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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