New information technologies in public participation: a challenge to old decision- making institutional frameworks

Pedro Ferraz de Abreu, PhD

"Given the progress in information technology (IT) in the past 30 years, I hypothesized that radically new conditions exist for a qualitative improvement in public participation in decision-making. Two examples of key challenges are: 1) to bring more interaction early-on to the dialogue between citizens and decision-makers, rather than a "tunnel" two-step process (compile opinions-consider them at the very end); 2) to enable common, lay citizens to give meaningful contributions to decisions that require expert knowledge to understand the alternatives available.

In order to test my hypothesis, I developed a prototype of an Intelligent Multimedia System to support public and technical consultation and, together with Internet-based collaborative tools, introduced it in the environmental impact assessment review process, for the solid urban waste incinerator of S. João da Talha, Portugal.

Supported by the evidence gathered from this experiment and by my analysis of the qualitative jump these IT developments represent, I argue that it is possible to use this new IT to capture and represent meaningful planning knowledge and with it enable multiple improvements in the public consultation, both qualitatively and quantitatively. On the other hand, observing the institutional responses and constraints during the process, my findings strongly suggest that the current institutional and regulatory context, inherited from old frameworks, is an impediment to fully set in place the improvements enabled by these IT developments. In other words, the decision-making institutional framework has not evolved at a pace fast enough to provide adequate responses to the challenges brought by the new IT.

My findings also illustrate how different actors in a decision-making process are constrained by these old frameworks to follow different planning paradigms, further emphasizing the need to adjust to the new technology reality."

in "New information technologies in public participation: a challenge to old decision- making institutional frameworks", PhD Thesis, MIT, 2002.