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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making 8 Context: The People This chapter reviews evidence on how the human aspects of the context in which an environmental decision is made—including attributes of the sponsoring agency, as well as its legal and organizational environment; characteristics of the other participants in an assessment or decision; and the dynamics that can occur as people interact—affect the results of public participation. Like Chapter 7, this chapter describes these relationships and provides examples of practices that attempt to overcome difficulties that can emerge from or be exacerbated by the contextual factors. The first section considers the convening and implementing agencies and organizations; the next sections consider the characteristics of the participants and the dynamics of the process. CONVENING AND IMPLEMENTING AGENCIES The agencies or other organizations that convene a public participation process and the ones responsible for an environmental assessment or decision are often, but not always, the same.1 Several diagnostic questions relating to the agency’s internal and external context point to challenges for public participation. Participatory processes may need different emphases depending on the answers to these diagnostic questions. Where is the decision-making authority? Who would implement any agreements reached? Are there multiple forums in which the issues are being or could be debated and decided?
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Decision-making authority may lie with the agency that convenes the public participation process, in another agency, or be dispersed among several organizations. Generally, the authority to make public decisions lies with governmental agencies, although private entities also convene participatory processes to generate recommendations. Often, given that more than one environmental law or regulation may be applicable to the issue at hand, that stakeholders view other issues as related, or that an issue may be sufficiently controversial that stakeholders raise it in multiple forums, relevant discussions may be taking place in more than one administrative, legislative, or judicial setting. This complexity certainly poses challenges of coordination. Furthermore, because different settings may be advantageous to different parties, it can be difficult to achieve agreement about which forum should be the principal focus of public involvement. The choice of a setting may therefore affect the extent to which certain parties participate or decide instead to be heard in other venues. Evidence varies about whether public participation is more successfully led by agencies at one level of government or another. A study of health agencies’ public participation efforts with contaminated communities found that in some cases, local agencies may provide better, more effective leadership than federal agencies (Henry S. Cole Associates, 1996). Drawing on more cases involving a broader range of issues, Beierle and Cayford (2002) found that outcomes were affected little by whether the convening agency was local, state, or federal but noted that the engagement of multiple agencies does complicate the participation process. Such a complication may be particularly acute when different parties or different parties’ incentives to negotiate vary on the basis of the forum in which the dispute is addressed (Bingham, 2003). Agencies sometimes coordinate their public participation efforts. For example, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved both “integrated” and “alternative” licensing processes for hydroelectric facilities that clarify and coordinate stakeholder involvement with reviews by various agencies with regulatory responsibilities (http://www.ferc.gov/industries/hydropower/gen-info/licensing/licen-pro.asp).2 Ashford and Rest (1999) suggest that better interagency coordination not only can save time and money, but also can result in greater agency commitment to public participation. They further suggest that agencies’ commitment to increased public involvement is particularly important when interagency coordination presents challenges. Ad hoc efforts to coordinate have not overcome all the difficulties, however, even when different agencies have similar protocols for public participation (Ashford and Rest, 1999). Coordination sometimes is attempted through formal interagency working groups (e.g., 13 federal agencies collaborate in the Federal Working Group for the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making process; http://missouririver.ecr.gov/?link=411). Issues worthy of examination in these efforts include the extent to which resources can be combined, how much of those resources support the public participation process and how much support coordination, and the effectiveness of coordination in terms of the durability of decisions reached. Other practices used to clarify and coordinate stakeholder participation include formal memoranda of understanding between agencies (e.g., to establish cooperating agency status under the National Environmental Policy Act) or written terms of reference (often called protocols) for the public participation process. What are the legal or regulatory mandates or constraints on the convening agency? What laws or policies need to be considered, both in how the process is structured and in defining the scope of the issues that can be addressed? Applicable laws and regulations or the domain of other agencies affect what can and cannot be done in the participatory process and how agencies with authority to act may use the results of the process. Statutes and regulations shape both the framing of issues and how agencies conduct their work, including the ways they engage in public participation. None of them, however, reduce the complexity that often arises in addressing environmental problems “on the ground.” Open meeting laws, administrative procedure laws, executive directives, judicial rulings, and the procedures and requirements set by senior officials of the agencies are part of the framework for participation. Since the framework varies across agencies, this context must be taken into account, and, in particular, the requirements and limitations under which an agency is operating should be made clear to the participants. Legislative mandates may either require or constrain public participation. For example, the National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires that the U.S.D.A. Forest Service “hold public meetings or comparable processes … that foster public participation” in the “development, review, and revision of forest plans” (Office of Technology Assessment, 1992). The Forest Service may have the most explicit public involvement mandate of all U.S. agencies (Daniels and Walker, 1997). Other laws help shape public participation practices at the federal level. These include the National Environmental Policy Act (and related guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality concerning involving the public in scoping the issues included in an environmental assessment), the Administrative Procedure Act, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the Negotiated Rulemaking Act, and the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act. State and local governments often have varying versions of open meeting laws,
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making often referred to as “sunshine” laws, which require announcement of public meetings (see Chapter 2 for a review of the most important statutes). Even where public participation is encouraged, a mismatch between the interests or concerns of the public and what the convening agency has the authority to do can create misunderstandings and dissatisfaction. Practitioners generally advocate a “situation assessment” prior to convening any significant public participation, to identify whether such differences exist, and explicit discussions with stakeholders about the scope of the process, to establish a clear and agreed-on purpose for the process. The effect of legislative mandates can depend greatly on how the affected agencies deal with them. For example, the Superfund program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has considerable resources devoted to public participation in part because it is required by law. Sometimes, however, significant environmental problems and community concerns may fall outside an agency’s legislative mandate, potentially impeding its ability to creatively solve problems and implement solutions. As Ashford and Rest (1999, Part Four, VII-3) conclude, on the basis of seven case studies of hazardous waste sites: Agencies may have legal, political, and economic constraints that impede their ability to give the community what it wants—even if the agencies would like to do so. To the extent that the community gets very little of what it wants, it is unlikely to be satisfied with the outcome of a public participation process. This is not to say that governmental agencies should not strive to give the communities what they can. If they have faithfully acted in a trusteeship role for the community, the agencies can feel satisfied—even in the face of articulated dissatisfaction and apparent lack of appreciation—knowing they have done more than resolve a dispute or follow an easy pathway most in line with their narrow mission. In one case involving environmental justice issues, EPA resisted cleanup of petroleum-contaminated sites because the Superfund legislation did not cover petroleum. This seriously damaged trust with the segments of the community advocating cleanup (Ashford and Rest, 1999). EPA’s lack of jurisdiction over certain nuclear issues affected the functioning of boards of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) (Branch and Bradbury, 2006). Although agencies cannot change their legislative mandates in the short term, they can make matters worse with policies that unnecessarily constrain the topics that public participation addresses by treating as a rigid constraint what could be treated as an issue for discussion—how to cope with the limitations of mandates. For example, significant conflict was created between military co-chairs and Restoration Advisory Boards dealing with DOD’s nuclear weapons production sites because of the DOD guidance that deliberation be limited to remediation issues funded under the Installa-
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making tion Restoration Program (Bradbury, 2005). In addition, DOD policies did not permit discussion of the reuse of land after the closing of installations. Thus, the participatory process could not address the critical issue of how future use of the lands might affect cleanup decisions (Bradbury, 2005). In some cases, inflexible interpretation made it nearly impossible for community participants to consider the full range of remediation issues (Branch and Bradbury, 2006). In some situations, practitioners try to address such problems by expanding the range of participants to include public or private entities that may have the authority to address issues outside the scope of an agency’s authority that are of concern to stakeholders. One of the complicating factors that comes from having many agencies involved is that there are often substantial differences in the legal mandates and organizational cultures that shape participation practices and in the willingness and ability of agencies to cede influence to public participation. These in turn can have an important influence on the success of the participatory processes. In sum, although legislative mandates may either require or constrain public participation, the effect of these mandates can depend greatly on how the affected agencies deal with them. Agencies should consider them explicitly, communicate them openly to stakeholders, consult with stakeholders about the significance of their constraints, and make efforts to address constraints that could place bounds on public participation that could affect its quality or legitimacy. What factors in the convening agency influence its willingness or ability to implement principles of public participation? Considerations internal to the convening agency can influence its ability to work effectively with its stakeholders. Many of these internal contextual factors relate to the principles of good management generally (see Chapter 4), including clarity of purpose, commitment to use the results of the participation process, and adequate resources. It is important to know whether agency leadership has made, or would be willing to make, specific statements about how the results of the public participation process will be used. Confidence that investing time in the process will have a consequence increases participants’ motivation to participate. Agency leadership commitment is not the only factor relevant to assessing the degree of an agency’s commitment. The views of staff about how to use the results of a public participation process also are important. It can be very useful to elicit staff members’ views to understand the potential for internal conflicts that may create difficulties in sustaining an agency’s commitment to public participation. Limited staff time is a related internal factor, particularly in an era of tight budgets. So it can be important to ask what other responsibilities the staff have and what the implications are for
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making how much time they have to devote to the process. Other internal factors also have an impact on agency commitment, including the level of authority of the individual(s) representing the agency in the process. Another factor is the degree of clarity about how actively engaged the agency will be in the process and whether it will engage directly as a participant in the process, provide technical assistance, or simply receive the results. Other key questions include: How open are staff and leadership to consulting stakeholders in the design of the process? Is there a clear deadline for a decision and if so, is it functioning as an impetus for action or as a reason to preclude some forms of public participation? What resources does the agency have to invest in the public participation process? Are there personnel available who have training and experience in organizing public participation? The objective in asking these questions is to be realistic, not critical. As stated elsewhere in this report, when circumstances include either internal or external constraints, a more limited process done well may be more effective than trying to do more than can be sustained. The most critical imperative in meeting the challenges posed by the agency’s context is to make clear to participants from the outset what processes and decisions are and are not possible. Yet the extent to which certain factors are within or outside an agency’s control can be unclear. Public participation processes can be undermined when an agency uses claims about contextual constraints as cover for internal challenges or resistance to public participation. WHO PARTICIPATES Several attributes of participants and potential participants—that is, of the set of interested and affected parties to an assessment or decision—can create challenges for those convening public participation processes. We cannot overstate the importance of finding out from the start who may be affected by an environmental decision, who is interested in the issue, what their positions and interests are, how many perspectives there are, whether the participants are organized, how diverse they are culturally, whether they have worked together successfully or unsuccessfully in the past, the degree of mutual trust, and whether coalitions or oppositional groups have formed, among other factors. As noted in Chapter 3, inadequate representation of interested and affected parties is one of the leading criticisms of public participation processes. Achieving full participation by interested and affected parties can require substantial diligence. Effective communication once participants are engaged also can be affected by characteristics of the participants and their relationships with one another. Chapter 5 describes two basic approaches to determining who can participate. One is through processes that are bounded, in the sense that repre-
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making sentation is based on identified organized parties or on specific stakeholder interests represented by particular individuals. Generally, policy dialogues, advisory committees, and negotiations are bounded processes. These are commonly used in situations in which the type of decision process is formal (e.g., regulatory negotiation) and the outcome is often a joint report or set of recommendations concerning a specific issue or action, such as a set of rules or an adjudication. Other processes are unbounded, in the sense that they are open to any interested individual and constrained only by who has the interest and the resources to participate. Under certain conditions, such as when an environmental issue has been recently identified and organized groups have not formed or when there may be affected groups that are unorganized, unbounded and open participatory processes are especially appropriate. Unbounded processes are useful for coordinating deliberation to define an issue for assessment or policy, to determine the information needed for action, and to identify the ways in which various parties are affected by or interested in the outcome. Unbounded processes may be formal, as in public hearings, surveys, or public comment processes, or informal, as in study circles, open houses, or other forms of workshops. As participants become self-identified and the needed information and expertise clarified, the process may become more formalized as it coalesces around the need to assess a particular issue or define a policy or program. As this distinction suggests, participatory processes can be tailored to the number of parties, the degree of their organization, the objectives of the process, and time and resource constraints. The injunction to identify and represent “the spectrum of interested and affected parties” (National Research Council, 1996:3) remains a useful guide. Characteristics of the participants can obviously affect the results of public participation processes. We have identified six diagnostic questions related to the characteristics of the participants, the answers to which should affect the design and conduct of participatory processes; see Box 8-1. They are addressed in turn in the next six sections. ADEQUACY OF REPRESENTATION The question of adequate representation, which is often a matter of access, has several dimensions, each of which can affect the likelihood that all parties will be meaningfully represented. The dimensions relate to the scale of the environmental issue; the characteristics of individuals that may reduce their likelihood of participation; difficulties the parties may have in organizing collectively for representation; and disparities among groups in their ability to get to the table.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making BOX 8-1 Diagnostic Questions Pertaining to Participants Are there interested and affected parties who may have difficulty being adequately represented? What does the scale of the issue, especially the geographic scale, imply for the range of affected parties? Are there disparities in the attributes of individual potential participants that may affect the likelihood of participation? Are there diffuse, unorganized, or difficult-to-reach interests? Are there disparities across groups of participants in their financial, technical, or other resources that may influence participation? What are the significant differences in values, interests, cultural views, and perspectives among the parties? Are the participants polarized on the issue? Are there substantial disparities across participant groups in their power to influence the process? To what degree can the individuals at the table act for the parties they are assumed to represent? To what degree are there problems of trust among the agency, the scientists, and the interested and affected parties? Specifically, Are there indications that some participants are likely to proceed insincerely or to breach the rules of the process? Are some participants concerned that the convening agency will proceed in bad faith? Do some participants view the scientists as partisan advocates and so mistrust them? Scale of the Issue As noted in Chapter 7, the scale of an environmental issue may create particular challenges for participation. Many large-scale issues, such as national environmental standards, climate change, regional air quality, water resources, and some transportation issues, make participation difficult for some parties. First, the geographic boundaries of the issue may be unclear, making it difficult to determine who is affected. When an issue extends across political and institutional boundaries, there can be a large number of affected parties. In addition, some local or regional environmental resources
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making (e.g., the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) have national or global significance because of the value of the resource, its cultural meaning, or the possibility that it will set a precedent. Many public participation processes rely on repeated face-to-face interaction. For policies with national or global impact, repeated face-to-face interaction is much more expensive, time consuming, and complicated than it is for geographically contained decisions. There are mechanisms to cope with the problem of scale, but their complexities and costs must be taken into account. For example, the cost and time involved in setting up national advisory processes is substantial. Furthermore, federal agencies may invoke the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) in ways that are foreign or unpalatable to participants accustomed to informal local participatory processes. Some agencies treat members of FACA-regulated committees as temporary employees and as a result require that committee members be fingerprinted. Some potential members see this procedure as burdensome and intrusive, and some have refused to participate as a result. In addition, the time and expense of traveling substantial distances for a national decision process favors well-funded organized groups over other parties, so it may be important to hold multiple meetings in diverse locations to allow engagement of those who cannot travel to a national meeting. Such strategies increase costs and the duration of the process. Online participation reduces travel costs, but its effects on who participates and on the quality of deliberation are only beginning to be studied (see Chapter 5). Determining the relative role of local and national interests can pose significant practical challenges to public involvement regardless of scale. In final decisions, authorities give explicit or implicit weights to national and local interests, but this issue also needs consideration in the design of participatory processes. The logistics problem (“How do we get them to the table?”) and the value weighting problem (“How many local versus national interest representatives should we have?”) interact. It can be hard for local groups to participate in national processes and for all but the best-funded national groups to participate in local processes far from their offices. At a relatively local scale, participation can be based on social relationships that extend beyond the responsible organizations and directly involve those affected by a project or policy (Wilbanks, 2003). At larger scales, participation often relies on the involvement of organizations, such as trade or environmental groups, which are presumed to represent interested or affected constituencies. In such circumstances, there is always a concern with the degree to which the representatives share views with their constituencies. For example, there has long been a concern that the major U.S. environmental groups and the foundations that support them do not adequately
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making reflect the concerns of disadvantaged communities (Brulle, 2000; Taylor, 2000; but see Delfin and Tang, 2005, for contrary evidence). There are other ways to get adequate representation for large-scale assessments or decisions, but data are very limited on their effectiveness compared with the constituency-based approach. As noted in Chapter 7, it is possible to engage representative samples of people in direct deliberation on policy issues. In one example in Texas, such “deliberative polls” led to an increased commitment to renewable energy policy compared with a poll taken without deliberation (Ackerman and Fishkin, 2004). While this approach involves very high costs, other experiments suggest that standard surveys and face-to-face participation can be hybridized effectively (e.g., Pidgeon et al., 2005). Another approach, tried in the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change that was completed in 2001, pursues participation at different scales—in this instance, at the national level and in various regions and sectors. Results were summarized both regionally and nationally (Moser, 2005). Such processes are quite expensive and have not been used often. As already noted, there is also the possibility of Internet-based participation (Beierle, 2002), an approach that is only beginning to be explored and studied (see Chapter 7). Participants’ Disparities Some claim that the potential of public participation to improve decisions is limited because nonspecialists lack the capacity to understand and engage with complex and uncertain scientific information, obscure laws and regulations, and complex value trade-offs (Dietz, Stern, and Rycroft, 1989; Sweeney, 2004). This view attributes failures of public participation to insufficient levels of education, time, or other aspects of “human capital” on the part of the public. Research on public involvement in political decision making across the spectrum of public policy issues presents a more complex picture. A substantial body of research on processes of deliberation and decision making on public issues of all kinds has shown that individual resources, such as formal education, occupation, social status, and available time and money, condition the likelihood that individuals will participate and participate influentially (e.g., Verba and Nie, 1972; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, 1994). There are two reasons for this. First, these resources facilitate personal involvement and influence directly. For example, individuals who know more of the arguments about a particular issue tend to be more influential regardless of the quality of their arguments (Kameda, Ohtsubo, and Takezawa, 1997). Those with higher occupational status and educational attainment tend to speak more and are more influential, even if their information is not more accurate than other group members’ (Hastie,
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Penrod, and Pessington, 1983). Individuals who focus on the merits of an issue tend to have more influence in a group, even though they are also less willing to change their views based on meritorious arguments (Cacioppo et al., 1996). Second, persons who possess these resources are much more likely to be recruited to participate than are their less advantaged peers (Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993; Verba et al., 1993; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, 1994; Goldstein, 1999; Schier, 2000). These inequalities contribute to a sense of disconnection and powerlessness among many in the United States, particularly those at the lower end of the socioeconomic continuum. And it is increasingly the case for those in the middle, many of whom have also concluded that government is not much concerned with their interests and aspirations and that the public sphere is open to citizens “by invitation only” (Schier, 2000). In a 1996 national survey, for example, 69 percent of Americans with less than a high school education, 62 percent of high school graduates, and 57 percent of Americans in the bottom two-thirds of household income distribution agreed with the proposition, “People like me don’t have a say in what the government does” (Markus, 2002). By way of comparison, only 4 in 10 college graduates or upper-income survey respondents agreed with the statement. Related to, but distinct from, a sense of political inefficacy among many Americans is a judgment by many of them that government is incompetent or untrustworthy (Nye, Zelikow, and King, 1997; Hetherington, 2004). By way of example, a CBS/New York Times national survey conducted in July 2007 found that only 24 percent of Americans “trust the government in Washington to do what is right” “just about always” or “most of the time” (http://www.pollingreport.com/institut.htm#Federal). The levels of trust in government among Americans has been low, with only transitory exceptions, for some three decades now. Such chronic levels of disconnection and mistrust may present formidable barriers to participatory processes. Highly educated, financially comfortable people are much more likely to be active in public affairs than are less educated, lower income people, not because they are more concerned about public matters or more willing to make the effort, but rather because of differences in the control of politically valuable resources (cognitive skills, money, and a sense of political efficacy), embeddedness in social networks that include influential people, and the targeted efforts of political organizations to activate the citizens who control those resources (Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993; Verba et al., 1993; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, 1994; Putnam, 2000). Data from recent American National Election Studies surveys reveal that college graduates are roughly twice as likely as high school dropouts to be contacted in an election year by party activists urging them to vote. The same odds of being contacted during a campaign distinguish people residing in households in the top one-third of the income distribution from people in the
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making movement through air, soil, and water. Problems related to uncertainty are nearly ubiquitous in environmental policy, although the degree of uncertainty varies greatly. This may be one reason that variation in the kind of environmental problem matters relatively little to ultimate outcomes—there is always sufficient uncertainty to entrain the mechanisms described above. As a result, initial levels of trust and the way the participation process deals with trust become critical factors to be considered in process design. Trust or its absence seems likely to be particularly important in cases in which scientific disagreement is an issue or in which adverse effects may be visited on identifiable social groups (Dietz, 2001). Indications of Lack of Trust Some parties may use participatory processes to obstruct decisions or may make end runs around the process. Others may simply not be motivated to work toward making the process a success even if they are not actively obstructing it. These challenges may or may not be easy to anticipate in an initial diagnostic assessment, but it is crucial to take a careful and nonjudgmental look at whether the process offers sufficient incentives for good-faith participation. Beierle and Cayford (2002) found a moderate positive correlation between the motivation of the participants and success of public participation processes. They noted that participant motivation is correlated with several process features and that more intensive processes, which are associated with greater success, require higher levels of motivation. These data do not demonstrate that initial motivation of participants is a causal factor in success. They are also consistent with the proposition that initial success increases participants’ motives to stay involved, so that motivation and success reinforce each other. Motivation and initial success are likely to be related to individuals’ levels of resources for engaging effectively in participation. As already noted, those who have financial resources, technical know-how, connections to influential people, and so forth are more likely to be motivated to engage or need less inducement to do so. Public apathy and alienation may simultaneously be a consequence of and a justification for limited meaningful participation (Bowles and Gintis, 1986). Lack of motivation among some parties is a challenge to government agencies that want to draw on the public’s experience, insights, and aspirations in crafting and implementing solutions to problems (Schneider and Ingram, 1997). It is important to note that insincerity is often in the eyes of the beholder. Efforts to achieve objectives through litigation, lobbying, or media attention outside a participatory process that is not meeting a party’s needs may be seen from an agency perspective as insincerity. However, those
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making are legitimate political activities and quite different from misrepresenting interests and intentions within a particular process. Excluding participants because of a concern about “insincerity” often backfires because it provides these groups the ammunition for external mobilization. Excluding participants that have repeatedly violated reasonable rules of fairness and joint decision making that have been accepted by all from the beginning of the process seems more likely to be accepted as a legitimate action. Bad Faith by an Agency Some writers have claimed that public participation takes place in a climate of greatly diminished public trust in government, particularly in regard to environmental matters (e.g., Nye, Zelikow, and King, 1997; Schier, 2000), and of diminished trust in government among the scientific community (Revkin, 2004). Government agencies with low public credibility and trust are unlikely to enjoy the level of confidence among interested and affected parties that is required to initiate and sustain effective voluntary public participation in agency-sponsored initiatives (Woolcock, 1998). Beirele and Cayford (2002) consider five indicators of preexisting trust in government agencies: the reputation of the agency with the public, the reputation of the agency with participants, a history of withheld information, a history of unacceptable management, and a history of ignoring management problems. As this list implies, trust in agencies can be built or destroyed. The manner in which participatory processes are conducted can nurture positive relationships among participants (including representatives of government agencies) or erode them. For example, the formal structure of meetings, the forms of discourse in which they are conducted, the timing and location of meetings, and numerous other details of participatory processes can convey messages, intentionally or not, about the relative power and status of participants: whose life circumstances are priorities in setting the agenda and whose facts and knowledge carry the greatest weight in deliberations (Chambers, 1997; Briggs, 1998; Estrella and Gaventa, 1998). If government agencies engage people but that engagement turns out to be ineffectual, it is likely to lead to distrust and cynicism and has the potential to diminish possibilities of future engagement (Halpern, 1995). Explicit discussions with the convening agency’s decision makers during the planning phase of a process can uncover or prevent unanticipated difficulties before expectations are set. In one example in a panel member’s experience, plans were being formed to invite the public to discuss alternative ways to expand a city’s drinking water supply—a policy choice that had become controversial. When it became clear in individual conversations that the majority of the city council had concluded they had no choice other than to use a new source for drinking water regardless of
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making the opposition, plans for a dialogue about other options were set aside as counterproductive. Negative Views of Scientists Some parties may not trust scientists, or agency-sponsored scientists, to produce work that is neutral and nonpartisan. Yet effective public participation processes depend on building a working level of trust in the available issue-relevant information, including an understanding of its limitations. Scientists produce much of this information by applying scientific methods and subjecting their work to scientific peer review. As a result, they may assume that their evidence is neutral or value free, not fully appreciating that world views and assumptions that may be widely shared in their disciplines or fields may be questioned legitimately by outsiders, particularly when analysis is brought into a public policy context in which issues outside their field are central. Thus, we suggest in Chapter 6 that special care must be taken to build trust in science that informs public decisions. As we discuss in that chapter, in most cases the procedures that build trust also improve the science. In designing environmental public participation processes, it is helpful to make explicit that all scientific analyses have their strengths and limitations and to design deliberative processes to reveal and examine the assumptions that underpin various scientific analyses, clarify where parties differ with regard to assumptions and assessments of facts, highlight why different approaches may lead to different conclusions, and so forth. These efforts become more important the more mistrust or controversy there is about the science (see Chapter 6). CONCLUSIONS Certain people-related aspects of the context can pose difficulties in achieving the goals of effective public participation. The evidence supports the following specific conclusions: Participatory processes are often constrained by agencies’ contexts: their external mandates and internal processes that affect their ability and willingness to use the results of the participatory process. The most critical imperative in meeting such challenges is for conveners to make clear to participants at the outset which outcomes are and are not possible from the process. However, public participation processes can be undermined when an agency uses claims about contextual constraints as cover for resistance to participation.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Meaningful representation of the public is a major challenge, especially when some parties lack the money, technical expertise, or organization needed for full participation or when there are questions about whether participants can act for the parties they are assumed to represent. Differences among the parties in resources and social influence are not easily addressed in the short run, but special efforts to ensure meaningful access by all the parties are likely to yield benefits in terms of competence and legitimacy. Differences among the parties in values and interests, as well as polarization of positions and problems of trust, can pose major challenges in implementing principles of participation in the form of conflicts among the parties or between parties and the responsible agency. The above challenges can create significant difficulties for public participation. However, choices can be made in the design of a public participation process to compensate for these difficulties. These choices include the selection of techniques and tools for addressing these difficulties and processes for closing such techniques. Table 8-1 provides a diagnostic guide to many of the people-related difficulties in public participation and to some ways that have been used to try to address them. Like Table 7-1, it identifies particular contextual factors that can make it difficult to implement particular principles of good participation, describes the difficulties, and identifies practices that have been used to address them. We do not endorse any of these practices; however, we believe the guide can be useful in anticipating difficulties and considering possible responses. We emphasize that best practice in public participation is a matter of adopting a process for selecting the best techniques and tools for the situation, rather than one of using a preselected set of tools and techniques. There are four main reasons we think it inappropriate to treat certain techniques as “best practices” for overcoming common difficulties in public participation. First, the evidence base is very weak for concluding that any one technique is better than the others, even for a particular context or for addressing a particular difficulty of public participation. Second, the research evidence and practical experience strongly suggest that the best technique is likely to be situation-dependent, so that it is unlikely that any practice will be the best across situations. Third, during the process of an environmental assessment or decision, change often occurs in the state of knowledge, the concerns of participants, or the pressures on the convening agency, such that techniques that had seemed satisfactory at the outset may seem less so later on. And finally, we observe that “best practice” techniques, when adopted in bureaucratic agencies, tend to become standard operating procedures that are implemented formulaically, without monitor-
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making ing or evaluating their effectiveness, and without providing opportunities to make modifications if they are not working well. We therefore conclude that best practice should not be seen as a matter of adopting particular techniques that have performed well in the past and making them standard operating procedures. Rather, it involves implementing a process that selects techniques for the situation at hand in ways that are informed by evidence, that the participants consider legitimate, and that are open to modification for cause. Selecting “best practice” techniques and implementing them without involving the participants can undermine the legitimacy of public participation processes. In Chapter 9, we recommend such a process. NOTES 1As elsewhere, we use the term agency broadly to refer to any entity or group of entities, governmental or not, that convene public participation processes or that may use their results. 2An evaluation of the results can be found at http://www.ferc.gov/industries/hydropower/gen-info/licensing/ilp/eff-eva.asp.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making TABLE 8-1 Diagnostic Guide to Difficulties Related to the People in Public Participation Contextual Factor Principles That Become More Difficult to Achieve Difficulties Illustrative Practices for Addressing Difficultiesa Agency Factors Multiple agencies with decision-making authority Clarity of purpose Commitment to use the process to inform their actions Appropriate timing in relation to decisions Different agencies may have different views about the purpose of the process or different degrees of commitment to using results Agencies may have different deadlines for decision making Participants may choose to participate in one forum and not others, making the focus unclear Interagency work groups for coordinating the decision-making process Memorandums of understanding between agencies Written terms of reference (protocols) for the participation process Substantive mandates or limits to agency decision-making authority Inclusiveness of participation Openness of the design Stakeholders may have concerns that are not within the authority of the convening agency, which may reduce motivation to participate Situation assessments Openness about external constraints Expand scope of participants to include entities that may be able to implement solutions Insufficient support or conflict within agency All management principles Inform participants of limited possibilities Invite participants to contribute resources
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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 Participant Factors Broad geographic spread Inclusiveness of participation Distance can make it difficult for some stakeholders to participate Larger numbers of interested participants can make some formats less inclusive or practical Deliberative polls Workshops in multiple locations Internet participation Study circles Blue-Ribbon commissions Differences in formal education, occupation, social status, and available time and money Inclusiveness of participation People with fewer resources are less likely to trust that their participation will make a difference and, thus, less likely to participate than those with greater resources Enlist help of organizations to which these members of the public belong in convening public participation processes Integrate opportunities for participation into events of existing local organizations Provide grants to existing local organizations to send mailings or host meetings Stakeholders who are diffuse, unorganized, or difficult to reach Inclusiveness of participation Interests of those who are less well organized may not be equitably represented Citizen action committees Citizen forums Citizen juries Disparities in financial, technical, or other resources? Inclusiveness of participation Interests of those who have insufficient time or resources to participate may not be equitably represented Timing and location of meetings Child care Technical assistance grants
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Differences in values, interests, culture and perspectives, and the degree to which parties are polarized Collaborative problem formulation and process design Good-faith communication Differences in cultural norms may result in disagreements about what constitutes good-faith communication and/or what constitutes an appropriate process for making a decision Conflicting values can lead to frustration, stalemate, and mistrust of analyses Polarization can make it more difficult to understand the interests that underlie disputes or may have its origins in mutually exclusive interests Focus on relationships first (e.g., through field trips, social opportunities, story telling) Structured deliberation methods from decision science Confidential conversations with amediator to identify interests Generating multiple options Systematic application of criteria, including through models Adding issues to the scope of the process to add potential value to the solutions Disparities of power Inclusiveness of participation Collaborative design Transparency of the process Good-faith communication Creating a forum that is attractive both to those with greater and lesser power, compared with pursuing objectives elsewhere 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 Draft ground rules in which participants agree to inform one another if they intend to pursue their interests in other forums
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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 Limitations on ability of representatives to act on behalf of their constituency Good-faith communication Misperceptions by some participants of other participants’ authority to act Internal decision making by some parties may require more time than the process allows Select participants with authority to represent their constituency Draft ground rules in which participants are specific about their authority and with whom they must consult Allow sufficient time for consultation with decision makers who are not at the table Draft summaries of meetings that are circulated to decision makers and interested others Organize formal working groups within constituencies Arrange briefings for decision makers or broader constituencies being represented
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Significant problems of trust Good-faith communication Reduced agency motivation to convene a process Reduced motivation of theparties to participate Use situation assessment to identify the nature of the problem Seek formal agreements Provide for independent review of scientific analyses Iterates between analysis and deliberation Encourage participants to consider possibility of misunderstanding prior to assuming bad faith Provide incentives for good-faith action and disincentives for acting inconsistently with agreements on either process or substance (e.g., phased processes, phased implementation, contingent agreements) 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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