Published on December 17, 2012

Energy transition: what about involving citizens?

By Ingrid Prikken

Ingrid Prikken is Project Manager at Involve. Her work is focused on project design and management, facilitation and research. Her research covers embedding public engagement in government and citizen participation in challenging issues.

613445810_2249c2d193_m In my previous post about engagement with local energy issues and climate change, I argued that these complex issues require government and citizens to work together, but this isn’t by any means an easy task. Here are a few of my thoughts on engaging citizens with climate change.


Why work with citizens and communities?

From both the perspective of the government and public there are benefits to engagement. For example, participation can ensure that public values are taken into account in the framing of energy futures. It can develop a better understanding of the complex trade-offs and choices that need to be made. It can also create greater ownership and buy-in for energy transition decisions.

All in all, it’s not just about what’s technologically feasible, it is also important to take into account if a decision is socially (and politically) acceptable. Hence, citizen involvement can be a powerful means for agreeing and delivering local objectives.

Who are you engaging with?

Policy makers will need to think about who they are engaging with. Individuals or groups can have a variety of roles and can be talking from different perspectives. For example, as citizens concerned about their local area, as experts on certain new technologies, or, as research subjects.

Decisions that governments are making about energy futures will affect the whole population. This can’t be achieved without citizen and stakeholder engagement. However, stakeholders and citizens tend to react differently to being engaged by government. When these terms are used interchangeably it isn’t clear who government is trying to engage.

It makes a difference whether you’re engaging with citizens or stakeholders. Stakeholders have a direct, self identified stake in the decision, and are often well-informed individuals or groups. Citizens are stakeholders too, however, they might not have identified the relevance of the issue to them. Also, it’s important to bear in mind that ‘having an interest’ is not the same as ‘showing an interest’.

Not a simple task

Engaging citizens (and other stakeholders) is not straightforward. There are many obstacles and areas of confusion. Low levels of trust are perhaps one of the greatest barriers to engagement. As pointed out in our Pathways through Participation study, citizens’ motivation for engaging with government can often be quite low, experiences with for example government consultations tend to be negative and there’s little trust in politicians.

Climate change is a complex issue and some might argue it’s too difficult to engage with. Actually, evidence suggests members of the public participating in dialogue around complicated and technical policy issues are more than able to engage with and contemplate complex information, and provide detailed responses that inform (and improve) policy decisions. In a paper published earlier this year, I discussed that engaging people in a meaningful way can play a role in changing attitudes and behaviours.

The fact remains that climate change is an intangible, long term, distant and unknown subject. It’s not an issue that’s on everyone’s priority list, for all sorts of reasons. However, to make a difference, citizens will need to want to do this. So, the challenge lies in ‘translating’ these policies and ideas in order to make them relevant to citizens.

What is the ‘entry’ point? There are different types of people, who will have different attitudes and behaviours towards engaging with climate change. One helpful tool in starting to think about how to push the buttons of different types of people is this DEFRA typology.

It’s not all doom and gloom

Besides making it relevant, engagement with these issues should be made fun. Rather than apocalyptic messages of doom, a much more powerful way of engaging citizens with these issues is to bring positive messages. Looking at what ‘grass roots initiatives’ are doing might be valuable; they are probably more likely to get this ‘right’, as they are building on enthusiasm from the initiators, rather than a process that is ‘imposed’ from above.

Engagement and potentially behaviour change can be supported through showing the difference people are making, whether that be through story telling, information boards of electricity use in a neighbourhood, challenge prizes, the media publishing positive messages, or celebrating good practice.

A few examples

At the IMAGINE seminar I came across a variety of inspiring examples of engagement. For example, the City of Lille have started to engage citizens with their climate plan through so-called ‘Climate Cafes’, where groups of citizens came together on a voluntary basis, facilitated by the municipality. They gathered in local pubs or restaurants to discuss what they could do as a group living in the same district. These events were a positive experience from both the perspective of the municipality as well as the involved citizens. A seed was planted and in Lille they’re looking to grow this into wider and more sustained citizen involvement.

Bottom up approaches can be highly effective as well. The Transition Model has lots of examples from diverse communities across the globe of how small grass roots initiatives start learning more about adapting energy plans to their own local circumstances to engage a significant proportion of the people in their community. They raise awareness and connect with existing groups, including local government.

An inspiring example of a successful collaboration between local government and the community is Monteveglio, Italy. The local authority signed a strategic partnership with the local transition network and has implemented their Energy Descent Plan. It is successful because the authorities and the transition movement have a shared view of the issues.

Reinventing governance?

What does successful local engagement look like, and what is the role of the citizen? Some argue that engaging citizens is pivotal because individual behaviour is responsible for a substantial share of the total carbon emissions. Some see bottom up approaches as the way forward, these could blossom for various reasons for example as a response to the economic crisis or ‘just’ from the shared enthusiasm of a group of people. Some are perhaps worried the ‘burden’ is shifted to citizens, letting government off the hook.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It’s about finding that space where citizens and authorities can find each other, develop a shared understanding of what a low carbon future looks like and be mutually supportive in achieving that goal. What this will look like depends on the local context, governance structures, and interests from all stakeholders involved, including citizens.

Local engagement will probably be most effective on that intersection: where citizens are empowered to engage with government, and government demonstrates strong leadership, involves citizens from the start but also has the courage to step back and let things happen on the ground.


Image by James Cridland



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