RIVER DIALOGUE � A STUDY OF INFORMATION COMMUNICATION AND PUBLIC
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RIVER DIALOGUE – A STUDY OF INFORMATION COMMUNICATION AND PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN ESTONIA, THE NETHERLANDS AND SWEDEN Geoffrey D. Gooch Linköpings University, Linköping, Sweden, Gulnara Roll, CTC, Tartu, Estonia, David Huitema, IVM, Free University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands River Dialogue is an ongoing EU project aimed at bridging the gap between scientists, decision- makers involved in managing European waters, and the public. Its focus is on increasing understanding of the challenges of water use and protection, and of the scientific and technological issues connected with water use and protection. The project will develop specific strategies for three-way communication between decision-makers, scientific experts, and the public concerning the use of scientific information on different aspects of water use. Project objectives are to identify the best approaches to increasing public empowerment and public involvement in the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive and river basin management plans. Case studies involving focus groups and citizen juries will be conducted in three European river basins: the Motala Stroem in Sweden, Ijsselmeer in the Netherlands and the Emajõgi River in Estonia. The participation of stakeholders and the public in river basin management creates a number of potential problems. The first of these is the production of relevant scientific information that fulfils the criteria of reliability, and of internal and external validity. The second is the presentation of this information in a form that is suitable for the proposed audience. The third is the communication of the information. The fourth is the assimilation of the information by the receivers and its transformation into knowledge through acceptance into the receiver’s frames of reference. Finally, if this knowledge is then to lead to empowerment and changes in behaviour, institutions must exist that enable participation and demands for new information. A major problem is the potential contradiction between increased participation and informed decision-making. In processes characterised by information, not communication, experts and decision-makers have often claimed that the public, and some stakeholders, lack sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions. This is a general criticism against, for examples, the use of referendums to decide complicated issues such as energy systems. This need not necessarily be so. Crosby (1986) states that "A standard criticism of citizen participation is that average citizens are not capable of making decisions on complex public policy matters. The position of the authors is that average citizens can do an effective job of decision making if the hearing format is properly structured for them". What are needed are methodologies for transforming information into knowledge, and institutions that facilitate extra activities and participation leading from this knowledge. There are a number of arguments for increasing public and stakeholder participation. Democratic ethics demand that the population can influence decisions, either directly or through delegates. The growing alienation of large sectors of the populations of many Western countries from state institutions, expressed by decreasing levels of voting and the difficulties of recruiting politicians at local levels, are often seen as an indication of an approaching fossilisation of democracy. There are, of course, other arguments. In the conditions of uncertainty that characterise post-modern society, it becomes almost impossible to be able to gather the amount of information needed for decision-making according to the classic rational model. If decisions are taken only by a small group of experts and politicians, the same limited group that made the decisions must carry the blame for the inevitable mistakes resulting from some of these decisions. The publics’ awareness of the mistakes resulting from some decisions is amplifying the distrust of political and state institutions already felt by large sectors of society. By involving stakeholders and the public in the decision-making process the responsibility for mistakes can be shared. The two methodologies utilised in the River Dialogue project both aim at developing ways of transforming information into knowledge, and at refining methodologies for stakeholder and public participation. Focus groups can provide valuable insights into the ways that information is individually and collectively treated, and also into how knowledge is collectively constructed. Citizen juries provide a representative group of stakeholders and the public with information from politicians, experts, and interest organisations. The method has been used a number of times in individual cases and the results have shown that "After two and a half days of intensive learning most citizens had gained a degree of expertise which sometimes was superior to the knowledge of the politicians represented at the podium. The reactions of the politicians upon realizing that ordinary citizens were able to detect technical mistakes or biased argumentation varied from astonishment to anger". (Renn, et al. 1984) The approach taken by the River Dialogue project will allow comparisons of the applicability of the methodologies in different cultural contexts. This paper will provide a detailed outline of River Dialogue’s aims, scientific approach and theoretical base, as well as a presentation of the results of the first seven months work. References: Crosby, N. e. a. (1986). "Citizen Panels: A New Approach to Citizen Participation." Public Administration Review 46(2). Renn, O., H. U. Stegelmann, et al. (1984). "An Empirical Investigation of Citizen's Preferences Among Four Energy Scenarios." Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 1984, 26, pp 11-46.