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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making 9 Overall Conclusions and Recommendations Engaging stakeholders and the public in environmental assessment and decision making offers clear benefits to all, if done well. The caveat, of course, raises the central questions of this report. What is known about how to engage the public well? What is not known. This chapter presents the panel’s overall conclusions, based on the specific conclusions established in Chapters 3-8, and offers recommendations for good public participation practice and for research. Our recommendations for practice are organized around three sets of principles—for good management, for organizing the process, and for integrating the science—as described in Chapters 4, 5, and 6. They also draw on the diagnostic questions developed in Chapters 7 and 8, which help identify characteristics of the context that tend to create particular challenges or difficulties with respect to achieving successful results (see Box 9-1). The principles are consistent with those from past studies at the National Research Council (1996, 1999a, 2007a) and those recently offered by the Office of Management and Budget and the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (2005; also see Table 1-2). We reiterate such previously stated principles for two reasons. First, it is important to recognize principles that are supported by a convergence of evidence: from practitioners’ experience, careful case-study research, case-comparison studies, and basic social science knowledge. Second, the principles bear repeating because they are so often violated in practice. Because public participation in environmental assessments and decision making is a new area for systematic research and much is yet to be learned, we also offer suggestions for advancing knowledge in the field.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making BOX 9-1 Diagnostic Questions to Assess the Challenges to Public Participation in a Particular Context Questions About Scientific Context What information is currently available on the issues? How adequate is available information for giving a clear understanding of the problem? Do the various parties agree about the adequacy of the information? Is the uncertainty associated with the information well characterized, interpretable, and capable of being incorporated into the assessment or decision? Is the information accessible to and interpretable by interested and affected parties? Is the information trustworthy? Questions About Convening and Implementing Agencies 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? Are there legal or regulatory mandates or constraints on the convening agency? What laws or policies need to be considered? Questions About the Abilities of and Constraints on the Participants Are there interested and affected parties who may have difficulty being adequately represented? What does the scale of the problem, especially its 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 interests that are diffused, unorganized, or difficult to reach? Are there disparities across groups of participants in terms of their financial, technical, or other resources that may influence participation? What are the 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? Are there significant problems of trust among the agency, the scientists, and the interested and affected parties? 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?
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making We also offer advice for implementing the principles. For reasons discussed in Chapter 8, we do not consider it advisable to recommend specific techniques as “best practices” for general use. Instead, we recommend a best process for selecting such techniques and for monitoring their effectiveness and adjusting them to achieve the desired purposes. We remind the reader that there are many goals for public participation processes and thus many criteria for what constitutes a “good” or “effective” outcome and a “good” or “effective” process. Goals include both those focused on the quality of environmental assessments and decisions and those focused on the relationships among the participants. Participation ideally should improve the quality of assessments and decisions and their legitimacy among those involved and potentially affected. It should lead to increased understanding and decision-making capacity among agency officials, scientists, and the interested and affected parties involved and the interests they represent.1 And it should enhance the ability to implement decisions once they are made both by producing better decisions and by producing legitimate, credible, and well-understood decisions. The evidence suggests that in most cases, these three kinds of desired results are complementary rather than contradictory: achieving one goal of participation usually accompanies success in reaching other goals. A substantial portion of this chapter presents our conclusions and recommendations regarding how best to proceed. Thus, we present a series of principles for public participation that, if implemented in a way that is sensitive to context, can aid in achieving desirable outcomes, and we recommend a process for finding ways to implement those principles in the context at hand. Our conclusions and recommendations are based on the convergence of multiple lines of evidence, including studies with one or a few cases; statistical analyses of many cases; systematic case comparisons, including several conducted for this study; our review of basic social science research relevant to public participation; analysis of the legal framework for participation; an assessment of practitioner experience embedded in handbooks and agency guidance; and the expertise of the panel members. Systematic research on public participation is still relatively new, and although the literature is growing rapidly, we had to use our judgment to evaluate different forms of evidence. We think our conclusions and recommendations are reasonably robust given the state of knowledge and practice but, as with any statements based on an emerging field of research, we will not be surprised if further work suggests modifications to and elaborations of them.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making THE VALUE OF PUBLIC PARTICIPATION CONCLUSION 1: When done well, public participation improves the quality and legitimacy of a decision and builds the capacity of all involved to engage in the policy process. It can lead to better results in terms of environmental quality and other social objectives. It also can enhance trust and understanding among parties. Achieving these results depends on using practices that address difficulties that specific aspects of the context can present. RECOMMENDATION 1: Public participation should be fully incorporated into environmental assessment and decision-making processes, and it should be recognized by government agencies and other organizers of the processes as a requisite of effective action, not merely a formal procedural requirement. Substantial evidence shows that good public participation not only helps fulfill norms of popular sovereignty in democratic societies, but also improves the substantive quality, legitimacy, and accountability of environmental assessments and decisions. In other words, the reason to engage the public is not simply because laws, regulations, and habit require it, nor is it only because public participation makes decisions more legitimate in the eyes of the public. Rather, substantial evidence shows that effective public participation can help agencies do a better job in achieving public purposes for the environment by ensuring better decisions and increasing the likelihood that they will be implemented effectively. Good public participation also helps build capacity in agencies and among participants and the scientific community for future environmental decision making. As Chapter 3 shows, innumerable studies of one or a few cases demonstrate the positive results that often come with public participation. Systematic comparisons of larger numbers of cases show that the results of public participation have been positive far more often than they have been negative. The same conclusions can be drawn from examination of practitioner experience and from focused case-comparison studies. These results apply across a wide range of well-documented public participation processes for making many kinds of assessments and decisions and across the United States.2 Thus, multiple sources of evidence give strong confidence that public participation, done well, can be effective in achieving multiple desired benefits in a wide variety of settings and that it can be effective even within the resource limitations that commonly exist in federal, state, and local governments. It is also true that public participation, if not done well, may not provide any of these benefits—in some circumstances, participation has done
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making more harm than good. A poorly designed process that lacks adequate support and engagement by the agency or that fails to meet major challenges posed by the specific context can decrease, rather than increase, the quality and legitimacy of an assessment or decision and damage capacity for future processes. Conclusions and Recommendations 2 through 5 present principles that can be used to shape successful participation practice and a process for designing participation processes to implement those principles. MANAGEMENT CONCLUSION 2: Basic principles of program management apply to environmental public participation. When government agencies engage in public participation processes without careful prior planning, adequate resources, and organizational commitment, the results may fall short of the potential of public participation. RECOMMENDATION 2: When government agencies engage in public participation, they should do so with clarity of purpose, a commitment to use the process to inform their actions, adequate funding and staff, appropriate timing in relation to decisions, a focus on implementation, and a commitment to self-assessment and learning from experience. We caution that although public participation often provides multiple benefits, the available evidence also shows that it is possible to conduct public participation processes that are counterproductive and that may be worse than not including the public at all. Participatory processes convened as a superficial formality or without adequate support by decision makers increase the public’s distrust of government when, almost inevitably, the results have little impact. Some participatory processes have functioned as a political tactic to divert the energy of the public away from engaging in dissent on important differences and into activities that are considered safer by an agency, such as projects based on shared goals that ignore important conflicts. This use of public participation is counterproductive in the long run. Choices about whom to involve can also be problematic, as when an agency involves parties that share the agency’s basic premises about a decision to be made, while excluding those whose views differ more fundamentally. The power to define the questions to be addressed and to shape the public participation approach—how it is used and by whom—is critical. We return to this point below.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making The above recommendation embodies six basic principles of good management that offer practical guidance to agencies for achieving the goals of environmental public participation. The principles describe actions that agencies can take to enhance the quality and effectiveness of the public participation processes in both the short and the long run. It is vital for managers at all levels of government and in the private sector to learn how to involve the public well, if the benefits are to be realized. Clarity of Purpose The process should be designed with a clear purpose in mind and be organized to meet the objectives. When the responsible agency develops a clear set of objectives, integrated with a plan for how the outcomes of the participatory process will be used and serious efforts to share that understanding with the participants, it increases the likelihood of acceptance of agency decisions and of public willingness to engage in future participation efforts. From the outset, the convening organization and the particpants should develop a clear agreement about the objectives of the process, taking account of the objectives of all parties involved, the scope of legally possible actions, and the constraints on the process. A Commitment to Use the Process to Inform Actions Public participation processes are more likely to be successful when the agency responsible for the relevant environmental decisions is committed to supporting the process and taking seriously the results. This is in part because the more committed a decision-making agency is to act on the results of a public participation process, the more likely the parties are to engage seriously. As the objectives of the process are codetermined by the agency and the participants, the support of agency leadership and staff at all levels for the objectives of the process should be confirmed. At the beginning of the process, it is essential to clarify how and by whom the outputs of the participatory process will be used and that the responsible organization is committed to open-minded consideration of those outputs. These commitments should be updated periodically, as both the participation process and the context evolve. Adequate Funding and Staff Public participation processes are more likely to be successful when agencies have adequate capacity and resources including skilled staff and deploy them appropriately to the scale, complexity, and difficulty of the issues involved. If resources are too constrained to support a desired public participatory process, the diagnosis needed to plan an effective process also should be used to target public participation strategically. It is better to do only what can be adequately supported than to provide inadequate support for a more ambitious process. It is important to match the objectives and scope of the participatory process to the resources available. Diagnosis of the situation can help scope
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making the complexity and difficulty of the tasks required and provide a sense of what sort of investments are required to achieve various goals. If resource limitations make it unlikely that all goals can be achieved, it is critical to invest in meeting the most important challenges or obstacles that have been identified. And it is equally critical to understand what can and cannot be accomplished within the resource constraints that exist. It is often useful to be creative in looking for additional resources, including from participants and the public. Appropriate Timing in Relation to Decisions Public participation processes are more likely to have good results when planned so that they can be informed by emerging analysis and so that their outputs are timely with regard to the decision process. In designing the participatory process, it is critical to conform to agency decision-making timetables so that closure is achievable and outcomes are available to decision makers in a timely manner. This often requires adjusting the intensiveness of participation and the scope of issues to be covered so that the time is realistic—time is a resource constraint. It is also important not to rush the process unneccessarily, as changes in context or in available analysis might obviate the value of the outcomes of the process if these changes occur after the process is completed. Sometimes, time constraints can be addressed by using a participatory process as part of an adaptive management strategy. The process can be convened to inform a provisional decision with the understanding that it will be reconstituted at a later time to revisit that decision for the purpose of revising it as appropriate. A Focus on Implementation Participation processes tend to be more successful when designed so as to relate in clear ways to policy decision making and implementation. Increasingly, public participation is viewed as an element of adaptive governance rather than as a one-time, one-way flow of information. So the design of the process should consider implementation: how the process can inform both initial assessment and decision making and ongoing analysis and action. It is useful to identify roles and responsibilities following the public involvement process and to involve those who are needed for implementation. By anticipating difficulties in implementation and discussing contingencies, the public participation process will be better informed and produce more useful results. In many cases, the process can support successful implementation by considering partnerships, monitoring and oversight mechanisms, and incentives and disincentives to implementation. A Commitment to Self-Assessment and Learning from Experience Public participation processes, as well as the larger assessment and decision pro-
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making cesses in which they are embedded, benefit from engaging in self-assessment and design correction as they proceed. The design of a participatory process should create opportunities for participants and sponsors to assess the process both as it is under way and at the end. The design must be flexible enough to allow for mid-course adjustments and to generate lessons learned that can be incorporated into future public participation efforts. The self-assessment process should include evaluation by an external reviewer or review body whenever possible, as well as by the participants and the sponsors. Careful evaluation research often reveals knowledge that does not emerge from intuitive judgments of what works and what does not. While some systematic studies of public participation now exist, the state of knowledge would be much advanced if organizers of participation supported evaluation studies. Even when resources are limited, expenditures on systematic evaluation deserve high priority, as this is the only valid means to ensure institutional learning and constant improvement. ORGANIZING THE PROCESS CONCLUSION 3: The outcomes of a public participation process depend strongly on the way the process is organized and carried out. Although contextual factors can create difficulties for achieving principles of good practice, choices about key aspects of effective participatory process can do much to overcome these difficulties. RECOMMENDATION 3: Agencies undertaking a public participation process should, considering the purposes of the process, design it to address the challenges that arise from particular contexts. Process design should be guided by four principles: inclusiveness of participation, collaborative problem formulation and process design, transparency of the process, and good-faith communication. These elements of design are appropriate to all participatory processes, although the way they are implemented will vary across contexts. There is no single best format or set of procedures for achieving good outcomes in all situations. Inclusiveness of Participation The process should include credible representatives of the full spectrum of parties who are interested in or will be affected by a decison. It should be structured to encourage their voluntary commitment to it. At the outset, care should be taken to identify and engage
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making all such parties. As the process proceeds and more information becomes available, the scope of participation may have to be expanded to reflect enhanced understanding of who may be affected or concerned. The process should be designed to give all involved a fair voice, so as to benefit from differences in perspectives, approaches, backgrounds, and culture.3 When in doubt, it is preferable to err on the side of too much inclusiveness than too little, although there are often practical constraints on how large a process can be that may require special care in ensuring inclusiveness in a group of restricted size. Care should be given to understanding what would motivate members of the public, whether organized into interest groups or not, to engage seriously in a participatory process. The design of the process should maximize the incentives to participate and minimize disincentives and obstacles. Collaborative Problem Formulation and Process Design Public participation processes should, to the greatest extent feasible, be designed collaboratively by those convening them and those participating in them. Of particular importance in achieving quality and legitimacy is engaging the spectrum of interested and affected parties in formulating the problem for assessment or decision to the extent the agency’s context allows. This principle requires developing the process by collaboration among all who will be engaged in it, with a particular emphasis on engaging members of the public in problem formulation, including defining the scope of the assessment process or policy and diagnosing the obstacles to effective participation. To effectively engage the capabilities and needs of all participants, it is essential that participants co-invent and govern the process. This means that the potential participants should be identified and brought into the planning process as early as possible. To the extent possible, they should participate in defining the issues to be examined (problem formulation), as a mismatch between the scope of the problem as defined by the agency and the scope as defined by participants can be a source of serious problems. The participants should also consider the barriers to achieving effective participation by various groups and other obstacles to an effective process (see Chapters 7 and 8 for diagnostic questions). Participants should co-design the formats and decision rules (process design) to ensure that the process is effective and trusted. Participation specialists can make recommendations and advise all parties on what is likely to work best in the given context, but the final decision should be made in a collaborative effort with the main parties involved. Transparency of the Process The process should be clear to those involved in it and to those observing it. All participants and the public should be informed of the purpose and
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making objectives of the process and of agency authorities, requirements, and constraints. Mechanisms should be built into the design for ongoing communication about the process and for public access to information about the process and information being used in it. The Internet provides powerful tools for this purpose, but not everyone has access, and maintaining and using websites requires dedicated resources. We are still in the early stages of understanding the dynamics of Internet-based communication. Good-Faith Communication All parties must commit to act in good faith and to maintain communications with those they represent. The process should be structured to encourage this. From the start, it is important to have in place mechanisms for communication to and from decision makers or other constituencies in organizations involved in the process, including agency sponsors and interest groups as well as the public. These groups should be kept informed of progress and encouraged to report back actions taken or changes that may affect the process and the reasons why such changes occurrred. It is advisable to negotiate a consensus on rules for communication, deliberation, and decision making before the substantive issues are discussed. If all parties agree to a common set of procedural rules, it is easier for the moderator to enforce these rules and to ensure fair play among all participants. It is worth noting two considerations that we do not include among the principles of good participation: the format of the process and its intensity. With regard to format, the public participation literature is replete with proposed formats for conducting the overall participatory process and techniques within the process, including methods for conducting meetings and other interactions among participants. This literature provides a rich toolkit for those designing participatory processes (including members of the public involved in codesign of the process). However, it does not demonstrate that any of these methods is universally superior to the others. Various public participation formats have been successful in achieving the goals of high quality and widely acceptable assessments and decisions, and each format has also failed at times in achieving these goals. There is no single best format or set of procedures for achieving good outcomes in all situations. However, whatever format is used, the best practices for public participation we recommend should be followed. As with much else in the practice of public participation, the most successful practice will involve considering the goals for participation and the context in which the participation will take place and designing the process so as to best achieve those goals in that context. The use of the Internet for public participation deserves special note. A research literature on Internet-based public participation is just beginning to emerge, and the technology available for such interaction is evolving and presents new
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making formats and techniques for participation not yet carefully studied (e.g., online video conferencing, websites, e-mail). It is inevitable that agencies will experiment with such technologies, and we consider it imperative that such experiments be accompanied by careful research to build a knowledge base to guide future efforts. We suggest that the biggest advantages of electronic participation at present may be found when an environmental issue has broad geographic impact, and the biggest disadvantage may be the difficulty of engaging groups who do not regularly use the Internet. With regard to the intensity of the public participation process, the evidence suggests that the proper level of intensity is context dependent. The most effective participatory processes are those whose intensity is dictated by responding to context-specific challenges with appropriate participation strategies. For example, contexts that involve serious potential for conflict can benefit more from high-intensity processes than contexts that do not present such challenges. However, when the context calls for intense interactions, results will be highly dependent on how those interactions are organized. By intensity of deliberation, we mean both the amount of time during which participants are engaged in focused discussion and other activities and the structure of the interactions. If well designed (i.e., following established principles), appropriately intense deliberation often can overcome barriers of trust and can help develop common understandings of scientific and other important information. Relatively intense deliberation may be essential when the issue is especially contentious or complicated or when the goal of the process is ongoing comanagement or adaptive management rather than advice on a specific assessment or policy. More intense deliberation is more costly for all involved, and that cost may reduce the breadth of participation. More intensity is not always better; rather, the intensity of a participatory process should be designed so that it is appropriate to the context and takes account of the costs and benefits of intensity. An appropriately intense, well-organized deliberative process will influence agencies that have committed to taking the results seriously and followed the other principles of practice. It should also influence the thinking and positions of the other participants. There are two key elements in making a process influential, aside from agency commitment: transparency and good-faith communication. INTEGRATING SCIENCE CONCLUSION 4: Processes that iterate between analysis and broadly based deliberation, as recommended in Understanding Risk (National Research Council, 1996) and subsequent National Research Council reports (National Research Council, 1999a, 2005, 2007a), have the
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making greatest chance of being effective in linking participation and scientific analysis. In contrast, processes that treat analysis and deliberation in isolation from each other impede both analysis and deliberation. RECOMMENDATION 4: Environmental assessments and decisions with substantial scientific content should be supported with collaborative, broadly based, integrated, and iterative analytic-deliberative processes, such as those described in Understanding Risk and subsequent National Research Council reports. In designing such processes, the responsible agencies can benefit from following five key principles for effectively melding scientific analysis and public participation: ensuring transparency of decision-relevant information and analysis paying explicit attention to both facts and values promoting explicitness about assumptions and uncertainties including independent review of official analyses and/or engage in a process of collaborative inquiry with interested and affected parties allowing for iteration to reconsider past conclusions on the basis of new information As noted in Understanding Risk (National Research Council, 1996:3): [S]uccess depends critically on systematic analysis that is appropriate to the problem, responds to the needs of the interested and affected parties, and treats uncertainties of importance to the decision problem in a comprehensible way. Success also depends on deliberations that formulate the decision problem, guide analysis to improve decision participants’ understanding, seek the meaning of analytic findings and uncertainties, and improve the ability of interested and affected parties to participate effectively in the risk decision process. The process must have an appropriately diverse representation of the spectrum of interested and affected parties, and of specialists in risk analysis, at each step. This formulation from Understanding Risk applies to environmental assessments and decisions more generally. Special care is needed to integrate science into public participation processes because of three kinds of potential obstacles to effective use of science in assessment and decision-making processes that involve interested and affected parties. First, the science required is inherently complex and uncertain, and the data available are nearly always less than ideal. Consequently, scientists must be explicit about the extent and limits of knowledge, develop understanding of which knowledge participants consider most decision relevant, and possibly reconsider standard approaches to handling uncertainty.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Second, many participants in environmental assessment and decision processes lack sufficient scientific and technical background to easily interpret complex scientific information. Moreover, in the absence of structured decision processes, people tend to consider less than the full range of relevant information in making decisions. And there is not just one view among participants. Rather, there are diverse values, interests, and concerns. Third, there are substantial challenges in communication between scientists and the public. Scientific models are difficult to translate into forms that are transparent to scientists across fields and even more difficult to translate for the public. In addition, debates about scientific uncertainty can be hard for nonspecialists to follow, and the rules for validating facts may be different for scientists than for many segments of the public and may even differ in significant ways across scientific disciplines. All of this can make the public skeptical of the neutrality of scientific analyses and the scientists skeptical of local experience-based knowledge of the public. Formidable as these challenges may be, there are effective tools available for meeting them. Research in the decision sciences, research on environmental assessment and decision-making processes, and insights garnered from the practice of science and from analyses of public policy processes all converge on five key points of guidance about how to integrate science and public participation into analytic-deliberative processes. Ensuring Transparency of Information and Analysis We have already identified transparency of the overall participation process as an important principle of process design. Making scientific analyses transparent is especially important. As noted, members of the public will generally not be aware of the assumptions that are embedded in an analysis, especially if the analysis uses complex models. Nor is a lack of transparency a problem only for the public—many scientists are not aware of what are assumptions in specialties outside their own. Processes to ensure that decision-relevant information is accessible and interpretible to all participants and that analyses are available in open sources and presented in enough detail to allow for independent review not only build public trust in the science, they also ensure the open discussion of assumptions and uncertainty that is central to improving scientific analyses. Paying Explicit Attention to Both Facts and Values An effective analytic-deliberative process must deal with both facts and values and in particular with how anticipated changes in the world will affect the things people value. However, facts will always be uncertain, and some facts may be sharply contested. Values also may be uncertain, in the sense that members of the public may not see how anticipated changes will affect the things they care about. In addition, there is usually substantial diversity in values
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making among the interested and affected public, and different ways of formulating the problem to be analyzed may embody different values or concerns. A variety of tools and processes can help characterize uncertainty about facts, examine the implications of analyses and their uncertainties for decision making, elicit the diversity of public values, and guide individuals and groups through the examination of value trade-offs. Experimentation with using these tools to enhance participation processes is warranted. Promoting Explicitness About Assumptions and Uncertainties Uncertainties about facts and values will always be present, and all analyses must rely on assumptions. Trust, understanding, and constructive criticism can emerge only when there is awareness of uncertainty and assumptions. Careful analysis linked to effective deliberation can identify assumptions and uncertainties, examine how much they matter, and thus tighten the focus of further analysis and allow honest discussion about what underpins conclusions and decisions. Including Independent Review of Official Analyses or Collaborative Inquiry Since all analyses are fallible, independent peer review has become the gold standard for judging scientific analysis and is also enshrined in the concept of adversarial argument in the context of trial by a jury of peers. While independent review itself is never perfect, the progress of science demonstrates the power of the method to improve the quality of analysis. Effective independent review of scientific analyses will enhance the ability of a process to adhere to the other guidelines for integrating science. Because the interested and affected parties are rarely able to conduct an independent review themselves, it is important that the analysts who conduct reviews are credible to the parties. Collaborative inquiry that involves the range of interested and affected parties can achieve some of the benefits of independent review. Allowing for Iteration Between Analysis and Deliberation Iteration is essential to allow for reconsideration of past conclusions on the basis of new information. Practical constraints may limit the amount of iteration that is possible. But some iteration should always be built into the process to refine both the questions being asked and the answers being offered. IMPLEMENTATION CONCLUSION 5: Contextual factors—attributes of the environmental issue, the state of knowledge, the agency and its environment, and the participants—can present a variety of difficulties in implementing the principles of good public participation. However, choices made
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making in the design of a public participation process can compensate for the difficulties that specific attributes of the context may pose. The best choices are likely to be situation dependent. It is counterproductive to define “best practice” in terms of any specific techniques to be routinely used. RECOMMENDATION 5: Public participation practitioners, working with the responsible agency and the participants, should adopt a best-process regime consisting of four elements: diagnosis of the context to identify likely difficulties; collaborative choice of techniques to address those difficulties; monitoring of the process to see how well it is working; and iteration, including changes in tools and techniques if needed, to overcome difficulties. As discussed in Chapter 8, it would be a mistake to name certain techniques as “best practices” for several reasons: the evidence is very weak for such a recommendation; the research evidence and practical experience strongly suggest that the best technique is likely to be situation dependent; practices need to be sensitive to changes that occur during the process; and recommended “best practices” too easily turn into standard operating procedures that are implemented formulaically, without sensitivity to their effectiveness, which may be less than hoped and may vary over time. Selecting “best practice” techniques and implementing them without involving the participants can also undermine the legitimacy of public participation processes. Given these considerations, we recommend a best process regime for selecting and adjusting tools and techniques to meet the challenges of particular public participation settings as they evolve. Best process for public participation has four elements: diagnosis, collaborative choice, monitoring, and iteration. Diagnosis of the Context Practitioners, the agency, and participants should identify potentially significant difficulties or challenges in the situation at hand with respect to implementing the principles of good public participation. Chapters 7 and 8 provide a set of diagnostic questions that can be useful for this purpose (see Box 9-1). Collaborative Choice of Techniques Practitioners, working with the agency and the participants, should collaboratively design the process, selecting tools and techniques from among those available for addressing the anticipated difficulties or challenges.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Monitoring of the Process Practitioners, participants, and the convening agency should agree to monitor the process to see whether it is in fact meeting anticipated and emerging challenges. The monitoring procedure may be informal or may involve formal evaluation, integrated by agreement of the participants into the public participation process design. Iteration Practitioners, participants, and the agency should establish procedures that allow for adaptation and change in the public participation process when needed. The four elements of best process and their relationships to each other and to the principles of public participation practice and to contextual factors are presented schematically in Figure 9-1. In this process, those involved begin with diagnosis to identify the important contextual factors and the difficulties they are likely to create. They then collaboratively select specific techniques and tools to use to address the difficulties and agree on how to monitor the process. The results of monitoring can lead to a decision to adopt new or different techniques for continuing the participatory process. Diagnosis, collaborative choice, monitoring, and iteration are all critical to finding effective ways to implement public participation. Diagnosis highlights the key issues the process must address. Collaborative choice is important for legitimacy, but cannot alone address the possibility that important questions, perspectives, or participants might be inadvertently left out or that some of the participants may be duplicitous. Monitoring helps create accountability to address these problems. Iteration allows for their correction. Accountability through monitoring, evaluation, and iteration can be very costly when organized in the context of bureaucratic standard procedure or adversarial legal interaction. Getting broad initial acceptance of a process that has these features can greatly reduce these potential costs. Thus, systems that provide for iteration can be part of a collaboratively chosen process and also provide a check on it. They allow any of the parties to raise questions during the process about whether the practices in use are actually solving the problems and implementing principles of good participation, and they provide a legitimate place for making and addressing claims of failure to solve problems or failure to implement principles of good participation. NEEDED RESEARCH CONCLUSION 6: Research on the public participation process has lagged far behind the need. However, both a community of researchers and a set of appropriate research methods are available for developing a scientifically grounded understanding of public participation.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making FIGURE 9-1 Elements of best process for public participation in relation to the principles of good public participation and variations in context. NOTE: The four elements of best process are indicated in italics. Arrows indicate lines of influence: principles and contextual factors contribute to diagnosis; principles, diagnosis, and collaborative choice influence the selection of tools and techniques; the tools and collaborative choice determine what is monitored and how; monitoring leads to iteration; and iteration, via collaborative choice, feeds back to the selection of tools and techniques.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making RECOMMENDATION 6: Agencies that involve interested and affected parties in environmental assessments and decision making should invest in social science research to inform their practice and build broader knowledge about public participation. Routine, well-designed evaluation of agency public participation efforts is one of the most important contributions they can make. Because public participation makes a useful test bed for examining basic social science theory and methods, the National Science Foundation should partner with mission agencies in funding such research, following the model of the successful Partnership for Environmental Research of the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Our conclusions and recommendations for the practice of environmental public participation flow from the available empirical evidence and are consistent with the judgments of experienced practitioners and basic social science knowledge. However, further and more rigorous research will be necessary to test and build on these judgments. For example, further research may determine that particular tools or techniques are efficacious with regard to meeting specific challenges that arise with public participation in certain contexts. The inability to provide solidly supported conclusions of this type at present should not be surprising. Empirical research on environmental public participation is recent and is still dominated by studies that examine only one or a few cases. True experimental research on the model of case-control clinical trials is almost nonexistent. To arrive at robust general conclusions will require, at a minimum, evidence from detailed comparisons across many public participation cases that differ in terms of the challenges they present and that are observed over time. Knowledge in other similarly complex areas of environmental practice, such as the management of common-pool resources, took decades of work using multiple research methods to get to the point of providing broad and robust guidance to practitioners (National Research Council, 1986, 2002a; Dietz et al., 2003). Research to date has yielded useful findings, as noted throughout this report and as reflected in our conclusions and recommendations. But much more remains to be done. The National Research Council report, Decision Making for the Environment, identified the creation of effective analytic-deliberative processes as one of the important priority research areas and identified several important research questions in this area. We agree with that panel’s assessment. The following key questions should guide future research on public participation (National Research Council, 2005a:38-39): What are good indicators for key attributes of success for analytic-
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making deliberative processes, such as decision quality, legitimacy, and improved decision capacity? How are these outcomes affected by the ways in which the processes are organized, the range and diversity of people involved, the rules used for deliberating and reaching conclusions, the ways technical information is organized and made available, and the environmental, social, organizational, and legal contexts of the decision at hand? What are effective ways to make technical analyses transparent to a wide range of decision participants, some of whom lack technical training? How can decision-analytic techniques for preference elicitation, characterizing uncertainty, and aggregating preferences be used to best advantage in broadly based analytic-deliberative processes? How can decision processes be organized to ensure that all sources of relevant information, including the local knowledge of nonscientists, are gathered and appropriately considered? How can analytic-deliberative decision processes be organized to reach closure effectively and with broad acceptance, especially when the processes involve a diversity of perspectives and interests? What tests could be applied to decisions and decision processes to support claims that they are ready for closure? The analyses in this volume suggest the need for research on some further refinements of these questions, such as on ways in which the effects of certain aspects of practice may depend on contextual variables or on the phase of the decision-making process, as well as on ways to overcome common imperfections of small-group decision making that have been observed in experimental research and on ways to combine analytic and deliberative methods for addressing value trade-offs. Such research questions can be answered only by an interacting community of scholars and by an increased level of rigor in research design. It is clear that a community of researchers interested in theoretical and empirical examination of what happens in public participation is emerging. If this community grows and matures, it will provide the evidence needed for more effective and efficient public participation practice and, in the end, better environmental assessment and decision making. But as is often the case in the emergence of a new field, there are important obstacles to developing a strong and coherent body of knowledge. The network of researchers is not well connected across disciplines and across classes of environmental decisions, so that the literature is not as interconnected, self-critical, and cumulative as it might be. In addition, much of the research is conducted with little or no funding, so that the overwhelming majority of studies are based on one or a few cases. While the case-study
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making approach allows for a detailed understanding of the situations examined, it does not lend itself to disentangling the myriad and interacting effects of context and process. In preparing this report we have particularly valued the few studies that have been able to deploy larger sample sizes. The continued use of case studies will help advance the field, but it must be complemented with more multicase comparative and longitudinal studies that allow a stronger assessment of generality and causality. To this end, agencies should be open to having their participation procedures evaluated prospectively by researchers and to ensuring cooperation and funding for such evaluation studies. We note that two important social science methodologies, formal experiments and modeling, are notable by their near absence from the public participation literature. It will be useful to explore the utility of formal controlled experiments to contribute to understanding of public participation processes. Their ability to produce strong evidence about causal effects can make them very useful, even though concerns regarding the external validity of results generated in artificial settings must be taken into account. Field research using experimental and quasi-experimental designs hold great promise but are absent from the available knowledge base. Since there have been virtually no attempts to model public participation processes using analytic or simulation methods (we know of only one, by Howarth and Wilson, 2006), it is less clear what such approaches might contribute, but they surely deserve exploration. In addition to individual research projects, it is important that agencies that use public participation routinely invest in building the community of public participation researchers so that, over time, agency efforts will benefit from an improved base of systematic knowledge. This emerging community is highly interdisciplinary and, to realize its full potential, needs to be more strongly interconnected and better linked to public participation practitioners. The community of researchers and practitioners focused on management of common-pool resources is exemplary in this regard and might serve as a useful model for building public participation research. The scientific study of public participation in environmental assessment and decision making is still very new and the methods employed in available studies are usually less than ideal. Therefore, an investment in more and stronger research will almost certainly yield further insights that in turn will have substantial payoff in the form of improved environmental assessments and decisions and enhanced capacity for sound environmental policy.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making NOTES 1We use the term agency generically throughout our conclusions and recommendations. An environmental public participation process may be convened by a federal, state, or local government agency, by a group of agencies, by a business or nonprofit nongovernmental organization, or even by a previously unorganized group of affected individuals. We sometimes use the term agency to refer broadly to any entity or group of entities that may convene a public participation process, provide the resources for it to proceed, or take action based on its results. 2Our reading of the literature indicates that this conclusion also applies outside the United States. However, to keep our task manageable, we have focused our analysis on the literature grounded in U.S. experience to ensure that our results are relevant to the agencies that sponsored the study. 3We use the term culture broadly to refer to characteristics of belief, thought, or practice that are shared within a social group, whether that group is defined by ethnicity, race, gender, religion, occupation, scientific discipline, or some other characteristic. The cultural differences that are important to public participation are those that affect the ways people understand the policy issues or the information offered to aid in assessment or decision making. The most important cultural factors are likely to vary with the issue at hand.
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