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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making 7 Context: The Issue This chapter and the next review evidence on how the context in which an environmental decision is made influences public participation. By context we mean factors that are outside the control of those who convene a public participation process, at least in the short term. These factors may explain the variation in results associated with particular modes of practice in public participation, and they must be taken into account in planning and implementing public participation. Unfortunately there is no established theory that specifies which contextual factors matter, and how they matter, to the results of public participation. We consider contextual factors under five broad categories of attributes that cover much of the variation: the purpose of the process (assessment or decision making); the environmental issue under consideration; the state of the relevant science, including scientific uncertainties and disagreements; the responsible agency and the laws and external organizations that affect the assessment or decision; and the interested and affected parties. We examine the first three, issue-related aspects of context in this chapter; we examine the last two, the people-related aspects, in Chapter 8. In both chapters, we draw conclusions from the range of available evidence about whether these contextual factors make a difference in terms of the likelihood of a successful process or in what a convening organization needs to do to make the process successful. The available evidence indicates that some contextual factors make little difference to the effects of public participation. Others can make an important difference, although they seldom present insurmountable barriers to successful public participation or determine the results in and of them-
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making selves. Rather, contextual factors can make the principles of good public participation described in Chapters 4-6 harder to implement. In this chapter and the next, we describe some of these relationships and provide examples of tools that practitioners have used to attempt to overcome contextual difficulties, although evidence on the efficacy of these tools is weak. For this reason and others elaborated in Chapter 8, we do not recommend any of the tools discussed as “best practice.” In Chapter 9, we recommend a process for identifying effective ways to address the various difficulties that can arise in the many contexts of public participation. The evidence reviewed in this chapter and the next shows that achieving quality and legitimacy and building capacity in public participation depend very much on how well a participatory process is tailored to the challenges or potential difficulties presented in any specific context. Addressing certain key questions can aid substantially in diagnosing them. Such diagnosis, in turn, enables more explicit consideration of processes and approaches that can help overcome potential problems or make accommodations for them. Our review of available knowledge and experience enables us to describe a set of diagnostic questions that can be useful for identifying those aspects of a situation that are likely to make a difference in the outcome of a public participation process and the ways in which these contextual factors may affect the process. Such diagnosis can form the basis for tailoring participation processes for more successful results. PURPOSE OF THE PROCESS: ASSESSMENT OR DECISION MAKING The evidence indicates that the determinants of successful public participation are largely the same for processes focused on assessment and those focused on decision making. Direct comparisons of the two purposes are not possible because of a lack of studies of multiple public participation cases that include both assessment and decision-making objectives. However, it is possible to consider whether success is easier to achieve or whether different factors are conducive to success when the objectives are different (Stirling, 2006). Public participation in environmental assessments involves a shift away from an approach in which only scientists participated in gathering and synthesizing information, and reflects increasing acceptance of the idea that nonscientists possess knowledge and expertise that complements the expertise of the scientific community and can help improve environmental understanding, particularly when it is applied to practical problems. Experience is accumulating as the conveners of assessments respond to calls for public involvement in risk assessment (National Research Council, 1989,
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making 1994, 1996; President/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management, 1997a,b) and global environmental change assessment (National Research Council, 2007a). Government science agencies at various levels and in different countries have increasingly engaged publics in environmental assessments (Kasemir et al., 2003). Examples include the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (http://www.usgcrp.gov/usgcrp/nacc/default.htm), the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (http://www.maweb.org/en/index.aspx), and the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (http://www.acia.uaf.edu/) (see National Research Council, 2007a). The Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management (1997b:75-76) offered, in the report subsection on “Identifying Highly Exposed Populations,” a compelling example of how public participation in environmental assessment can contribute to “getting the science right” by gathering important information for analysis that is not otherwise available. Some population groups are at increased risk for toxic effects of chemical exposures because their exposures are greater than those of other population groups. Cultural practices, occupational exposures, behavior patterns, eating habits, and effects of related chemicals can be responsible. The high-risk subpopulations might be of special concern when risk assessments are conducted and risk management decisions are made. Risk assessors often have not sought information from knowledgeable citizens and consequently have not explicitly considered specific exposure conditions that might be present in minority group communities, certain occupational settings, or areas of particular socioeconomic status. The commission recommended broad participation and further acknowledged the possibility that public engagement might even enhance the quality of risk management decision making (Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management, 1997b:76-77): Affected parties should be consulted in the early stages of an assessment to obtain information about all known sources of exposure to a particular chemical and related chemicals and to characterize exposure factors peculiar to particular subpopulations…. Specific information gathered from the community and stakeholders could reduce the need for default assumptions and improve the quality of risk assessments…. Community assistance in characterizing exposure factors peculiar to particular segments of the population can focus a risk assessment and broaden risk management options. There are relatively few careful analyses comparing different degrees of public participation in comparable environmental assessments. As we note
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making in Chapter 3, a study of a set of global environmental assessments (Mitchell et al., 2006) found that the extent of stakeholder involvement was strongly and positively associated with the perceived impacts of the assessments and that those impacts were dependent on the scientific credibility of the assessments, their legitimacy, and on whether their results were perceived as decision relevant. Participation, the study concluded, fosters all three results. The National Research Council (2007a) study of global change assessments similarly noted the advantages of broad participation but also noted costs in terms of efficiency. A review of several European environmental assessments found that stakeholder participation has increased the knowledge base of modelers and added credibility to both the assessment process and the concerns of stakeholders (Welp et al., 2007). Moser (2005) and Morgan et al. (2005) provide detailed analyses of the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change. The national assessment was perhaps the most ambitious effort yet undertaken in the United States to engage scientists and citizens in a deliberative process intended to produce an assessment rather than policy recommendations. The results of these analyses are complex. Participants varied considerably in their views of whether or not the national assessment was successful in producing sound information about climate change and its impacts, giving it an average grade of a high “C” or low “B.” There seemed to be a general sense among participants that the idea behind the assessment was sound and the process useful, but that the effort did not have sufficient resources, an important issue for participation in decisions as well (discussed in Chapter 4). The meaning of these data is unclear because of the absence of comparable cases, which would make it possible to determine whether respondents’ lukewarm evaluations reflected the character of climate change as an environmental problem, the nature of public participation in an assessment rather than a policy process, the shortage of resources, or other issues. A fairly extensive body of practice-based knowledge exists for evaluating the effects of public participation in environmental assessment and determining which factors affect them, much of it examined in reviews of the practice of risk assessment (e.g., National Research Council, 1996; Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management, 1997a,b) and in the recent study of global change assessments (National Research Council, 2007a; Welp et al., 2007). As is discussed in Chapter 3, there is strong convergence between the practical lessons that come out of this experience and the ones drawn by practitioners of regulatory negotiation, environmental dispute resolution, and other decision-focused public participation processes. We see no evidence to support organizing public participation differently for supporting assessments and for decisions.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making NATURE OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE The evidence indicates that subject matter of an environmental assessment or decision has little direct effect on the ability of the public participation process to produce good results. Certain environmental issues, because of specific characteristics, often create particular difficulties in participatory processes that, if left unaddressed, can affect the likelihood of success. However, the nature of the issue by itself is not the determining factor in achieving successful results. Much more important is the design of the processes to address potential difficulties. Subject Matter Subject matter has little direct effect on the results of participation. Public participation is used in environmental assessment and decision-making processes related to highly diverse substantive issues: air quality standards, biotechnology policy, brownfields remediation, climate change, dam relicensing, forest planning, habitat restoration, highway construction, oceans policy, water allocation, wetlands protection, and many other topics. Subject matter is also diverse at an abstract level: one can distinguish decision processes that focus on collective goods (resources) or collective bads (pollution); involve human health effects or nonhealth effects; do or do not raise environmental justice issues; do or do not concern harm to innocents; and so forth. These differences suggest to some that the ways in which public participation efforts unfold and, in particular, the factors leading to better or worse outcomes, may differ substantially on the basis of the subject. Agencies or divisions of agencies are usually specialized around one or a few substantive areas. Specialists in a substantive area sometimes believe that that area is unique, so that experience in other areas is not relevant. Many are skeptical, for example, that there is any useful transfer of knowledge from forest planning to remediating a contaminated site or to engaging the public in assessments of climate change impacts. This argument seems to make intuitive sense. Public concerns are different in different substantive domains. They can vary widely. For example, concern in one setting may focus on health risks to a community, especially children, and on the costs of cleanup of toxic contamination. In another setting, concern may focus on the revenues to be generated by timber harvesting and the reduction of ancient forest habitat. In other settings, concern may focus on the competition for water for municipal, agricultural, and recreational uses or any of dozens of other issues. Yet despite these differences, the proposition that successful outcomes are more likely to be achieved for some environmental issues than others finds little support in research on public participation. Studies that have compared public partici-
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making pation in different problem contexts generally fail to find that the type of environmental problem is related to the likelihood of successful results (e.g., Bingham, 1986; Consensus Building Institute, 1999; Beierle and Cayford, 2002; Mitchell et al., 2006). These studies also suggest that the factors that lead to better or worse outcomes are essentially the same across types of environmental issues. For example, the geographic scale of the issues or the number of agencies with jurisdiction over aspects of the decision to be made are important attributes to consider in the design of a participation process, regardless of whether the environmental issue is toxic waste management, ecosystem planning, or climate change assessment. Beierle and Cayford (2002:40-41) conclude from their extensive comparative study that “differences among environmental issues, preexisting relationships, and institutional contexts appear to play surprisingly small roles in determining whether public participation is successful…. [They] play a role in how participatory processes play out, but they do not appear to predetermine outcomes.” Potential Difficulties Environmental issues may have certain characteristics that predispose to particular difficulties in participatory processes. The available evidence suggests that these characteristics affect public participation by making it easier or harder to implement the principles of good practice described in Chapters 4-6, such as clarity of purpose, inclusiveness of representation, and availability of decision-relevant information. It is the way such difficulties are addressed, more than the environmental issue, that affects the prospects for success. For example, temporal and spatial scales associated with an issue may affect the number of interested and affected parties and who among them is able to participate. Such characteristics as complexity of the issues, qualitative characteristics of the hazards, and collective action and common-pool attributes can also affect the complexities of the relationships among the parties and the processes of organizing and deliberating necessary for an effective public participation process. We explore each of these separately. Temporal Scale Issues of the time scale appropriate for environmental decision making are at the heart of many debates about sustainability. For example, decision making about long-lived environmental hazards can create challenges because of needs for long-term monitoring (Leach, Sabatier, and Quinn, 2005). Research on common-pool resource management has long emphasized the need for institutional mechanisms involving all resource users
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making (e.g., Ostrom, 1990; National Research Council, 2002a), and there has been increasing interest in public participation in the design of institutional mechanisms for addressing such long-lived problems as ecosystem restoration and management of radioactive waste. For example, a diverse set of civic leaders in Washington State convened a participatory initiative across 14 watersheds following the listing of Puget Sound Chinook salmon as an endangered species. The effort resulted in the adoption of a federal recovery plan and state legislation in 2007 establishing the Puget Sound Partnership, a new state agency with cabinet-level status governed by a seven-member “leadership council.” The literature on public participation has not yet addressed temporal scale explicitly other than to say that representation of the interests of future generations and sustaining collaborative governance mechanisms for problems spanning generations pose obvious difficulties. It is not clear how well public participation processes deal with the difficult trade-offs between short-term and long-term benefits, costs, and risks. Certainly one of the goals of participation processes is to address the beliefs and values of affected publics on just such trade-offs, and, if possible, develop a consensus on such issues that can guide decision making. Many of the tools of conflict resolution, decision science, and economics are intended to aid in such efforts. See Chapter 8 for further discussion of value trade-offs. Spatial Scale The scale or scope of the problem plays an important role in defining who the appropriate public is (Markus, Chess, and Shannon, 2005). For some local environmental problems, such as remediating contaminated sites, it can be relatively easy to identify the affected population. Other issues are localized but have aspects that are of broader public concern. For example, a decision to develop mineral resources in a wilderness area may have very localized economic and ecological effects but generate national or global interest, perhaps because of an endangered species. Some environmental issues, such as transport of air pollutants and the management of the Great Lakes, are regional. Still others, such as climate change and ozone depletion, are global in scope. There are some indications that environmental issues with well-defined geographic boundaries can provide a focus that is compelling to participants (Wondolleck and Yaffee, 1997). The limited available evidence suggests that the success of public participation processes does not depend on whether the issue is local, regional, or national. Processes conducted at large geographic and institutional scales do present potential difficulties for public participation, notably that of ensuring adequate access and representation of the number and range of interested and affected parties. In such situations, practitioners have used a
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making variety of formats, including holding workshops in multiple locations, Internet participation, study circles, deliberative polling, and formal representative processes, such as blue-ribbon commissions or mediated negotiations among organized interests. With sufficient resources, each of these can be designed to achieve representation over large geographic scales. Achieving inclusive representation when both local and regional or national interests exist may pose the greatest difficulties. When resources permit, multiple processes with different formats can be used so that processes suitable for local participation can be linked to processes that can reach those at a distance who may be concerned about a local action. For example, in its Western Oregon Plan Revision process, the Bureau of Land Management held dozens of local open houses combined with an Internet site for electronic submission of comments, periodic newsletters, and regular meetings with “formal cooperators,” including state and federal agencies and representatives of many of the affected western Oregon counties. As Lubell and Leach (2005) point out, environmental problems that span political boundaries cannot be addressed by individual agencies working in isolation. The more agencies that have jurisdiction over parts of the issue, the more difficult it can be to establish a clear purpose for the process and obtain commitments about how the results will be used. Interagency working groups are sometimes used to address this difficulty, although this approach can present complications of its own. The overwhelming majority of research on public participation has focused on local and regional issues in which participants live close enough to each other so that face-to-face interaction can be the basis of participation. While there are notable exceptions, most participation practitioners have more experience with local and regional processes than with national or international ones. National policy issues constituted only about 16 percent of the cases of public participation in Beierle and Cayford’s (2002) large database. That study compared state and national policy issues with site-specific issues and found a correlation between scale and a composite measure of success of only +0.02. So it would appear that there is little reason to expect differences in success based on geographic scale alone. However, the organizations that convened the large-scale cases included in their database appear to have had adequate resources for handling the access problems raised by scale. Although research is limited on the role that temporal and spatial scales play in the outcomes of public participation processes, scale clearly affects the level of effort required to get adequate participation by the range of relevant parties.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Complexity Although characteristics of the environmental issue do not strongly and directly affect the likelihood of a successful public participation process, they may affect the motivation of the potential participants, and motivation has a moderate positive correlation with success (Beierle and Cayford, 2002). Lubell and Leach (2005), for example, found that watershed partnerships are most likely to develop in severely degraded watersheds, an association that they attribute to the motivational levels of the participants. However, their overall conclusion is that “features of the watershed itself, such as size and problem severity, influence success much less than do the social and structural characteristics of the process.” Langbein (2005) found that participants’ satisfaction with negotiated rule-making procedures was lower when the process was more complex. Complexity of issues may contribute to diversity of perspectives—having many sides with a variety of interests in the outcome rather than only two perspectives: those opposed and those in favor of a particular action. It was this feature of the conflict more than the environmental issue itself that made a difference. Langbein’s finding for regulatory negotiations may also apply to many, if not most, other environmental contexts, such as water resource use plans, climate change policy, and transportation projects, in which there may be many sides. The more sides to an issue, the more likely that there will be multiple views about what the focus of a public participation process should be. This can make clarity of purpose difficult to achieve and requires careful attention to developing shared understandings of how different participants understand the issues. A member of the panel reported a local example. When a mining company with mineral rights near a national wildlife refuge in the Southeast took the initiative to involve interested stakeholders in its permit application process, many sides quickly emerged. Some were interested in the opportunity for new jobs associated with the mine; others brought the knowledge and historic concerns of regional Native American people; still others were concerned about the impact on the wildlife refuge. Some were responsible for implementing state law, others had federal responsibilities, and still others were local elected officials. These sides had differing views about what would constitute a legitimate purpose and scope for the process. Some participants would only participate if the question were whether or not to open the mine, while others would only participate if the question were how to mine in an environmentally appropriate manner. In this case, two processes were conducted in parallel, neither of which required participants to agree in advance that a permit would be approved. In one, the participants discussed the circumstances under which the company would withdraw its proposal. In the other, participants developed the scope and
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making approach to an environmental assessment process to identify potential impacts of the mine, if it were to be permitted. The result of the first process was an agreement not to open a mine. Qualitative Characteristics of Risks Considerable research shows that people’s judgments and levels of concern about environmental and other risks depend on a number of qualitative characteristics of the hazards in addition to the probability and magnitude of the potential harm (Fischhoff et al., 1978; Slovic, Fischoff, and Lichtenstein, 1979, 1980, 1985, 1986; Slovic, 1987, 2000; McDaniels, Axelrod, and Slovic, 1995, 1996; McDaniels et al., 1997; Lazo et al., 2000; Rosa, Matsuda, and Kleinhesselink, 2000; Morgan et al., 2001; Willis et al., 2004, 2005; Slimak and Dietz, 2006; Willis and DeKay, 2007). For example, things that are perceived as under individual control, such as smoking and driving, tend to be perceived as relatively less risky than things that are perceived as less controllable, such as exposure to toxic substances in the air and flying by commercial jetliner. Hazards that threaten especially catastrophic or dreaded outcomes, such as genetic damage to future generations, are likely to be perceived as especially risky. Research also indicates that such factors are also associated with people’s desires for stricter government regulations or other risk reduction efforts (e.g., Slovic, Fischhoff, and Lichtenstein, 1985; Slovic, 1987; Baron, Hershey, and Kunreuther, 2000; Willis et al., 2005), suggesting that the kinds of risks presented by environmental conditions—and the emotions that those risks evoke—may affect the propensity of otherwise uninvolved individuals to become involved. For example, Fischhoff, Nadai, and Fischhoff (2001) reported that firms that engage in activities involving unknown, dreaded hazards are more likely to be the target of consumer boycotts and more likely to be screened out by socially responsible investment funds (see also Stern, Dietz, and Black, 1986). An intense emotional reaction can act as a signal to take immediate action (e.g., Lazarus, 1991; Cacioppo et al., 1999; Loewenstein et al., 2001), but in some contexts it impairs effective responding (Holloway et al., 1997; DiGiovanni, 1999; Loewenstein et al., 2001). The difference may depend on the nature of the emotion evoked. Characteristics of the environmental issue that generate involvement can make it easier to secure participation from otherwise silent segments of the public. However, there are cases in which high motivation is accompanied by substantial mistrust of either the agency involved or of other participants, and that mistrust can make effective participation very difficult. The point is that it is not the character of the environmental problem itself that is critical, but, rather, the history of the problem and the psychologi-
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making cal and social factors and relationships that emerge from that history (e.g., Peters and Slovic, 1996; Loewenstein et al., 2001). Collective Action and Common-Pool Resources Research on collective action and the management of common-pool resources (e.g., Olson, 1965; Ostrom, 1990; National Research Council, 2002a; Dietz, Ostrom, and Stern, 2003) supports the idea that results depend much less on what kind of resource is involved than on the distribution of costs and benefits and other issues related to acquiring information, monitoring the environmental condition and the people involved, and resolving conflict. For example, some issues, such as construction of a new electrical transmission line, subway station, or highway, tend to align many who may benefit or lose a little on one side against a few on the other side who stand to lose or gain a lot. In such cases, effective participation by the many can be difficult to obtain. We return to the issue of involving the parties in Chapter 8. Motivation to resolve conflict can also be a critical component to a successful participation process. Such motivation may come from the nature and intensity of a person’s or group’s interests in a resource problem or from a shared recognition of the interdependent nature of participants’ interests (Selin and Myers, 1995; Yaffee, Wondolleck, and Lippman, 1997). Motivation may also increase when participants perceive a political stalemate in which there is a lack of viable alternatives to collaboration (U.S.D.A. Forest Service, 2000). These examples suggest some of the ways that the characteristics of an environmental issue or hazard may affect public participation processes by affecting the motivation of important segments of the public to participate. These findings have two hopeful implications. One is that good public participation practice, in the form of processes designed to meet the potential difficulties that the problem context may create, can improve results for any kind of environmental issue. The other is that what is learned from experiences with public participation in one problem area can be transferred to others: strategies for addressing potential difficulties may be transferable across environmental issues. THE SCIENCE Although scientific complexity and uncertainty are often cited as barriers to effective public participation and although scientific knowledge is nearly always limited relative to the question being asked, the available evidence fails to support the contention that incomplete or difficult science precludes effective public participation. How the available knowledge is
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making toxic chemicals (National Research Council, 1983, 1994; Presidential/ Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management, 1997a,b), but not in others, such as natural resource management. Thus, the readiness of scientists to characterize uncertainty for interested and affected parties may be different across environmental issues. Courts have emphasized process in responding to challenges based on claims of uncertainty. For example, Judge C.L. Dwyer (1994, Seattle Audubon Society et al. v. James Lyons, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture et al.), in ruling that the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) was a legal exercise of administrative authority, did so based on the clear and transparent discussion of uncertainty both of knowledge and of the likely success of the decision itself. Because the agencies had clearly identified how they would continue to address the uncertainty issue, the court ruled that as long as the agencies met their own process requirements, the plan would continue to be upheld, but if they did not, the essential element of the plan—projecting management options into the future through an adaptive management framework—would be violated. The NWFP envisioned a continuous process of open analytic deliberation among scientists, managers, tribes, governments, other stakeholders, and the public as a mechanism for continuous learning—an expectation only partially met in practice. Like the difficulties associated with adequacy of information, characterizing uncertainty is a perennial challenge in environmental assessment and decision making. From the research and practitioner experience available, it appears that when uncertainty is at issue, the character of the relationships among the interested and affected parties, the convening agency, and the scientists becomes particularly important and that the way in which information is provided can also have a significant effect on results. As discussed in Chapter 6, there are ways of structuring the participation process that can enhance effective public engagement even in the face of uncertainty. Accessibility and Comprehensibility of Information A fundamental requisite of public participants’ making effective use of scientific information is that the information is available to them. This requires that participants have access to and are able to critically interpret scientific information. Both of these requirements can be difficult to meet in public participation processes. Participants may have trouble simply obtaining access to analyses. Scientific research is usually published in the peer-reviewed literature and in the “gray” literature of technical reports. Journals are available online but often only through expensive subscription services. Technical reports are increasingly available online as well and thus potentially accessible to a broad audience. But even if members of the public can view a copy of a scientific
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making analysis, it may be difficult to interpret. Scientific reports are usually written in the dense language of the fields of science that underpin the analysis, so most nonspecialists, and even specialists from different disciplines, find them very time-consuming to interpret or completely opaque. Some assessment activities have made special effort to make their reports publicly accessible. For example, data collected for the First U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change were made available on a website. Moser (2005:49) reported that “According to the CCSP staff, the National Assessment constitutes ‘the most popular product because it offers information at a scale that people care about.’ Between two major access sites … it is safe to assume that National Assessment material now sees 400-800 visits every day.” In a successor project to the National Assessment, a group of researchers collaborated with private-sector decisions makers (farmers, operators of recreation businesses) to develop a website that provides climate projections (http://www.pileus.msu.edu). The content of the website and the parameters projected were developed through a multiyear collaboration between researchers and the decision makers. Other techniques used in public participation processes to increase accessibility include summarizing technical materials in plain language, providing technical assistance grants to citizen groups, public education workshops or “open houses,” and including someone with technical expertise and broad credibility on the staff of the participation process to serve as a translator. In several advisory committees convened by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and charged with making recommendations for drinking water regulations, the processes have included a technical work group open to staff or volunteers from all participating organizations to enable broad access to information and broad participation in its analysis. Funding was sometimes made available for groups that did not have their own technical staff. In addition, EPA sometimes hired technical advisors to work for the advisory committee as a whole, playing a leadership role in the technical work group and serving as a translator of the results of the joint technical analyses to the advisory committees. Other experiments with making scientific information more accessible via the web are under way (e.g., Haklay, 2002, 2003; Harrison and Haklay, 2002; Kellogg and Mathur, 2003). These efforts are likely to yield methods that will greatly increase access to analyses and models. However, making them interpretable by those not trained in environmental science will remain a challenge. When understanding scientific or technical information is important to meaningful participation, it will be important for public participation efforts to invest in meeting the challenge. More generally, research into how to accomplish this will benefit a broad range of environmental public participation efforts.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Trustworthiness of Information We have alluded to the importance of trust in ensuring effective public participation around issues with a substantial scientific content. Here we elucidate how to anticipate issues of trust that may arise from the application of science in the context of environmental public participation. Chapter 6 discusses processes that have been used to address these issues. Scientific information can contribute to mistrust in many ways. For example, models and methodologies have often become targets for public wrath when they have been perceived as vehicles for justifying policy decisions with numbers that appear to be scientific but that cannot be verified by critics or that embody assumptions that seem patently incorrect to some of the parties (e.g., Jenni, Merkhofer, and Williams, 1995; Wynne, 1995; Yearley, 2000). They can generate mistrust when it is discovered that an analysis that is presented as comprehensive in fact glosses over important issues by making simplifying assumptions. For example, benefit-cost analyses are often presented without reminding the audience that the estimates are aggregate and do not address who pays the costs and who gets the benefits (e.g., Bentkover, Covello, and Mumpower, 1985; Smith and Desvouges, 1986; Fischhoff, 1989). On one hand, there are well-recognized difficulties with complex models when applied to public policy (e.g., Hoos, 1973; Van Asselt, 2000; Jaeger et al., 2001). Numerical outputs reflect input data, as well as judgments and assumptions put into the model, all of which can be subject to question and many of which may be hidden from public view. For example, models may focus on what can be quantified easily, which can result in a perhaps unintended but still less than transparent prioritization of certain variables. Possible results include incomplete or inaccurate analyses (and a poorly informed decision), if the variables that are included are not the only factors driving public concern (e.g., Cramer, Dietz, and Johnston, 1980; Dietz, 1987), and the perception of a less open or transparent process and, thus, poor acceptance of a potentially good decision. And the public may want levels of detail and certainty from models that are beyond the scope of the current state of the science. Dietz et al. (2004) found that estuary modelers and local planning officials had incompatible views about what to expect from models intended to guide land use decisions that would affect local estuaries. On the other hand, there are intriguing experiments with using computer models as tools to aid the deliberative process (e.g., Van den Belt, 2004). In an attempt to resolve water allocation issues on the Truckee and Carson Rivers in western Nevada, experts from the private sector, agricultural interests, environmental groups, and federal, tribal, and state agencies shared water supply forecast models with one another and made multiple
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making runs of these models to enhance transparency and provide their constituencies a shared perspective on similarities and differences in the results produced by the different models. More recently, the Institute for Water Resources at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has pioneered a “Shared Vision Planning” process that integrates participation and modeling (see http://www.svp.iwr.usace.army.mil/). Available evidence indicates that the complexity of scientific issues does not by itself present a significant barrier to effective public participation. Nonscientists can make meaningful use of science when managing complex environmental systems. For example, local communities of fishers can manage the complex ecosystems that produce their fish and can even link effectively to government agencies operating at a larger scale (Berkes, 2002). Complexity can require, however, that special effort be made to organize scientific analyses around questions that are salient to the decision and to participants (e.g., Wilson, 2002) and to ensure that the range of participants understands the science, including its limitations. Although some of the parties may desire a predictive understanding of a complex environmental system, it is important for scientists to be open about the limitations of the available science for producing such an understanding. When the situation is too complex to allow good prediction, assessments and decisions may be better informed by a set of plausible scenarios consistent with scientific knowledge than by poorly grounded predictive models (Brewer, 2007). Complexity can also provide fodder for disputes about what kinds of scientific analyses are needed and about the practical import of available knowledge (see below). EPA’s Total Coliform Rule and Distribution System Advisory Committee, formed in 2007, is a recent example of an effort to make information trustworthy. The advisory committee’s task was to make recommendations on revising an existing drinking water regulation to monitor water quality in distribution systems and on data collection and research needs for the future. The advisory committee requested information and analysis from a technical work group at its initial meetings to help define issues, developed options at later meetings and then, prior to evaluating those options, consulted with the technical work group about what information was and was not possible to generate to compare the impacts of those options. This iterative approach included explicit discussions of what information participants said would be relevant to their deliberations and what decision-relevant information would be possible to obtain. These discussions brought disagreements about the practical application of existing information to light and allowed those involved to address them to the extent possible. It is worth mentioning the possibility of claims of scientific bias or conflict of interest. Such claims can arise when scientists are employed by parties with vested interests or are retained by certain parties to provide
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making them with information but are not trusted by other parties to be fully forthcoming if the information is not advantageous to their clients. A particularly troublesome situation arises when scientific information comes from an agency with a track record of deceit. For example, it was claimed in the 1980s that the Department of Energy’s civilian radioactive waste program was still suffering from the reputation of the Atomic Energy Commission, which in the 1950s had attributed radioactive “fallout in St. Louis to Russian sources when it was known to have come from tests in Nevada” (National Research Council, 1989:120). Difficulties also arise when scientists have personal stakes in the issue, for example, when a scientist’s research may be affected by the decision to be made or, when a decision is about a resource or issue that has become the focus of the scientist’s professional life. In such cases, a scientist may engage in intentional or unintentional advocacy in the choice of objectives or methods when designing a study. Agency scientists are also sometimes accused of bias toward policies currently in force or that form part of the political agenda of the party in power. Such claims are obvious sources of mistrust in information and are worth looking for. They are best addressed by acknowledging the possibility and opening the scientific discussions to intellectual criticism from any of the parties. If the parties have sufficient resources to participate meaningfully in such discussions, openness is the best way to address bias claims. Various practices have been used to promote openness. In some situations, agencies have opened the process of nomination to formal peer review panels by consulting interested and affected parties. In other cases, public workshops have included interactive discussions about the science among panels composed of experts nominated by the parties, held in a “fishbowl,” a public setting. Technical work groups composed of experts that represent diverse parties can vet analyses prior to their presentation as part of a public participation process, sharing points of agreement and disagreement about methods, analyses, and interpretation along with the analyses. In addition, studies can begin with broad consultations to arrive at a collaboratively designed inquiry or joint fact-finding process. CONCLUSIONS Certain issue-related aspects of the context pose difficulties in achieving the goals of effective public participation; others are less consequential. The evidence supports several conclusions. The determinants of success are largely the same for participatory environmental assessments and decision-making processes. The environmental subject matter has little direct effect on partici-
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making pation outcomes. What is learned from experiences with public participation in one problem area can generally be transferred to other areas. Environmental subject matter can create particular difficulties for participation. For example, long-lived hazards require long-term monitoring and therefore continuing participation over time. Decisions regarding large-scale environmental systems create costs for participation associated with bringing people together over long distances. Scientific complexity and uncertainty do not preclude effective public participation. How the available knowledge is introduced and used in the process matters more than the characteristics of the knowledge itself. What matters is how the scientific information is integrated into the process. Concerns about procedural fairness and trust are more salient with scientific uncertainty, and it is therefore important to ensure that public participation processes provide for open and balanced consideration of the scientific issues, including gaps in knowledge, and to provide information in ways that facilitate understanding by nonscientists. Some contextual factors can create the potential for serious conflict among the parties. When issues may be framed in competing ways or when there may be credible claims of scientific bias, there is significant potential for conflict over the science. When the parties are polarized at the outset in terms of policy preferences and when some parties expect that other parties, or the responsible agency, may be proceeding in bad faith, there is significant potential for conflict over both science and policy. Such conditions make certain aspects of participatory processes especially important because it is possible to build trust in a process even among parties in fairly strong conflict. Several of the principles of good participation are likely to be especially important when the potential exists for serious conflict. These include transparency of process, inclusiveness, availability of decision-relevant information, explicitness about assumptions and uncertainties, independent review, and iteration. In sum, although certain characteristics of the issue context can create particular difficulties in public participation and in implementing particular principles of good practice discussed in Chapters 4-6, the difficulties can be addressed and often overcome through the use of various specific practices, tools, and techniques. It may be necessary to collect more information, make special efforts to characterize or discuss areas of incomplete knowledge and scientific uncertainty, or provide some of the parties with resources to allow them to understand the issues and the scientific information well enough to participate meaningfully. The possibility of different framings of the issues and of potentially credible claims of scientific bias call for practices of analytic deliberation that open scientific information to intellectual criticism and thus encourage scientists and others to question
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making their assumptions about what is important to analyze; how physical, biological, and social processes unfold; how to handle uncertainty; and related issues (Renn, 2004, 2008). Opening scientists’ judgments to comment by nonspecialists can be unsettling for the scientists. However, deciding which questions are important to ask involves judgments in which scientists and nonscientists alike have a legitimate voice. Transparency in the methods used to gather data and in the assumptions made in the analyses builds trust. Scientists still conduct the science. Involving the public in appropriate ways is consistent with the logic of the scientific process in that all aspects of an analysis are subject to constructive scrutiny and the analysis can be improved as a result. Table 7-1 provides a diagnostic guide to many of the difficulties associated with aspects of the issue context and to some ways that have been used to try to address them. It identifies particular contextual factors that can make it difficult to implement particular principles of good participation, notes the nature of the likely difficulties, and identifies some practices or techniques that have been used to address the difficulties. It is not meant as an endorsement of any of these practices: evidence is too weak and contexts are too varied for any such endorsement. However, we believe the guide can help agencies, practitioners, and the public anticipate difficulties and begin to think about possible responses. In Chapter 9, we recommend a process for selecting among those responses and addressing context-related difficulties in public participation. NOTES 1It does not follow that it is wise to exclude participants whose scientific knowledge is limited. Limiting the breadth of participation can have serious negative consequences for the overall process, as discussed in Chapter 5. Chapter 6 details practices that can aid in making scientific information useful in a linked process of analysis and deliberation and thus provides guidance on how to make scientific information accessible to those with limited scientific backgrounds. 2A difficulty is that while daily life may make people familiar with situations that involve “bets” in which the choice is between odds on the order of 1 in 100 and those on the order of 1 in 10, many environmental health risks require making choices in which the contrasting odds are 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 100,000. The latter numbers are far from the realm of experience of most citizens; however, their comprehension of them may be aided by the use of formal analytical tools.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making TABLE 7-1 Diagnostic Guide to Difficulties Related to the Issue in Public Participation Contextual Factor Principles That Become More Difficult to Achieve Difficulties Illustrative Practices for Addressing Difficultiesa Issue Factors Long temporal scale Inclusiveness Number of interested and affected parties Ability to participate (e.g., future generations) Create new, longer-lasting institutions Large spatial scale Inclusiveness Number and range of interested and affected parties Workshops in multiple locations Internet participation Study circles Deliberative polling Blue Ribbon commissions Large spatial scale Clarity of purpose Commitment to use the process to inform decisions Multiple agencies with jurisdiction over parts of the issue Interagency work groups Complexity Clarity of purpose Collaborative problem formulation Diversity of perspectives can increase with the complexity of the issue Frame issues in terms of reconciling interests Include multiple issue framings Collective action and common-pool resources Inclusiveness Motivation to participate is lower among those who stand to benefit or lose only a little Science Factors Inadequate information Collaborative problem formulation Missing information may make it difficult either to define the problem clearly or to solve it Joint fact finding Iterative processes, with steps to solicit information from stakeholders Expert panels or “fishbowl” techniques at workshops
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Contextual Factor Principles That Become More Difficult to Achieve Difficulties Illustrative Practices for Addressing Difficultiesa Inadequate information Clarity of purpose Different problem definitions may cause disagreement about what information is needed. Left unresolved, it also can reduce motivation to participate if parties do not see the possibility of their concerns being addressed Involve participants during diagnosis and design phase in creating an agreement on the scope and objectives Draft a written scope and invite public comment on it Hold workshops during the organizational phase and review the information available and discuss adequacy of the information in terms of the scope Organize a process steering committee to consider problem definition throughout the process Inadequate information Availability of decision-relevant information Disputes about adequacy of science can mask other issues (e.g., when parties select conclusions only from those studies that support an outcome that satisfies their interests) Joint reports from all scientists about what is known, where areas of disagreement or uncertainty remain, and the decision relevance of what is not known Scientific uncertainty Explicitness about analytic assumptions and uncertainties When uncertainty is poorly characterized, it is hard to estimate the consequences of choices Formal characterization of uncertainty Adaptive management
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Accessibility of information Availability of decision-relevant information Participants may be unfamiliar with where to find information in peer-reviewed journals or it may be too costly to obtain the information Information may be written in highly technical language and may be difficult for the public or individuals from other disciplines to interpret Summarize information in plain language Provide technical assistance to participants who need it Organize public education workshops or “open houses” Include a technical expert on the facilitation team to serve as a “translator” Put information on the web Information may not be trusted Explicitness about analytic assumptions and uncertainties Good-faith communication Models and other scientific methods are or are perceived as manipulated to justify a decision made for other reasons Analyses make simplifying assumptions that obscure issues of importance to participants Models focus only on what can be quantified easily, unintentionally prioritizing certain variables, leading to incomplete or inaccurate analyses, or contributing to a perception of bias Invite scientists to explain limitations of available science Develop scenarios as an alternative to models when predictive models are inadequate Form a technical work group of experts trusted by all sides and develop or vet information and analyses through that group Invite stakeholder nominations for peer review groups Invite stakeholder comments on selection of members of expert panels to ensure confidence that all scientific views are included Engage in joint fact finding aEvidence is inadequate to recommend any of these practices as effective, or as preferable to practices that are not listed. They are listed to suggest some of the practices that might be considered for addressing particular difficulties.
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