The so-called upgrading work on the College Square field has now been put on hold following an outcry among local residents. Apparently they were not consulted over the ‘improvements’. Do residents really want the grass to be dug up and paved over or to have metal railings put around their small neighbourhood greens (as has been done elsewhere)?
Are they ever seriously consulted – right from the beginning – about what they really want? Would it be any surprise if they don’t want anyone to mess up their precious green spaces with useless contraptions, metal railings on the perimeter and more cement? “Landscaping”, they call it.
The same lack of early public consultation has been repeated on a large and expensive scale in the case of the Penang state government’s public consultations on the mega transport proposals put forward by SRS Consortium. The public ‘consultations’ that took place were more like briefing sessions after everything had been more or less already decided.
The same thing has been happening in meetings of the Penang Transport Council meetings (of which I part). Everything has more or less been decided behind the scenes, and no matter what our criticism, ‘they’ press on with their plans, anyway, after giving us their ‘clarifications’.
An MIT researcher has now pointed to the failure of the Penang state government’s “top-down” consultation process, which has alienated various groups.
These groups should have been engaged early on in the process in a “transparent and deliberative manner”, she said.
Dr Minal Pathak found that:
Despite a concerted effort to engage the public government failed to resolve conflicts with key stakeholder groups. Three key findings emerge from the assessment:
first, a poorly designed process can be counterproductive, resulting in delays and loss of trust;
second, involving stakeholders at a later stage limits opportunities for meaningful stakeholder contribution; and
third, stakeholder groups can mobilise and shift the balance of political power.
For all these reasons and more, decisions in the public arena must go beyond meeting the mandated requirements, and move towards a deliberative process aiming for shared decision-making. The study proposes a set of recommendations for a more effective process.
Dr Pathak concluded:
In line with several other reported case studies, the Penang case reiterates the failure of the traditional “top down” process of consultation. It also highlights the pitfalls of a poorly managed and executed participatory process. An inadequate engagement process further alienated stakeholders, as they felt the government was insensitive to their interests.
Such conflicts are especially inevitable in cases such as Penang, where private interests appear to dominate.
Governments presume that consultative processes can serve dual purposes of meeting the regulations and gaining political legitimacy. Revisiting the classic planning debate of whether public participation leads to desirable outcomes, the study illustrates that participation by itself is not useful. In fact, poorly designed engagement exposed the weaknesses of the process, allowing opposing groups to mobilise and thwart the plan.
For engagement to be purposive and meaningful, stakeholders should be involved at an early stage, in a transparent and deliberative manner. This can reduce the time and costs, enhance government credibility, improve trust, and help develop long-term relationships between the government and stakeholders.
Such a process would not only have a higher probability of implementation.
Her full research paper can be found here.
In an immediate comment, Eric Britton, professor of sustainable development, economy and democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion Paris, said the MIT research paper is “recommended reading for anyone who cares about Penang and democracy”.
The author, Dr Minal Pathak, has done a very effective job in her investigation – and that at an important time in the struggle about the state government’s heavily contested “Transport Master Plan”.
I particularly admire the way which she judiciously sticks with her scholarly plan of departure, namely to analyse and report calmly and with great balance on this as a clear example of lessons from a stakeholder engagement process.
Dr Pathak never take sides, which gives her instant credibility. And to me, that is what she has achieved here and to her great credit. And thus, because of this quiet balance, the reader believes her.
The video works very well too: again that same calm balance and the decision to bring in a wide variety of views.
I must say that the balanced but really very hard-hitting words offered by Penang state assembly woman Dr Norlela Ariffin sums up what I believe to be the core of the case very nicely: ‘To me this plan is really mind boggling. Why can’t we just take a step back and really talk to the public (from the beginning).’
Penang and the citizens of Penang owe a real debt to the contribution of Dr Pathak.