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‘Participation on the sustainability transition is still too ad hoc'

To support policies and decision-making on sustainability, it is important to involve citizens and stakeholders in the process. The term used for this in Public Administration is 'participation'. Professor Eefje Cuppen observes that things still often go wrong with participation. Inaugural lecture on 31 October.

Global developments in the area of climate and sustainability call for changes at all levels: from the individual ciizen to big businesses, from governments to world regions. What makes this so complex is that all the parties involved have such diverse interests and opinions about the transition. There are conflicts about such questions as who exactly is responsible for the transition, who has to pay for it and how quickly the different parties involved have to achieve the transition. 

Eefje Cuppen, professor of Governance of Sustainability, has conducted research for some twenty years on an important instrument to support policies and decision-making for a more sustainable world: participation. The idea behind this: if you involve all the parties at an early stage of policy and decision-making, new policies will be able to count on broader support.

Why is participation so important as an instrument?

‘First, with sustainability issues, you achieve better solutions by including the views of as many of the people involved as possible - for example the knowledge held by local citizens. Second, you increase the likelihood of support for the new policies because you involve people in formulating those policies. And finally, participation is part of democracy; the changes that are needed to achieve climate change affect all of us, so we all have something to say about it.'  

Even so, you say in your lecture that in practice things often go wrong with participation. What are the main reasons for this?

‘Defining a good participation process, where the right parties sit around the table together and everyone feels their views are heard, is enormously complex. Where I think this could be improved is in how participation processes are anchored; these processes are often still too ad hoc. The people organising them forget to think about when and how to use participation, and how you can make sure that something is done with the findings. Participation is still all too often separated from the administrative process where the real decisions are made, such as in a municipal council or the House of Commons. In my lecture, I mention an example of a participation process in a municipality about the placing of windmills, where the participation was very deliberately separated from the decision-making in the municipal council. There may be good reasons for this, but the consequence is that for people taking part in a participation process it is unclear how their input will be incorporated in the eventual decision-making. This isn't the right way to encourage people to take part in a participation process again in the future.’

Do you also believe that interdisciplinary education and research, for example on sustainability issues, can be improved?

‘The university as an institution is not yet set up for this kind of participation - and this while, to be able to research sustainability properly, you also have to change as a knowledge system. Researchers themselves also have to learn to cooperate more and look at problems from different scientific perspectives. Within interdisciplinary education, we ask something of our students that we as scentists and lecturers still  aren't good at ourselves.’

How pessimistic or optimistic are you about achieving a sustainability transition where everyone feels heard?

‘I'm optimistic. Although we'd like more and faster, all kinds of changes are taking place. It's great to see that happening. At the same time, it's a complex process, where problems crop up along the way that you hadn't anticipated. For example, it is now becoming clear that there is a gap between people who have a lot of money and those who have little. You need to resolve these kinds of issues to make sure that the transition is also fair.'  

As professor of Governance of Sustainability, Eefje Cuppen is one of the drivers of Leiden's interdisciplinary Liveable Planet programme that brings together research from different scientific disciplines to achieve a more sustainable world. With effect from 1 October she is also director of the Rathenau Institute. This organisation is engaged in research and debate on the impact of science, innovation and technology on society.

Text: Jan Joost Aten
Photo: U

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