Participatory environmental governance in Estonia : public participation professionals´ understandings and practices of participatory process design

University essay from SLU/Dept. of Urban and Rural Development

Abstract: Environmental problems are often complex, dynamic, and require flexible and transparent decision-making. Thus, participatory process design is getting more and more attention in the field of environmental decision-making. This interpretive study aims to analyse Estonian local authorities' public participation professionals' understandings and practices of participatory process design. It is investigated how the ideas of participatory and deliberative forms of environmental governance practices are understood and practiced by the local authorities' public participation professionals in Estonia. . The focus is on the institutionalised governance structures that tackle environmental issues on the Estonian local authority level. Qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted with three public participation professionals who have led face to face participatory meetings in the form of different minipublics. This study reveals that although the language of participation is used in Estonia, the overall understanding of participation and the universal ideas of process conditions are different from those articulated in communicative planning theory. This study shows that the public participation professionals do not see the diversity of participants as an extra value for the process. Another important finding is that the public participation professionals in local authorities understand the interdependence between actors mainly as a relationship between the authority and all the other actors seldom exploring the interdependence between all the different actors. It is also found that the public participation professionals in Estonia value the opportunity to articulate different standpoints most as the condition of the participatory process. Changing and negotiating the preferences and opinions together with the other participants was not seen as an important condition for the participatory process. None of the Estonian local authorities' public participation professionals found it essential to recruit a neutral professional facilitator on behalf of the local authority due to their understanding of the qualifications of this role that are mainly related to expertise in the field or the process leaders' trustworthiness. Based on the findings, I argue that the universal participatory ideas are contextualized and changed when they are practiced in different contexts. Therefore, drawing on this thesis I suggest that these ideas should be adjusted to the Estonian environmental governance setting. Thus, to contextualise participation better in Estonian environmental governance, I suggest developing in-service trainings for the public participation professionals in institutionalised participation practices. In education it would be crucial to not only teach the methods for participatory process design but also expand public participation professionals' competences via developing their understandings about universal participatory ideas.

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