The rising tide of public participation

The rising tide of public participation

From water quality to flood prevention, stakeholders are more involved with water issues in the Danube River Basin – which is proving to be an important tool to secure precious resources now, and for future generations.


Susanne Brandstetter is public relations manager for water at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management and Chairperson of the ICPDR’s Public Participation Expert Group.

With increasingly higher stakes for water resources, such as climate change, it is critical to bring all stakeholders on board to protect those resources. Susanne Brandstetter – public relations manager for water at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management, as well as Chairperson of the ICPDR’s Public Participation Expert Group – speaks about how to get stakeholders involved actively in sustainable water management and the future of public participation in the Danube River Basin.

Dabube Watch: What is your personal relationship to the Danube River?

Susanne Brandstetter: I was born near the Danube River in Lower Austria and I had strong connections to the river while growing up. My childhood memories are of trips to the small village of Grein in Upper Austria for ice cream, or to the Wachau, which continues to be a fascinating landscape for me now.

Professionally, I’ve been connected to the river for years – first studying Geography at University and especially since working for the Ministry. And of course with my dedication to working with the ICPDR.

Water is my life. It means a lot to me – I feel the value, power and spirit – and I see how much it gives us so that I’m more than happy to work for its protection.

What is your philosophy of involvement and participation?

Information is the crucial point of interest. If you provide appropriate information, you open the doors to anyone who is ready and interested to be a part of the decision. Without appropriate, tailor-made and targeted information you can’t move ahead to the next steps of public participation. Information has to be translated from technical terminology to the language of the people – and kept simple and easy to understand for everybody! You can spend a lot of creativity to design this information in the best way and attract people's interest. This delivers the stable foundation for next steps like consultation and public participation as the highest level of involvement.

Decisions made with broad involvement from different stakeholders, and also especially from the public, achieve broader acceptance and ultimately improve the outcome. The process often looks difficult from the outside, but in the end all of this effort makes a real difference if you want to achieve something stable.

How does one motivate stakeholders to get involved?

To motivate stakeholders, you first have to find out who they are exactly – which is why a stakeholder analysis is so important. Once this is done, you should try to reach out to motivated people in the relevant stakeholder groups or organisations willing to take part in a fair and transparent process. We must all accept that decision-making takes place on another level and may be against the interests of one or another stakeholder. Therefore transparency is most important and you should always keep an eye on this during the whole process of public participation.

However, for stakeholders from sectors such as agriculture, which are traditionally difficult to motivate, it is clear that you have to find special ways of negotiating. But I am quite sure that if you can find the right track you could reach out to all sorts of stakeholders. The ICPDR will be exploring this sector in the future because it is so important to the field of water quality.

Reaching out to and listening to stakeholders is critical, as we see for example with young people. You have to give a lot of attention to young people – by using fancy material, for example – and you have to take them seriously. They can feel it if they are just being used for a single purpose or if there is a real interest in their opinion. In Austria we’ve found that young people are very easy to motivate if you use the right channels and attract them – and of course digital communication plays an important role here. We have had a lot of success with ongoing actions to get young people involved in the field of water with our youth platform

What public participation projects outside the Danube region do you think the ICPDR can learn from?

We are very fortunate that the ICPDR has excellent observers who are very active in public participation and in the expert group meetings. They share their knowledge of public outreach campaigns with us and, importantly, they share information about the Danube in their own communication networks.

At a larger scale, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) had a dedicated focus on water in 2015. The OSCE has a long track record of supporting countries to jointly manage water resources sustainably and has successfully supported cooperation among its participating states. High level events took place with a strong focus on outreach activities and sharing experiences. I was able to join the activities as a moderator and give a presentation showcasing our efforts in the Danube Basin for raising awareness and public participation. The interest especially in our experience was extremely high – I received a lot of positive feedback concerning our work and the results. It was a great opportunity to share our success story with so many countries outside the Danube River Basin as well and to explore new topics related to water.

I think that such opportunities prove that a wider exchange on communication, information and participation is necessary. I really appreciate that Article 14 of the EU Water Framework Directive clarifies the importance of those three aspects. Nevertheless I believe that more active discussion in this regard is needed at EU level. There is no working group tackling coordinated communication and public participation for water-related issues, and there are not enough Member States sharing useful experiences in this field. I would like to see a network such as the ICPDR’s Public Participation Expert Group operating at the EU level.

Where will communication and public participation be in five or ten years?

In the future I see public participation playing an important role in the ICPDR – with its dedicated expert group and technical expert in the Secretariat as well as high recognition in ICPDR bodies – and a big role outside the Danube in other river commissions.

Education and awareness-raising will remain our focus, and in five or ten years, public participation will be increasingly digital. We will have more technology and methods for direct communication and online voting – using real-time videos, etc. Social media will definitely be more important in the future. Already it is a very important tool for official bodies like ministries, for policy makers and of course also for NGOs to mobilise on a broad scale.

Social media can help official bodies like ICPDR to reach more stakeholders. People living all over will have access to information and can participate, especially at local level, in order to contribute to the sustainable management of water resources. It is so critical not to miss this ‘social evolution’, otherwise your messages may be lost in the future.

However, I believe we should not underestimate the resources needed to implement this evolution and to undertake necessary actions in time. The Public Participation Expert Group could play an essential role matching these new challenges. And for sure – budget and time constraints will also be very tricky issues we have to handle in the future. I am ready to take on all future tasks and challenges and will do my best as Chairperson of the Public Participation Expert Group – it is a huge honour and a pleasure for me chairing this group. I would like to take this opportunity to thank ICPDR and especially “my working group” for the ongoing highly motivated and engaged work and for being excellent focal points of our duties in the countries. And great thanks also to our associated network of observers. Concluding I invite the whole ‘Danube Family’ to step into this future together, and join us in our motto: WE LOVE DANUBE.

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