Public Participation in Environmental Decisionmaking

A new report from the National Research Council probes deeply into the positive and occasionally negative effects of public participation on the environmental policymaking process.

It is practically an article of faith in democratic societies that openness and public participation are presumptively good, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. On closer inspection, however, including empirical studies of participatory processes, the new NRC report was able to reach some encouraging conclusions.

“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 also can enhance trust and understanding among parties,” the report said.

On the other hand, “public participation, if not done well, may not provide any of these benefits — in some circumstances, participation has done more harm than good.”

The 250 page report, including a valuable 50 page bibliography, elucidates some of the conditions for successful participation and those that are likely to result in failure.

“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…. This use of public participation is counterproductive in the long run,” the report said.

Instead, agencies inviting public participation must have a “commitment to use the process to inform their actions.”

Also, “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.”

With certain adjustments, the report’s conclusions regarding environmental policy may also be applicable to security policy and other areas of government-public interaction.

See “Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making” by Thomas Dietz and Paul C. Stern, editors, National Academies Press, 2008.

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