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Public Participation

By
Heidi Burgess

Updated May 2013

 

Definition:

Any of a large variety of techniques that allow and encourage the public to participate in the decision making processes of their government(s) at the local, state, and federal level.

Users:

Anyone concerned about public issues and government agencies engaged in decision making.

Description:

In the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, the public became much more concerned about and involved in governmental decision making processes than they had been before. Pressures for increasing the level of public participation in government decision making at the local, state, and federal levels has led to a wide variety of processes that are utilized to enable the public to learn about, and have input into, governmental decisions. While this has increased the confidence that the public has in its governmental decision making process--at least at the local level--it has also slowed that process down, and at some times, almost brought it to a halt, as different public interest groups clash over the most desirable option to pursue.

The most common (but often least effective) form of public participation is the public hearing. Here a panel of government agency representatives gives a presentation on a proposed decision, and then the public is asked to stand up and give short (1-3 minute) speeches indicating their thoughts on the proposed action. Typically, only the people who are opposed to the decision come to such hearings. Although the government agency can get a feel for the extent and nature of the opposition, public hearings rarely give a good indication of overall public opinion, nor do they yield good information about why people feel the way they do. Thus, they do not contribute effectively to problem solving or mutual cooperation.

Other forms of public participation may yield more helpful information, but they are all slower and/or more expensive. Advisory committees made up of citizens can be better measures of public interests, though they require a level of commitment from the members that few people are willing and able to provide. Also, citizen members often have different values than expert committee members. These value differences often lead to continuous conflicts within the advisory committees, which may detract from the committee’s' effectiveness.

Ballot initiatives are another form of public participation which has greatly increased in popularity in the United States over the last decade. Ballot initiatives are laws or constitutional amendments that are proposed and voted upon by the public, not by a legislative body. While the ability to act as a legislature gives the public much more power over public decisions, as the number of initiatives increases, more and more people are voting on things they do not really understand. This leads to the charge that laws are passed in error, not because the public support for them is actually strong. In addition, ballot initiatives often oversimplify problems and solutions, and they generally do not balance one set of interests against another. For that reason, they often do not yield effective remedies to problems, despite their popular support.

Standards for Public Participation Processes

The International Association for Public Participation lists seven standards for public participation:

  1. The public should have a say in decisions about actions that affect their lives.
  2. Public participation includes the promise that the public's contribution will influence the decision.
  3. The process communicates the interests and meets the process needs of all participants.
  4. The process seeks out and facilitates the involvement of people potentially affected by the proposed decision.
  5. The process involves participants in defining how they will participate--thus how the process will be structured.
  6. The public participation process provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
  7. The public participation process communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

Other standards, suggested by the Co-Intelligence Institute include:

  1. Involve all "relevant" parties.
  2. "Empower the people's engagement"--in other words, get them feeling "involved."
  3. Utilize multiple "forms of knowing." This includes rational, scientific methods, narrative (story-telling methods), intuitive methods, etc.
  4. Ensure high-quality dialogue.
  5. Establish and on-going participatory process (as opposed to, for instance, a one-shot public hearing).
  6. Move from positions to interests, needs, and mutual solutions.
  7. Help people feel fully heard.

Example:

Boulder, Colorado is a picturesque city located at the base of the Rocky Mountains. It is surrounded by many square miles of open space, purchased by the city at considerable taxpayer expense. While the Boulder citizenry has long supported the purchase and maintenance of open space, there are many differing opinions about why it is important and how it should be used. Some see it primarily as a recreational resource: They want to hike, bike, run, and observe nature in the wild foothill areas. Others see it as a buffer against further development, either up into the mountains, or going out into the plains or south towards larger Denver. Still others see it as habitat preservation. They want it to be closed to public use so it can be a more pristine and protected habitat for other species. These differences have led to serious difficulties for the Open Space and Mountain Parks Department (OSMP), which tries to set regulation for the land's management and use. In order to deal with these conflicts, the department has utilized a variety of public participation methods: public hearings, an advisory committee, even referenda. In the past, these techniques have helped guide policy to some extent, although the strong division of opinion and the lack of any consensus process has hampered effective public decision making in the case and conflict continued.  Finally, in 2009, the OSMP instituted a two-year collaborative process involving representatives of environmental organizations, recreation groups, neighborhood groups, and city officials.  The end result was a consensus plan for open space and mountain park regulations that seems to have been more widely accepted by all user groups than any of the other past plans or agreements.  

Applications:

Public participation is important when any government administrative decision is made that is likely to affect the public. Although it can slow the decision making process down, it is usually legally required, and can avoid costly lawsuits at the other end if unpopular decisions are made without adequate public input.

Links to Related Articles:

Environmental Policy Dispute
Collaborative Problem Solving and Consensus Building

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