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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making
count of the degree and character of polarization that exists at the outset. In a polarized environment, simply bringing opposing groups together in a forum designed to clarify the points of contention may constitute a constructive first step, one that will be more likely to succeed than something more ambitious yet one that also can provide the basis for additional progress in the future. Such forums can clarify the scientific and political issues and establish useful processes to support good decision making. As noted in Chapter 6, when scientific disagreements are part of what is at issue, an agency can convene a public forum in which scientists with diverse perspectives present their data and conclusions and defend them. In this way, a public agency can create a public forum for decision-focused debate and discussion as well as making the required decisions.
In situations characterized by extreme polarization, which sometimes result from a long history of conflict, extended efforts at trust building also may be necessary to make accommodation possible, even on matters of process. Research and experience in resolution of identity-based conflicts can offer useful insights for such situations (e.g., Saunders, 1999). However, trust-building efforts require time and money, either of which may be in short supply.
Disparities that affect influence can play a significant role in who is consulted in the design of a process, who is included as a participant, and, in some cases, in the transparency of the process and the achievement of good-faith communication. In many cases, those with power and influence are also advantaged in terms of other resources related to having an effective voice in a process (time, funding, scientific staff).
As noted above, some parties already participate in environmental decision making very well and effectively. Those parties include large corporations and some professional associations (e.g., Heclo, 1978; Schlozman and Tierney, 1986; Baumgartner and Jones, 1993; Sweeney, 2004). Other parties are much less involved and effective, such as nonunionized workers and their families, the poor, members of racial and ethnic minority groups, and recent immigrants. A small number of prominent national environmental nongovernmental organizations do represent the distinctive interests of noncorporate and nonprofessional constituencies to national agencies, and most of the more populous states have comparable state-level nongovernmental organizations; however, many types of interested and affected parties to environmental decisions are neither involved directly in agency decisions nor represented there by nongovernmental organizations.
A major rationale for public participation is to level the playing field in the sense that everyone should have equal voice in the process, even if