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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making 2 The Promise and Perils of Participation Why should agencies engage the public as part of environmental assessment and decision processes? What is to be gained? And what are the costs and risks associated with public participation? In this chapter, as a basis for assessing the effects of public participation, we examine the arguments for and against public participation, including the U.S. legal mandates for participation. These arguments and expectations identify the results that people desire, expect, or fear from public participation and thus imply criteria for evaluation. The ideas reviewed in this chapter provide a framework for considering the evidence about participation, which we review in subsequent chapters. Some arguments for participation rest on normative theories of democracy and collective action, some are based on ideas of what constitutes a high-quality decision, and some are grounded mainly in considerations of improving agency practice and the policy process. Several arguments critical of public participation question the basic logic of citizen participation in complex science-based issues (Rossi, 1997; Sanders, 1997; Collins and Evans, 2002, Campbell and Currie, 2006). Most of the critiques of participation, however, are grounded in the practical. Critics worry that participation in practice may not achieve the lofty goals articulated in theory and may actually impede good decision making. They offer three basic arguments: that the costs are not justified by the benefits, that the public is ill-equipped to deal with the complex nature of analyses that are needed for good environmental assessments and decisions, and that participation processes seldom achieve equity in process and outcome. Others argue that participatory processes tend to experience a set of pathologies
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making that range from paralysis by endless deliberations to reaching only trivial results when trying to accomplish a consensus among stakeholders with conflicting values and interests (e.g., Sunstein, 2001, 2006). As Ventriss and Kuentzel (2005:520) state: “a consensus in the public sphere is like a transitory mirage, contingent on the constellation of actors who happen to rise to the surface of ongoing public conflict and debate.” It is useful to recognize at the outset that decision making on matters of environmental policy is intrinsically and appropriately a political process (Cortner and Shannon, 1993; Landy, 1993; Williams and Matheny, 1995). Environmental decisions always involve both public and private interests. Furthermore, the decisions are typically backed by governmental authority, so environmental policy always involves power relations in society. Such relations shape environmental policy, and environmental policy in turn reshapes power (Stirling, 2008). This recognition provides a context for understanding participation processes, the motivations for public participation, and the challenges to it. Science plays a special role in public participation in environmental issues. Environmental policy decisions therefore should be—and in the United States by statute typically must be—informed by the best available scientific information and judgments. Because they are matters of public policy they should—and, again by statute, typically must—also take into account the knowledge, values, and preferences of interested and affected parties. Ideally, public input and good information and judgment are complementary. Interested parties can bring critical factual information and scientific analyses to the process, whether as scientists themselves, by employing scientists, or by contributing experiential, observational or traditional knowledge. Similarly, scientific analysis can be made more decision relevant when public values and concerns frame the questions being asked and the methods deployed. Ideally, thoughtfully structured public participation can make these choices explicit and examine their implications for public decisions. Scientific analysis on its own is an inadequate guide to determining how the risks, costs, and benefits of environmental decisions ought to be balanced or how they should be distributed across the public. Such decisions depend not only on factual information, but also on values and preferences and on interpretations of factual information (e.g., National Research Council, 1983, 1994, 1996). Even setting the policy agenda—deciding which environmental matters deserve public consideration and which do not—requires the integration of scientific analysis and public input. In a democracy, such decisions cannot legitimately be made without consulting the many groups in society. When the issues are of great significance and complexity, a democracy would be foolish to forego good science. However, the best ways to pursue the ideal of integrating scientific analysis, values, and judgment and the extent and manner in which the
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making public should be directly involved in doing so remain matters of debate. As noted above and discussed in more detail below, the challenges of public participation in administrative processes are so great that some have questioned the value of the enterprise. But, if public concerns are not adequately addressed in such processes, people can and do become politically involved outside them, through elections, lobbying, social movements, and judicial actions. The issue for policy, and for this report, is whether public involvement in these processes can be organized in ways that provide net benefits at acceptable costs. Our goal is to review what is known about public participation and to extract lessons from that knowledge that can guide such effective participation. In this volume, we apply social science to the task of informing the continuing discussion about methods of public participation. Although simple prescriptions cannot be found, we think that choices of methods for participation can be usefully informed by empirically and theoretically grounded analysis of how approaches to public participation, deployed in different contexts, influence the results. Our assessment, like other scientific analyses, requires context-specific diagnosis and judgment before being translated into policy. There is no escape from values and judgment in making what are fundamentally political decisions. Consequently, any reasonably comprehensive examination of public participation in environmental decision making must take into account the political context and consequences of such decisions. Thus we emphasize that the design of any public participation process reflects value choices and the political power of the players to influence those choices, beginning with the decision about what questions are the focus of analysis and deliberation (Thomas, 1995; Schneider and Ingram, 1997; King, Feltey, and O’Neil Susel, 1998; Walters, Aydelotte, and Miller, 2000; Feldman and Khademian, 2002; Wynne, 2005). Those design choices have the potential to advantage some interests over others, empower some and disempower others, and lend differential credence to some values, preferences, and beliefs over others (e.g., Bingham, 1986; Dietz, Stern, and Rycroft, 1989; Forester and Stitzel, 1989; Stirling, 2006, 2008). The advantage of grounding the design of public participation processes in lessons from scientific analysis of public participation is that it can help avoid unintended consequences and make more transparent the implications of the choices made. As subsequent chapters show, the research literature on public participation, while rapidly evolving, already provides sound guidance for the design of effective participation processes. This chapter begins with a brief overview of the historical development of public participation in U.S. environmental policy management at the federal level. This history shows that public participation has been proposed to serve a variety of purposes, that there is a long record of contestation
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making over what the proper purposes should be, and that disagreements about public participation continue. We then summarize the most commonly offered justifications for public participation in environmental decisions. These include normative justifications, derived from democratic theory and considerations of fairness, as well as substantive and instrumental justifications (Fiorino, 1990; Laird, 1993; Fung, 2006) for public participation. Many of these justifications are reflected in statutes, executive orders, and official practices. We then review arguments that public participation has adverse consequences that are rarely acknowledged in official statutes or pronouncements that advocate broader participation. We consider some of the most trenchant concerns about public participation: that it may fail to handle scientific information adequately, particularly about uncertainty; that it may fail to achieve objectives of fairness; that it leads to trivial results based on a weak consensus among stakeholders with conflicting interests and values; and that its costs outweigh its benefits. The final section discusses the kinds of results of public participation that have been considered important and the feasibility of measuring those results. This discussion sets the stage for our analysis of what happens in public participation processes and of which factors influence the results. HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT: LAWS AND AGENCY PRACTICES In the United States, the tradition of direct public involvement in policy making traces back at least to the New England town meeting (Bryan, 2004). Public involvement in aspects of federal environmental policy is often traced to the new organizations and programs created in the 1930s under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. For example, organizations of farmers took part in the development and implementation of agricultural policy (Daneke, 1983) and in the development projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority (Rossi, 1997). Both of these early processes confirmed the dangers of participation without standards or rules to govern it. Philip Selznick’s classic book, TVA and the Grassroots (1949), charted how the TVA co-opted and manipulated local organizations to create the appearance of public support for agency policies, many of which were contrary to the interests of many people living in the region. Such early efforts, despite their limitations, pioneered institutionalized public participation in federal agency decisions (Acheson, 1941). The Administrative Procedure Act (APA), enacted in 1946, set forth general procedures that all agencies must use in developing policy, promulgating rules, notifying the public and other agencies of their intentions, requesting public information and disseminating information to the public, and receiving comments from the public and other agencies (5 U.S.C.§§551 to 559, 701 to 706). This act specified in some detail the processes by which
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making federal agencies should make decisions depending on the type of decision at issue (Section 553). Although the APA did not call for direct public participation at the point of decision, it recognized the right of the public to know about, contribute to, and monitor the actions of agencies (Section 552). The “notice and comment” requirements of the APA and the creation of the Federal Register set in place some of the fundamental requirements for active participation: knowledge of what kinds of decisions agencies intend to make, an opportunity to give information to agencies prior to their final decisions, the opportunity to comment on proposed agency actions, and the opportunity to seek judicial review if informal appeal to the agency for reconsideration of its actions was unsatisfactory. Although the APA was an important milestone because it officially mandated norms for agency conduct (Daneke, 1983), it contained only the “notice and comment” understanding of the role of the public in government decision making. In terms of the decision schema of Figure 1-1 (in Chapter 1), the APA established requirements and procedures for public participation in the information gathering and feedback phases of the process, but it did not provide for participation in the other phases. A more active model of public participation in government decision making was encouraged by Congress with the Revised Housing Act of 1954 and later by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which sought “maximum feasible participation” in community development. In reality, however, such participation was feasible only for organizations or individuals with sufficient time, money, and other resources to enable them to participate in often-distant federal processes (Fiorino, 1989). Moreover, even when the government-organized participation in decision making occurred locally, as in the Citizen Action Programs created under the Economic Opportunity Act, public officials demonstrated a readiness and a capacity to constrain, obstruct, or derail participation initiatives they perceived to be incursions on their power (Kramer, 1969; Piven and Cloward, 1971; Strange, 1972; Greenstone and Peterson, 1973; Berry, Portney, and Thompson, 1993). However, the program has also been criticized as one that bypassed the “institutions of electoral representation” leading to “maximum feasible misunderstanding” (Moynihan, 1969; see also Walinsky, 1969). The debate about public participation in antipoverty and community development programs was and is intense. It is an important element of the context in which environmental public participation evolved. Increased public involvement in the decision process of federal environmental agencies was required beginning with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969 and thereafter was mandated in nearly all other environmental and land management statutes (Fiorino, 1989). These laws were passed with the belief that participation could lead to better decisions that improved the environment and lead to a more just
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making and prosperous society (Cramton, 1972; Fischer and Forester, 1993). NEPA required agencies to inform one another and the public of the expected environmental, social, and economic consequences of proposed actions (NEPA Section 102C(v)). President Nixon, by Executive Order 11514 (March 7, 1970, 35 F.R. 4247), expanded NEPA’s public notice requirements by requiring agencies to: Develop procedures to ensure the fullest practicable provision of timely public information and understanding of Federal plans and programs with environmental impact in order to obtain the views of interested parties. These procedures shall include, whenever appropriate, provision for public hearings, and shall provide the public with relevant information, including information on alternative courses of action. Federal agencies shall also encourage State and local agencies to adopt similar procedures for informing the public concerning their activities affecting the quality of the environment (Section 2(b)). The APA required agencies to make relevant documents available to the public, whereas NEPA assured access to public information from federal agencies and the opportunity to be heard after receiving this information and before decisions have been made. These requirements made it possible for members of the public to make their informed judgments known to agencies before decisions were made and thus potentially to have an influence on the decisions. However, they did not require agency decision makers, for example, to use the public input or explain why they did not. The Council on Environmental Quality, in 1978, required agencies to engage in “scoping” processes early in an agency’s assessment of the environmental impacts of options to ascertain what issues the public wished to see addressed in that assessment. Nicholas C. Yost (1979), then general counsel at the Council on Environmental Quality, stated: Every major affected group in the nation—from business to environmentalists to state and local governments—applauded the new regulations. Why this universal praise? I suspect it was, in part, because of the stress in the regulations, as in the process of their development, on seeking consensus…. [T]he new NEPA regulations will involve all those who are interested. The regulations make them part of the process. If all are part of the process, the Council believes, the process will be better. The results will be both more environmentally sensitive and less subject to disruptive conflicts and delays…. Don’t wait, the new regulations say, until positions harden and commitments have been made to focus on the important issues and alternatives. Instead, involve all the necessary people from the beginning to see that the impact statement analyzes the information most significant to the ultimate decision. If the important issues receive attention at the outset,
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making later squabbles about the need for more study and new information can be avoided, along with increased costs and substantial delay. The scoping process, often including a scoping meeting, will provide a forum for using consensus-building techniques to insure that all essential information is gathered before the ultimate decision is made. Real opportunities exist for those skilled in facilitating consensus to aid diverse participants in exploring the issues and agreeing on those to be studied. Then, when a decision is made on a particular proposal, it can at least be agreed that the analytical groundwork was complete and developed fairly. The idea of involving the public in early scoping of a problem is often seen as one of the most important contributions of NEPA to public participation. As we note in later chapters, there is great value in engaging the public in problem formulation. This can sometimes broaden the range of alternative actions considered in ways that lead to better decisions. Of course, the participation can also identify approaches to a problem outside the scope of the convening agency, which can be frustrating for all involved. But considering a full range of options is often noted as a first principle of effective decision making. Administrative and judicial decisions under NEPA and other environmental laws have also broadened both the scope of government actions that are considered environmentally consequential and broadened the basis for the public to have “standing” to participate in both the courts and in administrative processes. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gave citizens stronger legal authority for meaningful participation by establishing the public’s right to obtain information from federal government agencies, with nine exemptions, including national security. Enacted originally in 1966, FOIA states that “any person” can file an FOIA request, including U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, organizations, associations, and academic institutions. In 1974, the act was amended following the Watergate scandal to force greater agency compliance (5 U.S.C. Section 552, as Amended by Public Law No. 104-231, 110 Stat. 3048). It was also amended in 1996 to incorporate electronic information. These pieces of legislation all either specifically require certain forms of public participation or provide the public with access to information or opportunities to be heard. Agencies must comply with these requirements or face lawsuits. As is discussed below, however, agencies can interpret and implement the requirements differently and have done so. Since the 1970s, laws have made concerns with fairness and balance explicit considerations in decisions by all federal agencies. The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) of 1972 mandates standards and uniform procedures to ensure that advisory committees serve public rather than private interests. Under FACA, federal advisory committees must be
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making “fairly balanced” in terms of points of view and have a formal charter that is reviewed by federal officials outside the agency creating the committee. At about this time, administrative law generally underwent a reformation in which fairness and equity were asserted to protect new classes of interests under an expanding government (Stewart, 1975). By the end of the 1970s, 80 percent of all federal programs and federal granting authority required some form of “public participation” (Rosenbaum, 1978; Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1979). However, these developments, which were meant to encourage transparency and openness, could also act as constraints on both the process and the outcome of public participation, a point to which we return in Chapter 4. Legislation on environmental protection and federal natural resource management, beginning with the Clean Air Act of 1970, continued to expand the role of the public (including a citizen’s right to sue under some statutes), and citizens for the past three decades have organized themselves to actively participate in federal environmental policy processes. These pressures have undoubtedly encouraged increased agency interest in the more intensive mechanisms of public participation. While the more passive “notice and comment” and “inform and involve” approaches to public participation often remain the official stance of federal agencies, several agencies have gone beyond the letter of the law in involving the public. For example, the collaborative licensing process of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is an exceptionally strong approach to empowering citizens in agency decision making. The public often has been actively involved in formulating policy, in making and implementing decisions, and sometimes in enforcement by filing “citizen suits” (Boyer and Meidinger, 1985). The burst of enthusiasm for public participation in environmental assessment and decision making of the 1970s continued and spread to nearly every agency involved in environmentally significant activities. However, this expansion has not been monotonic and has led to expressions of concern about the value of public participation. We review such concerns and criticisms of participation later in this chapter. Here we note that in some agencies, the complexity of public participation and consultation has come to be seen as burdensome and possibly an obstacle to effective action. Perhaps the clearest example has been around the federal management of land and ecosystems. The extension of legal requirements for participatory processes did not address issues that arose when agency responsibilities and jurisdictions overlapped, as is frequently the case for environmental assessments and decisions. Public participation processes often crossed the boundaries of agency-specific mandates. For example, decisions regarding forests, water, and wildlife inevitably require several agencies to coordinate their responsibilities toward crafting a joint decision (e.g., the
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project; see www.icbemp.gov). Such decisions usually engage multiple levels of governmental and nongovernmental actors in scientific assessment, planning, decision making, and implementation. Each actor has specific substantive as well as procedural duties to meet as well as distinct constituencies to engage and satisfy (Johnson et al., 1999; U.S.D.A. Forest Service, 2002). However, most people are unfamiliar with the boundaries of agencies’ mandates, and this can be a source of frustration in participatory processes. One response to this complexity is to increase the scale of the assessment and decision processes so as to allow for a broad level of agreement on strategic goals, implementation objectives, and evaluation criteria. Conflicts around how to use federal public lands in the 1990s provide an instructive example. Multiple agencies have made efforts to work at a landscape scale through bioregional assessments and thereby craft a broad policy that can guide agency-specific decisions as well as coordinate the actions of other landowners and resource users (Johnson et al., 1999). However, working with constituencies ranging from local governments to international environmental organizations in a single, multiagency process taxed the capacity of the administrative agencies involved, especially at a time when many of them were experiencing significant losses of personnel and resources (U.S.D.A. Office of General Counsel Natural Resources Division, 2002; Shannon, 2003). The Northwest Forest Plan, a landscape-scale, multiagency policy that affected the management of federal lands in western Washington, Oregon, and Northern California is the most prominent example of the approach. When the agencies relied on the plan in making more localized decisions, the courts nullified the approach by demanding that the agencies specifically consider localized and short-term consequences for each decision. They further admonished agencies with regulatory responsibilities that they had to affirmatively carry out these responsibilities for each decision rather than assume that an activity proposed by a land management agency that was consistent with the bioregional plan automatically complied with regulatory policy. An ebb and flow of concern with the efficacy of large-scale public participation has been one consequence of the difficulties perceived with landscape-level processes. A series of reports providing guidance to the U.S. Forest Service exemplifies this trend. In 1998, the Secretary of Agriculture charged a committee of scientists to craft a new conceptual framework for planning for the 21st century. The committee’s report, Sustaining the People’s Lands, proposed participatory processes that were highly collaborative with other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders in order to improve both the quality of the decision and its implementation capacity (U.S.D.A. Forest Service, 1997). The Forest Service wrote new planning regulations based on the report that were published in November
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making 2000 (36 CFR Part 219), just before the George W. Bush administration took office. Although everything in these new regulations was a part of current practice of the agency, many agency and nonagency observers were concerned that an increased emphasis on public participation would not yield timely decisions and effective planning and policy. In November 2001, a new report, Reflecting Complexity and Impact of Laws on a USDA Forest Service Project, documented the legal complexity of project and operational planning (U.S.D.A. Forest Service Inventory and Monitoring Institute and Business Genetics, 2001). This report noted that there are hundreds of individual activities needed to make decisions and dozens of process interaction points. Agency actions are governed by regulations requiring public participation along the way, but the public can choose not to get involved until the very end or not at all. The chief of the Forest Service convened a team to examine these issues of legal and regulatory complexity. Its report, The Process Predicament: How Statutory, Regulatory, and Administrative Factors Affect National Forest Management (U.S.D.A. Forest Service, 2002:5), called out three problems as critical: Excessive analysis—confusion, delays, costs, and risk management associated with the required consultation and studies; Ineffective public involvement—procedural requirements that create disincentives to collaboration in national forest management; and Management inefficiencies—poor planning and decision making, a deteriorating skills base, and inflexible spending rules, problems that are compounded by the sheer volume of the required paperwork and the associated proliferation of opportunities to misinterpret or misapply required procedures. The Forest Service published new planning regulations in December 2005. They categorically exempt bioregional assessments and national forest integrated land and resource management plans from the NEPA process on grounds that no decisions about action are made through those processes. Thus, NEPA compliance with its requirement for public participation now rests at the project planning—operational—level where decisions directly affecting the land and resources are made. The 2005 rules (36 CFR Part 219) still contain much the same language regarding public participation and the need for a collaborative approach. Under these rules, national forest-level planning processes could still be highly participatory and collaborative, but freed from attention to detail and therefore less costly, more timely, and more flexible. However, the new regulations could also lead to a substantial reduction in public participation. As yet, there have been no studies of the new regulations. Since 2000, some agencies seem to have retained or even increased their
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making commitment to public participation, while in others, formal requirements and institutional mechanisms such as advisory councils remain in place but are given little funding and attention by decision makers. As the discussion above indicates, every agency, with its unique culture, leadership, and current challenges, may alter its responses over time to the challenges of effective and efficient public participation. PURPOSES OF PUBLIC PARTICIPATION Within the shifting legal context, agencies have considerable discretion concerning whom they involve, when they are involved, the type and intensity of involvement, the influence of participation on decision making, and the goals they seek from public involvement. Few studies have examined how agencies exercise this discretion or what determines the level of participation they choose (Yang and Callahan, 2007). The issue of the purposes of public participation deserves highlighting. Public input can serve many purposes in a decision or assessment process and can be used at many stages in the process. Some purposes relate to improving the quality of assessments or decisions, some relate to increasing their legitimacy, and some relate to improving the decision-making capacity of the public and the agency. Public participation can in principle improve an assessment or decision in various ways. Box 2-1 presents several of these, organized around the two general objectives of quality and legitimacy and linked to the phases of the idealized decision process presented in Figure 1-1 (in Chapter 1) at which participation may be helpful.1 It is worth noting that, depending on the purpose that public input is serving, different inputs may be needed from different people. For example, the people needed to provide information on environmental conditions in a managed forest are not necessarily the ones needed to assess the value of various ecosystem services provided by the forest or to agree on a process for making management decisions. Thus, what is required for a good participatory process may vary with the purpose that the process is intended to serve. We return to this issue in Chapter 4. Agencies may, within their discretion, be restrictive about public input, inviting it only as applicable laws require, or expansive, inviting and using public input at every point in the process if doing so is not legally prohibited (e.g., where it would delegate statutory responsibility). In exercising this discretion, agency officials may or may not be explicit in stating the purposes they intend public input to serve. This situation leaves considerable room for ambiguity, misunderstanding, and contestation over who should participate, how, when, and with what kind and degree of influence. For example, an agency may invite public input to a decision with the implicit understanding that the choice will be among three defined options. But
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making only in the hands of the organizers of the participation process. Although it is difficult to mobilize some parts of the population to participate in collective action, including engaging in public participation, such mobilization does takes place. A very substantial literature examines the ways in which the collective action problem is overcome in low-influence groups (e.g., Gamson, 1990, 1992; Diani and McAdam, 2003). While this literature has not been deployed to inform the design of public participation processes, it might offer some useful insights. Trivial or Undesirable Results The last major criticism of participation concerns the results. The claim is that the results of highly participatory processes are too often trivial, overprotective of certain interests or values, or lead to actions that are inefficient or disproportional to the threat or problem (Sanders, 1997; Cross, 1998; List, 2006). Many critics claim that people are either unable or unwilling to accept trade-offs and to search for efficient or cost-effective solutions (Zeckhauser and Viscusi, 1996). Participatory processes, in this view, tend to favor solutions that violate rules of efficient or cost-effective spending of public money (Cupps, 1977; Rosenbaum, 1978; Graham and Wiener, 1995; Viscusi, 1998). Critics argue that participation may aggravate environmental damage or impacts on human health because it focuses on a single issue and does not take into account that minimizing the impact of one problem can increase the impact of related problems (Perry, 2000). By pursuing priorities that the public demands, regulators are likely to spend time and effort on environmental threats that are relatively benign but highly visible in the public eye and neglect those threats that are not well known to the public but very potent in their consequences (Coglianese, 1999). In the long run, in this view, more people will suffer from future damages than necessary since the funds for safety and risk reduction are spent inefficiently. A related argument is based on the costs of participatory processes (Rossi, 1997). This line of criticism expresses a concern that participation may disrupt the normal operation of agencies or representative bodies, consuming time and money and resulting in delay, immobility, and stalemate (Aron, 1979; Cross, 1998). Some analysts have claimed that the European style of closed-shop negotiation has been much more effective in regulating environmental risks than the adversarial and open style of the United States (Coppock, 1985; Weidner, 1993). The more people are asked to take part, the more time it will take to come to any conclusion. This argument holds that effective government rests on a limited opportunity to participate and that in the long run, participation does more to harm than help the environment.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making Another criticism is that public deliberative processes lead to trivial results (Coglianese, 1999). This argument holds that the more public input is allowed to enter the process, the more likely that “window-dressing”— superficial outcomes—will occur. If all the participants have to find a common ground of agreement, the language of that agreement is likely to remain vague and the outcomes will lack specificity and clear direction. This argument is directed, of course, against deliberative procedures that require consensus. Finally, one of the most sustained criticisms of public participation is that it requires a commitment of time and money so large that the costs far outweigh the benefits of participation (Krutilla and Haigh, 1978; Aron, 1979; Coppock, 1985; Weidner, 1993; Cross, 1998), especially given concerns with the outcomes reviewed above. From an agency’s perspective, unless the input gained through the process is of high quality, the funds might better be spent on other activities. From the perspective of the public, unless the outcome of the participation is influential, other mechanisms of influencing the agency may be more cost-effective (Shannon, 1987). These concerns have led some researchers to explore methods of participation that provide added value in a timely fashion with a reasonable expenditure of resources (e.g., Chess, Dietz, and Shannon, 1998; Renn, 1999). These criticisms are an antidote to naivete with regard to participation by identifying plausible ways that participation may go astray. It is useful to think of these criticisms in two ways. First, they raise the issue of what can or should be expected from a participatory process, considering that participation may have various purposes. For example, if the goal of a participatory process is for the agency to identify the concerns of the public but not to propose solutions or reach a consensus, concerns with fairness are appropriate, but issues of political manipulation, scientific competence, and efficiency would seem less germane. However, if the goal is to recommend policy, and especially if the recommendations will be influential, these latter concerns must be given serious consideration. Different goals enhance or reduce the importance of these problems. If the main objective is to identify the range of public concerns, all that is required is to survey the views of interested and affected parties: representation matters, but other concerns are more muted. If the objective is to reach a consensus, more stress must be placed on the ability of the participants to learn from each other and weigh arguments (Wynne, 1992; Tuler and Webler, 1995; Daniels and Walker, 1997; Beierle, 2000; Webler, Tuler, and Krueger, 2001; Welp and Stoll-Kleemann, 2006). Many experienced observers claim that given the right structure and facilitation process, a rational exchange of arguments and a balanced and efficient assignment of trade-offs can be and has been achieved (Webler, 1995, 1999; Renn, 1999, 2004). Ultimately, it is an empirical question whether these claims can be validated. The limited
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making systematic evidence indicates that consensus-seeking participation processes tend to be more time-consuming and intense (Sherington, 1997; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board, 2001; Abelson et al., 2003). They also fail more often than processes that only measure public preferences or display the diversity of opinions. However, consensus processes seem to be better than inventory-oriented processes at meeting the expectations of the participants and the users (Beierle and Cayford, 2002; Hagendijk and Irwin, 2006; Abelson et al., 2007). Furthermore, evaluations of case studies of deliberative processes provide rather convincing evidence that the results of well-designed processes range far beyond the trivial or inefficient (Rowe et al., 2004; Rauschmayer and Wittmer, 2006). When a process is intended to empower the participants and to bring attention and consideration to the needs and interests of those who are normally neglected in the public policy arena, the results are intended to be different from the general public’s preference structure. Although this objective may not be widely shared, it would be unfair to criticize such processes if the result is inefficient or disproportionate from the standpoint of the entire society (Koopmans, 1996; Fung and Wright, 2001; Fischer, 2005). The theoretical arguments extolling participation and the cautionary literature are both sources of hypotheses regarding the outcomes of participatory processes. Chapters 3-8 examine these hypotheses by considering in detail the scientific and experiential evidence regarding the outcomes of participatory processes and what shapes them. CRITERIA FOR EVALUATION Our discussion so far makes obvious the diversity of expectations—positive and negative, hopeful and cautionary, normative, substantive, and instrumental—that have been expressed for public participation processes. Each of these expectations is an implicit hypothesis about the effects of public participation processes or about how attributes of the processes or their contexts determine those effects. To make sense of the evidence, it is necessary to distill the very large number of variables and hypotheses in the literature down to a manageable set to use in our assessment. This section identifies a few key types of results that stand out in the literature and that we use as evaluative criteria in the chapters that follow. When to Evaluate: Evaluating Across Stages of Implementation Public participation processes go through many stages, from problem formulation and process design through decision making and implementation, to the ultimate effects of decisions on the environment and society. Thus, evaluation could potentially be done at many points in the process.
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making A previous report of the National Research Council (2005b) distinguished five classes of metrics for evaluation—input, process, output, outcome, and impact—that are roughly ordered in relation to the point in a process at which they can first be assessed. They have a plausible causal ordering in the sense that the attributes of an assessment or decision that appear earlier on the list can influence the later ones, but not vice versa. After sufficient passage of time, environmental assessments and decisions can be judged in terms of any of these classes of metrics. The ultimate concerns of public policy are with impacts on socially important values, such as environmental quality, economic activity, the distribution of the benefits and costs across the population, and public faith in government. There is also serious concern with outcomes that depend on implementation, such as whether responsible agencies make new commitments or decisions; whether laws, regulations, or policies change; and whether actions are taken on the ground. These outcomes were identified by Beierle and Cayford (2002) as stages of implementation that intervene between the outputs of public participation processes and the ultimate impacts of decisions on environmental quality and other social goals. Public participation processes do not influence such ultimate outcomes and impacts directly. Environmental impacts, for example, though potentially influenced by public participation processes, are also affected in very significant ways by many other factors. These include the implementation of policy decisions, as well as events in the natural and social worlds that affect environmental quality independently of any decision resulting from a specific public participation process. Because so many factors influence environmental conditions and other impacts, it is usually very difficult to attribute ultimate impacts to causes in a public participation process. Moreover, because of the long causal chain, any effects of public participation on environmental quality are typically indirect, mediated by implementation and other intervening events. Exceptions occur when the participants have the power collectively to implement their decisions, as in some watershed partnerships (Leach and Pelkey, 2001; Lubell and Leach, 2005), in negotiated rule-making (Langbein, 2005), and in many instances of collective governance of common-pool environmental resources, such as local fisheries, forests, or irrigation systems (see, e.g., Ostrom, 1990; National Research Council, 2002a). To the extent that the participants in a public participation process have the power to implement their decisions, ultimate impacts and outcomes can provide good metrics for evaluation. To the extent that the process is only advisory, however, the results that can be most readily linked causally to a public participation process are those that can be observed at or shortly after the end of the process. In most contexts, then, it makes sense to distinguish (1) the effects of public participation on such immediate results of assessments and deci-
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making sions, (2) the effects of these immediate results on implementation, and (3) the effects of implementation on environmental quality. Immediate results include the outputs of public participation, such as completing an assessment, reaching a decision, and making recommendations for action by the responsible agency or others. They also include immediate outcomes, such as changes in the attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, skills, and practices of the various participants (including scientists and the convening agency), and changes in relationships or mutual understanding among the participants at the conclusion of a participatory process. Conclusions about the effects of public participation on subsequent outcomes that depend on implementation of recommendations from the process and on impacts must be built on inferences from information about the causes of success in terms of immediate results (point 1 above), as well as separate evidence about the effects of immediate results on implementation outcomes (point 2) and of implementation on impacts (point 3). Our main focus is on the effects of public participation on immediate results, because unless positive effects on these can be achieved, investments in public participation would not seem worthwhile. There is evidence that public participation that is successful in terms of immediate results promotes good implementation, and that good implementation in turn promotes positive impacts on environmental and other socially valued endpoints (e.g., Langbein, 2005; Lubell and Leach, 2005). However, most of the research and analysis has appropriately focused on the first critical link in the causal chain, from public participation activities to the results immediately expected or desired from it. Evaluating the entire causal chain, though obviously important, will require a much more substantial investment in research on environmental decision making than has been made to date (National Research Council, 2005a). Some evaluation efforts are being organized under the auspices of the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution (information available at http://www.ecr.gov/multiagency/program_eval.htm). Other fields of research have long dealt with the problem of inferring the quality of a decision process from the subsequent events it is intended to affect. For example, this is a central theme in discussion of research methods in international relations (e.g., Tetlock and Belkin, 1996; Stern and Druckman, 2000). A key insight from that work is that the effect of a decision on a complex system is most meaningfully assessed in comparison to a counterfactual situation, that is, the conditions that would have resulted if a different decision had been made or a different decision process had been used. Because of the difficulties inherent in specifying such counterfactuals, it is unwise to uncritically take environmental changes, or a lack of such changes, after a decision as evidence of the environmental impact or lack of impact of the decision. In addition, it is important to judge outcomes
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making against reasonable expectations of how much change a decision, even if fully implemented, might make in the relevant impact measures within a given period of time. Finally, outcomes often entail the resolution of uncertainty that was present at the time of the decision and thus reflect additional knowledge that was not available to those making the decision. Inappropriate reliance on outcome knowledge in the evaluation of decision processes and decision makers (i.e., they “should have known it would turn out this way” when in fact they could not have) has been labeled outcome bias (Baron and Hershey, 1988; Hershey and Baron, 1992) and is closely related to hindsight bias in cognitive psychology (Fischhoff, 1975, 1982). Although it is reasonable to expect the quality of decision processes to be positively associated with the quality of outcomes over the long run (Frisch and Clemen, 1994), it is very difficult (and often improper) to infer the quality of an individual decision process directly from its long-run outcomes. Given these considerations and the relatively greater amount of evidence concerning immediate results relative to implementation outcomes and impacts in most studies of environmental public participation, it is much more feasible to evaluate most environmental public participation processes on the basis of immediate outputs and outcomes than against implementation or impact criteria. The further down the list of implementation stages, the more difficult data collection and interpretation become. For these reasons, our focus in evaluating the evidence on environmental public participation is mainly on evidence that can be collected at or near the end of the processes studied, that is, on outputs and immediate outcomes. However, we acknowledge that further research on the effects of participation on implementation and impacts is certainly warranted, and some important progress in that direction is being made (O’Leary and Bingham, 2003; Dukes, 2004; Sabatier et al., 2004; Koontz and Thomas, 2006). What to Evaluate: Types of Results The published literature on public participation includes numerous typologies of results or evaluation criteria (e.g., Quinn and Rohrbaugh, 1983; Fiorino, 1989, 1990; Laird, 1993; Renn, Webler, and Wiedemann, 1995; Tuler and Webler, 1995; Steelman and Ascher, 1997; Rowe and Frewer, 2000; Webler, Tuler, and Krueger, 2001; Beierle and Cayford, 2002; Renn, 2004, 2008; Rowe et al., 2004; Abels, 2007; Blackstock et al., 2007), as well as many works identifying desired outcomes and potential pitfalls, as discussed above. There is no clear consensus among researchers or practitioners on which results are the most important. However, an examination of the literature suggests convergence on some of the key ones. In this book, we use a classification scheme that emphasizes three main types of results: quality, legitimacy, and capacity. We believe these types cover most of the
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making key results of public participation processes that can be assessed soon after the completion of an assessment or decision process. Quality of assessments or decisions corresponds closely to the concepts of substantive quality as described by Beierle and Cayford (2002) and competence in works following the tradition of Habermas (e.g., Renn, Webler, and Wiedemann, 1995). It has characteristics identified with good decision making in the field of decision analysis (e.g., Howard, 1966, 1968; von Winterfeldt and Edwards, 1986). A high-quality assessment or decision has these main elements: identification of the values, interests, and concerns of the agencies, scientists, and other parties that are interested in or might be affected by the environmental process or decision; identification of the range of actions that might be taken (for decisions); identification and systematic consideration of the effects that might follow from the environmental processes or actions being considered, including uncertainties about these effects, in terms of the values, interests, and concerns of interested and affected parties; outputs consistent with the best available knowledge and methods relevant to the above tasks, particularly the third; and incorporation of new information, methods, and concerns that arise over time.4 A number of attributes of outputs and immediate outcomes may be used as indicators of quality; see Box 2-2. Legitimacy is related to the traditional concept of consent of the governed in U.S. politics. A legitimate decision is one that is fair, competent, and accountable to existing law (Susskind and Cruikshank, 1987; Wondoleck and Yaffee, 2000; Van de Wetering, 2006). The minimal definition of legitimacy is the narrow one of acceptance of the environmental assessment or decision as having conformed to standards of fair and legal process. An assessment or decision can be seen as legitimate in these terms even by someone who disagrees with it. More expansive concepts of legitimacy follow from normative concerns about fairness, for example, about the equitable distribution of the benefits and costs of public decisions or of influence on those decisions among segments of the public (see discussion above). It is difficult to put such concepts of fairness on scales for objective measurement because of differences of opinion about which distributions of cost, benefit, influence, etc., are most equitable or legitimate. However, good proxy indicators can be developed that reflect the extent to which claims of inequity are made after an assessment or decision and the extent to which such claims develop political traction or legal standing. Early
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making BOX 2-2 Three Types of Results of Environmental Decision Processes with Illustrative Indicators Quality of Assessments or Decisions Concerns expressed by publics were addressed in analysis Information was added; more information was considered in the process Technical analyses were improved Outputs reflected a broad view of the situation that addressed all issues considered important by participants Conclusions were based on and consistent with the best available evidence Innovative ideas were generated for solving problems Legitimacy of Process and Decisions Preexisting conflict was reduced or dissent clearly acknowledged and dealt with Mistrust among participants, including government agencies, was reduced Participants accepted the assessment or decision process as having conformed to standards of sound analysis and decision making, even if they did not agree with the final assessment or recommendation for action The assessment or decision was widely accepted, even among nonparticipants Participants went outside the process to overturn its results, for example, with legal challenges or attempts to influence legislation (a negative indicator) Capacity for Future Decisions Public participants became better informed about relevant environmental, scientific, social, and other issues Participants and public officials gained a better understanding of each other Public officials gained skill in organizing decision processes Participants gained skill in participatory decision making Scientists gained understanding of public concerns Scientists developed, or committed to develop, new data or methods claims of inequity are imperfect measures, though, because parties may be mistaken about the impacts a decision will have on them. However, claims of inequity that are widely considered implausible are unlikely to gain traction. Some illustrative legitimacy indicators are listed in Box 2-2. Improved capacity includes having better educated and informed publics, publics more skilled at participating in environmental decisions, more competent and skillful public officials, improved methods for scientific analysis of environmental issues, better communication among interested
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making and affected parties, better relationships among the various participants in making and implementing environmental decisions, improved institutional systems for environmental communication and decision making, and a more widely shared understanding of the nature of environmental issues and decision challenges. Box 2-2 lists some illustrative capacity indicators. One additional kind of immediate result is an important link between outputs and implementation outcomes and is relevant to assessing public participation in many contexts we have examined. We refer to this result as support for implementation. Two examples illustrate the concept. Some participatory processes, including some watershed partnerships (e.g., Leach and Pelkey, 2001; Lubell and Leach, 2005) and many nongovernmental arrangements for managing common-pool resources (see, e.g., National Research Council, 2002a) produce as an output a tacit or formal agreement among the participants to continue to collaborate on implementing management plans in the future. Such agreements arguably predispose to implementation, but they still can be distinguished from implementation itself. Another example is regulatory negotiation (e.g., Langbein, 2005), which normally ends in a recommendation to an agency to adopt a specific regulation. Such participatory processes are reasonably judged more successful if the participants support the regulation they recommended by testifying for it, refraining from lawsuits or other blocking actions, and so forth. In both these examples, the participants bear some of the responsibility for implementation, and it is reasonable to judge the processes in part by how well the participants keep their explicit or implicit commitments for the implementation phase. Support for implementation is an early outcome that may reflect both the legitimacy and the perceived quality of the output of a process. When a public participation process results in such commitments, it is appropriate to judge the process in part by how well the participants keep the commitments. It is worth emphasizing that although decision quality and legitimacy and changes in decision-making capacity can be analyzed as immediate outcomes of participatory processes, as we do here, implementation can also affect each of these outcomes at later times, sometimes profoundly. The most obvious example arises when policy officials “summarily dismiss a deliberative group’s judgment,” leaving participants more disenchanted than before and therefore less willing to accept or even participate in future similar processes (a review by Pyle, 2005:62, cites several studies that document this phenomenon; see also Bora and Hausendorf, 2006). Using Indicators of Results to Evaluate Processes The primary task of evaluation is to establish causal relationships among aspects of participation processes and aspects of results. Without
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making experimental control, all such causal inferences are problematic. An additional inference problem concerns keeping the measures of processes and of results independent of each other. For example, if the quality of an assessment or decision (a result) is defined in part by the extent to which public concerns are considered in the analysis, processes that are legally or administratively required to respond formally to these concerns will almost automatically score higher on measures of how fully public concerns were addressed. It does not make sense to put much trust in such a statistical association. One would have more faith in an inference that considering concerns improves quality if the quality indicator were derived from scientific or judicial review of the quality of assessments. Thus, it is important for future research to take care in selecting indicators of results to ensure that they do not prejudge research hypotheses in this way. Another problem arises if the quality of the process is measured by the degree of personal satisfaction of the participants. Although satisfaction is certainly one element to consider and is commonly examined in the literature, it can be influenced by aspects of the experience that are unrelated to quality. An example is cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Long and tedious processes can lead to higher degrees of satisfaction among participants who, having devoted much time and effort, justify their efforts by a belief that the process was successful. Participants who are not normally consulted may express satisfaction that is rooted in the opportunity to participate. In contrast, representatives of organized stakeholder groups may judge processes according to the interests to which they are committed (Abelson et al., 2003). Although subjective indicators are problematic, there is little agreement on objective criteria to judge the quality of the process. Multiple criteria have been suggested in the literature (Quinn and Rohrbaugh, 1983; Fiorino, 1989, 1990; Tuler and Webler, 1995; Steelman and Ascher, 1997; Rowe and Frewer, 2000; Webler, Tuler, and Krueger, 2001; Beierle and Cayford, 2002; Renn, 2004; Rowe et al., 2004; Abels, 2007; Blackstock et al., 2007), but given the diversity of goals for participation, not all these criteria are appropriate for every participatory process. However, the three major criteria of quality, legitimacy, and capacity are broad enough to cover most of the important kinds of results and can be made concrete enough to help discriminate between different degrees of performance quality (see Box 2-2). CONCLUSION Writers on environmental public participation have generated a wealth of hopes, fears, and other expectations about the effects of public participation on a variety of important social and environmental values. As we note,
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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making this literature provides a wealth of hypotheses awaiting tests. The available evidence suffers from the diversity of concepts and the lack of agreed measures, creating a daunting task for anyone seeking clear answers to questions about the effects of public participation and the conditions under which particular results are likely to occur. In our judgment, considering the current state of knowledge, it makes sense to assess the evidence by considering three kinds of results: the quality of assessments or decisions, their legitimacy, and changes in the capacity of public participants, scientists, and agency officials to participate in similar decisions in the future. To draw inferences most confidently, it is important to consider these kinds of results at or soon after the end of the public participation process. NOTES 1These are not the only useful functions public participation can perform. Research on methods for managing the use of common-pool resources identifies some “governance requirements” not listed in Box 2-1 that might be promoted by public involvement. They include dealing with conflict, inducing compliance with rules, and encouraging adaptation and change (Stern, Dietz, and Ostrom, 2002; Dietz, Ostrom, and Stern, 2003). 2Gastil (2008) and Parkinson (2006) also posit connections between theoretical framings for public participation and methods for conducting participatory processes. Unlike Renn’s taxonomy, their work is not focused on environmental assessment and decision making. 3We acknowledge as a problem that assessment immediately after a process may be premature to the extent that the process itself helps shape participants’ values and preferences regarding environmental issues (see, e.g., Gregory and McDaniels, 1987; Fischhoff and Furby, 1988; Fischhoff, 1991; Gregory, Lichtenstein, and Slovic, 1993; Dietz and Stern, 1998). In principle, one indicator of success, especially for emergent environmental issues, might be that the process helps shape public values and preferences on emergent issues. However, we see no way to determine in which direction public preferences should change as a result of successful public participation and so do not propose this type of indicator. 4These elements elaborate on the injunction offered by the National Research Council (1996) with regard to risk assessments, to get the right science and get the science right. The revised language here partly reflects our concern with decisions as well as assessments.