the speaker is saying, open-ended questions to elicit information from the speaker, and paraphrasing or summarizing to confirm understanding.

Capacity building: In the context of public participation, capacity building is a process in which a sponsor agency or facilitator improves the ability of stakeholders and communities to engage with one another to participate in a decision process.

Collaboration: A process in which parties agree to work together to resolve commonly understood problems in a cooperative manner

Common ground: A collection of opinions, interests, or values that persons or groups of people share with one another, even though they may not agree about other things. Finding common ground is a technique for facilitating dialogue and can be a basis for parties to reach mutual understanding or agreement.

Conflict management: The ability to recognize and manage conflict dynamics to enable disputing parties to work together in a decision process. Conflict management typically involves advance work with disputants to determine the issues to be discussed, the use of ground rules or group norms to guide behavior, and the use of a facilitator to manage discussions.

Consensus: An outcome from group decision-making in which the group develops an agreement that is good enough (though not necessarily perfect) so that all of the people at the table are willing to support it.

Consensus-building: A process in which people agree to work together to resolve common problems in a relatively informal, cooperative manner. It is a technique that can be used to bring together representatives from different stakeholder groups early in a decision-making process. A facilitator helps participants design and implement their own strategy for developing group solutions to the problems.

Cultural skills: A collection of skills that allow a person to communicate and interact effectively with people with different opinions, interests, or values. These skills are used by sponsor agencies or facilitators during public participation processes to provide information and build effective relationships with key stakeholders.

Dialogue: A structured conversation, or series of conversations, intended to create, deepen, and build human relationships and understanding. The goal of dialogue is often simply to improve interpersonal understanding and trust.

Environmental justice: Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, sexual orientation or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

Facilitation: A process used to help a group of people or parties have constructive discussions about complex, or potentially controversial issues. The facilitator provides assistance by helping the parties set ground rules for these discussions, promoting effective communication, eliciting creative options, and keeping the group focused and on track.

Frames: Ways of defining a problem. Some people may define a problem in terms of rights, while others may define it in terms of interests or relative power. These different positions are sometimes referred to as different "frames."

Goal statement: In the context of public participation, a goal statement is the well-defined purpose of a plan that is real, practical and shared. A goal is established while mapping out a decision process so that all stakeholders fully understand the decision process being used.

In-person tools: Techniques that a sponsor agency can use to obtain input or inform the public in a face-to face setting. These include workshops, focus groups, citizen advisory committees, and key-pad voting.

Interests: The needs, hopes, fears, or motivations that usually underlie a person’s or group’s stated goal or preferred outcome (known as their position). When stakeholders in a public participation process to focus on their interests instead of their positions it increases the possibility that the decision will satisfy multiple interests of diverse stakeholders.

Public Participation Spectrum: The International Association for Public Participation Spectrum consists of five levels of public participation, from simply informing the public about the decision to be made to placing final decision power in the public’s hands. Each level involves a explicit goal. The five levels and associated goals of the Spectrum are:

  • Inform - to provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives opportunities and/or solutions.
  • Consult - to obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/ or decisions.
  • Involve - to work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.
  • Collaborate - to partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution.
  • Empower - to place final decision-making in the hands of the public.

Public participation: A process that consists of a series of activities and actions conducted by a sponsoring agency or other entity to both inform the public and obtain input from them. Public participation affords stakeholders the opportunity to influence decisions that affect their lives. Other terms for public participation include public involvement and public engagement.

Public participation behaviors: Behaviors that embody the principles of authentic public participation and set the tone for the public participation process. These include:

  • Transparency - the act of promoting accountability and providing information for citizens about what the Government is doing.
  • Openness - the act of including multiple interests and stakeholders in the decision making process.
  • Humility - the act of doing something in the interest of another person or group of people.
  • Respect - the act of honoring somebody or something by showing positive feelings through language or gestures.
  • Honesty - the act of doing something that is considered fair and truthful.
  • Reliability - the act of doing something that is expected or has been promised.
  • Flexibility - the act of changing according to circumstances or changing because of persuasion or considering multiple options.
  • Resiliency - the act of recovering quickly from setbacks.

Remote tools: Techniques that an agency can use to obtain input or inform the public in a non face-to-face setting. These include comment sheets, surveys, and web-sites.

Situation assessment: The process of gathering information to determine the public participation program and techniques that are feasible and most appropriate for the circumstances. The main purpose of a situation assessment is to identify the conditions necessary for a successful public participation process so that the sponsor agency and stakeholders are engaged in a common purpose.

Social inclusion: The process of improving the terms for individuals and groups to take part in society. Social inclusion aims to empower poor and marginalized people to take advantage of burgeoning global opportunities. It ensures that people have a voice in decisions which affect their lives and that they enjoy equal access to markets and services and political, social and physical spaces.

Sponsor agency: The organization responsible for informing the public about and obtaining public input to influence a decision process. This includes the decision-makers within the organization and anybody else in the organization that could effect the decision or the public participation process.

Stakeholders: The people or communities who are affected by an agency’s work, who have influence or power over it, or have an interest in its successful or unsuccessful conclusion. This includes people and communities with the power to either to block or advance an agency’s work.

Vulnerable populations: The economically disadvantaged, racial and ethnic minorities, the uninsured, low-income children, the elderly, the homeless, those with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and those with other chronic health conditions, including severe mental illness. 

Explore the full Public Participation Guide.

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For additional information on EPA's Public Participation Guide, contact:
Shereen Kandil
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2650R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460