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Voice and Choice

Opening the Door To Environmental Democracy

Voice and Choice finds that governments have made significant progress in establishing the legal infrastructure of rights and opportunities for “access”. Constitutions and laws now guarantee freedom of information in more than 69 countries. Many governments have enacted administrative processes, such as environmental impact assessments, that mandate public
participation. Progress toward the implementation of these policies has, however, been slower, reflecting the profound transformations necessary to achieve a level of openness in which governments and civil society share a commitment to environmental democracy.

Executive Summary

This publication represents the culmination of several years of research, experimentation, and reform by governments, civil society organizations, and industry in implementing access to information, public participation, and access to justice in decisions that affect the environment. Voice and Choice is an interim report of the Access Initiative, and captures the results of the network’s first efforts to assess the adoption and implementation of environmental access rights. As an interim report, its main purpose is to begin to answer the questions, “Where are we?” and “Where do we go from here?”

Chapter 1 Opening Access provides a theoretical and historical background for access rights and the relationship these rights seek to establish between governments and people in the context of environmental decision-making. Reformers at the convergence of agendas in environment, governance, and human rights have already made significant inroads in measuring, analyzing, and promoting more open and transparent governance around natural resources. The chapter also presents The Access Initiative (TAI) method for assessing government provision of access rights and shows a number of general results of these assessments.

Chapter 2 Strengthening the Argument for Access provides access proponents within and outside of government a broad palette of arguments to use in order to spur reform in decision-making processes. The chapter outlines three key arguments for access rights, under the assumption that access proponents and governments will find some arguments more compelling than others given their unique circumstances. First, the chapter argues that access rights are human rights grounded in international law. Second, the chapter briefly touches upon the larger arguments other researchers have made about the positive relationship between good governance and growth at the national level. Third, the chapter looks at evidence about how public participation, access to information, and access to justice affect the quality of decisions on the small scale.

Chapter 3 Access Hurdles presents and draws lessons from original research completed by the TAI network. Aggregated data from this research shows that while access to information law and public participation law have grown, implementation is still lacking. In order to deal with this, the chapter identifies hurdles to further implementation of access rights and presents case studies where access proponents have encountered, and in some cases, overcome these hurdles. We group the sections of this chapter under four headings:

  • Managing Vested Interests and the Politics of Access. Data from TAI country assessments and case studies suggests that vested interests play a signifi cant role in controlling the fl ow of information and participation. We attempt to address this challenge by proposing strategies for overcoming these interests through coalition-building and highlight the importance of messaging to engage the public.
  • Identifying the Gaps in Information Systems. Not all systems for releasing environmental information suffer from the same gaps. We look at the elements of a complete environmental information system including collection, analysis, and dissemination. A series of case studies and fi ndings highlight the importance of ensuring the availability, publicity, and usability of information.
  • Fostering a Culture of Openness. This section describes how opening participation to the public affects the ‘environmental quality’ of a decision. While not offering a defi nitive answer on the subject, lessons on how to reconcile the need for expert deliberation with the demand for public input.
  • Investing in Access Capacity. Support for government offi cials and for civil society organizations to supply and demand access is essential for environmental democracy. This section examines the extent and the sustainability of efforts to create this cycle of engagement.

Chapter 4: Recommendations culls lessons from the previous chapters. The fi rst part of the chapters presents next steps for governments in implementing access rights while the second section presents ideas for access proponents to use to promote these reforms more generally.

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