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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Executive Summary Advocates of public participation believe it improves environmental assessment and decision making; detractors criticize it as ineffective and inefficient. The National Research Council established the Panel on Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making at the request of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with additional support from the U.S. Forest Service, to assess whether, and under what conditions, public participation achieves the outcomes desired. The term “public participation,” as used in this study, includes organized processes adopted by elected officials, government agencies, or other public- or private-sector organizations to engage the public in environmental assessment, planning, decision making, management, monitoring, and evaluation. These processes supplement traditional forms of public participation (voting, forming interest groups, demonstrating, lobbying) by directly involving the public in executive functions that, when they are conducted in government, are traditionally delegated to administrative agencies. The goal of participation is to improve the quality, legitimacy, and capacity of environmental assessments and decisions. Quality refers to assessments or decisions that (1) identify the values, interests, and concerns of all who are interested in or might be affected by the environmental process or decision; (2) identify the range of actions that might be taken; (3) identify and systematically consider the effects that might follow and uncertainties about them; (4) use the best available knowledge and methods relevant to the above tasks, particularly (3); and
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making (5) incorporate new information, methods, and concerns that arise over time. Legitimacy refers to a process that is seen by the interested and affected parties as fair and competent and that follows the governing laws and regulations. Capacity refers to participants, including agency officials and scientists, (1) becoming better informed and more skilled at effective participation; (2) becoming better able to engage the best available scientific knowledge and information about diverse values, interests, and concerns; and (3) developing a more widely shared understanding of the issues and decision challenges and a reservoir of communication and mediation skills and mutual trust. 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. The panel found that participatory processes have sometimes made matters worse. However, it also found that across a wide variety of environmental assessment and decision contexts, there are practices that can simultaneously promote quality, legitimacy, and capacity. 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. PUBLIC PARTICIPATION PRACTICE The panel offers four recommendations for carrying out public participation processes that embody six principles of program management, four principles for the conduct of participation, and five principles for integrating science and participation. Recommendation 2: When government agencies engage in public participation, they should do so with
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making 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. 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. In environmental assessment and decision making, special attention must be paid to scientific analysis and the uncertainty in that analysis. 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 analysis and/or engaging in a process of collaborative inquiry with interested and affected parties, and allowing for iteration to reconsider past conclusions on the basis of new information. IMPLEMENTING THE PRINCIPLES There is no specific set of tools or techniques that constitute “best practices” for all contexts, or even for meeting particular difficulties. Rather,
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making the best technique will be situation-dependent, and practices need to be sensitive to changes that occur during the process. 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, collaborative choice of techniques to meet difficulties expected because of the context, monitoring of the process to see how well it is working, and iteration, including changes in tools and techniques if needed to overcome difficulties. This process is illustrated in Figure ES-1. NEEDED RESEARCH 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.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making FIGURE ES-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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