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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-