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Home DDC Blog Knowledge Building Public Involvement Usually Leads to Better Environmental Decision-making

Public Involvement Usually Leads to Better Environmental Decision-making

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The National Academies just published a report on public participation in environmental decision making. Here’s a segment of the press release: "When done correctly, public participation improves the quality of federal agencies’ decisions about the environment, says a new report from the National Research Council. Well-managed public involvement also increases the legitimacy of decisions in the eyes of those affected by them, which makes it more likely that the decisions will be implemented effectively."

The press release goes on to say,

 

Agencies should recognize public participation as valuable to their objectives, not just as a formality required by the law, the report says. It details principles and approaches agencies can use to successfully involve the public.

 

In response to legislation and pressure from citizens’ groups over the last three decades, federal agencies have taken steps to include the public in a wide range of environmental decisions, such as how best to clean up Superfund sites or manage federal forest lands. Although some form of public participation is often required by law, agencies usually have broad discretion about the extent of that involvement. Approaches vary widely, from holding public information-gathering meetings to forming advisory groups to actively including citizens in making and implementing decisions.

Proponents of public participation argue that those who must live with the outcome of an environmental decision should have some influence on it. Critics maintain that public participation slows decision making and can lower its quality by including people unfamiliar with the science involved. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and departments of Energy and Agriculture asked the Research Council to assess whether public participation achieves desirable outcomes, and under what conditions.

Substantial evidence indicates that public participation is more likely to improve than to undermine the quality of decisions, the report says. Although scientists are usually in the best position to analyze the effects of environmental processes and actions, good analysis often requires information about local conditions, which is most likely to come from residents. Moreover, public values and concerns are important to frame the scientific questions asked, to ensure that the analyses address all of the issues relevant to those affected.

Studies show that public participation also tends to increase the legitimacy of agency decisions, which in turn raises the likelihood that they can be implemented effectively and efficiently. And the process itself builds citizens’ knowledge of the scientific aspects of environmental issues, which increases their ability to engage in future decisions.

The report recommends ways agencies can manage public participation effectively. A key factor in having a good outcome is matching the process to the context; there is no one right way to design public participation for all environmental issues. An agency should make clear at the outset how it intends to use the public’s input, and should commit adequate staff and resources to public participation efforts. And agencies and the public should collaborate to identify difficulties that might arise during the participatory process, select ways to address them, monitor the results, and adjust procedures as needed.

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The Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC) is a network of practitioners and researchers representing more than 50 organizations and universities, collaborating to strengthen the field of deliberative democracy. The Consortium seeks to support research activities and to advance practice at all levels of government, in North America and around the world.

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JPD logoThe Journal of Public Deliberation is a collaboration between the DDC, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), and the Center for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University. An online, refereed journal, JPD is the flagship publication in its field, and an important catalyst for the rapid growth of interest in democracy, citizenship, and participation. Find it at http://services.bepress.com/jpd.

 

DDC eBulletin

  • Want training in public participation? Choose the courses you want to see at the IAP2 Skills Symposium in late May – http://ow.ly/KctPx Trainers include Matt Leighninger, Tina Nabatchi, Steve Clift, Anne Carroll, Kyle Bozentko, and Marty Rozelle.
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  • The National Civic League has announced the finalists for the 2015 All-America City Award – http://ow.ly/L0AbM @allamericacity
  • Can we fix voting, a part of democracy, without strengthening the other aspects of democracy? Probably not. http://ow.ly/Krz2N And why would we, when the more participatory aspects of democracy offer so many other benefits? Unfortunately, none of those are mentioned in this piece, which is another example of why conflating “democracy” with voting doesn’t help.
  • “Rather than blame our leaders for the dysfunction, we need to change the game.” http://ow.ly/KsHDx This article includes some examples of how engaging citizens in participatory ways – and treating democracy as more than just voting – can tackle problems like climate change that seem politically impossible to address.

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