Public involvement usually leads to better environmental decision making

August 22, 2008

WASHINGTON -- When done correctly, public participation improves the quality of federal agencies' decisions about the environment, says a new report from the National Research Council. Well-managed public involvement also increases the legitimacy of decisions in the eyes of those affected by them, which makes it more likely that the decisions will be implemented effectively. Agencies should recognize public participation as valuable to their objectives, not just as a formality required by the law, the report says. It details principles and approaches agencies can use to successfully involve the public.

In response to legislation and pressure from citizens' groups over the last three decades, federal agencies have taken steps to include the public in a wide range of environmental decisions, such as how best to clean up Superfund sites or manage federal forest lands. Although some form of public participation is often required by law, agencies usually have broad discretion about the extent of that involvement. Approaches vary widely, from holding public information-gathering meetings to forming advisory groups to actively including citizens in making and implementing decisions.

Proponents of public participation argue that those who must live with the outcome of an environmental decision should have some influence on it. Critics maintain that public participation slows decision making and can lower its quality by including people unfamiliar with the science involved. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and departments of Energy and Agriculture asked the Research Council to assess whether public participation achieves desirable outcomes, and under what conditions.

Substantial evidence indicates that public participation is more likely to improve than to undermine the quality of decisions, the report says. Although scientists are usually in the best position to analyze the effects of environmental processes and actions, good analysis often requires information about local conditions, which is most likely to come from residents. Moreover, public values and concerns are important to frame the scientific questions asked, to ensure that the analyses address all of the issues relevant to those affected.

Studies show that public participation also tends to increase the legitimacy of agency decisions, which in turn raises the likelihood that they can be implemented effectively and efficiently. And the process itself builds citizens' knowledge of the scientific aspects of environmental issues, which increases their ability to engage in future decisions.

The report recommends ways agencies can manage public participation effectively. A key factor in having a good outcome is matching the process to the context; there is no one right way to design public participation for all environmental issues. An agency should make clear at the outset how it intends to use the public's input, and should commit adequate staff and resources to public participation efforts. And agencies and the public should collaborate to identify difficulties that might arise during the participatory process, select ways to address them, monitor the results, and adjust procedures as needed.

To ensure the quality of the science, the report recommends independent review of official analyses by outside experts who are credible to the parties involved. The process should also allow for the reconsideration of past conclusions in light of new information and analysis.

In some cases, efforts to involve the public have made matters worse, the report notes. Some participatory processes have functioned as a tactic to divert the public's energy away from criticism and into activities considered safe by an agency. This use of public participation, which ignores conflicts on important issues, is counterproductive in the long run, the report says. And participation convened as a superficial formality or without adequate support by decision makers increases public distrust of government.
-end-
The report was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

Copies of PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT AND DECISIONMAKING are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at HTTP://WWW.NAP.EDU. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above). NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL

Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Center for Economic, Governance, and International Studies
Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change

PANEL ON PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT AND DECISION MAKING

THOMAS DIETZ (CHAIR)
Professor of Sociology and of Crop and Soil Sciences, and
Acting Director
Environmental Science and Policy Program
Michigan State University
East Lansing

GAIL BINGHAM
President
RESOLVE Inc.
Washington, D.C.

CARON CHESS
Associate Professor
Department of Human Ecology, and
Director
Center for Environmental Communication
Cook College
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J.

MICHAEL DEKAY
Associate Professor of Psychology
Ohio State University
Columbus

JEANNE M. FOX
President
New Jersey Board of Public Utilities
Newark

STEVEN C. LEWIS
President and Principal Scientist
Integrative Policy & Science Inc.
Washington, N.J.

GREGORY B. MARKUS
Professor
Institute for Social Research
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

D. WARNER NORTH
President
NorthWorks Inc.
Belmont, Calif.

ORTWIN RENN
Professor, and
Chair of Environmental Sociology
Institute of Management and Technology
University of Stuttgart
Germany

MARGARET SHANNON
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Faculty
Development, and
Professor
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources University of Vermont; and
Professor
Forest and Environmental Sciences
University of Freiburg
Burlington, Vt.

SETH TULER
Senior Researcher
Social and Environmental Research Institute
Greenfield, Mass.

ELAINE VAUGHAN
Associate Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology and Social Behavior
School of Social Ecology
University of California
Irvine

THOMAS J. WILBANKS
Corporate Research Fellow
Global Change and Developing Country Programs
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Oak Ridge, Tenn.

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

PAUL STERN
Study Director

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Related Decisions Articles from Brightsurf:

Consumers value difficult decisions over easy choices
In a paper co-authored by Gaurav Jain, an assistant professor of marketing in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer, researchers found that disfluency, or the difficulty for an individual to process a message, increases people's attitudes toward that message after a time delay.

Evolutionary theory of economic decisions
When survival over generations is the end game, researchers say it makes sense to undervalue long shots that could be profitable and overestimate the likelihood of rare bad outcomes.

Decisions made for incapacitated patients often not what families want
Researchers from Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University report in a study published in JAMA Network Open that nearly half of the time medical treatments and orders received for incapacitated patients were not compatible with goals of care requested by their surrogate decision makers.

Which COVID-19 models should we use to make policy decisions?
A new process to harness multiple disease models for outbreak management has been developed by an international team of researchers.

For complex decisions, narrow them down to two
When choosing between multiple alternatives, people usually focus their attention on the two most promising options.

Fungal decisions can affect climate
Research shows fungi may slow climate change by storing more carbon.

How decisions unfold in a zebrafish brain
Researchers were able to track the activity of each neuron in the entire brain of zebrafish larvae and reconstruct the unfolding of neuronal events as the animals repeatedly made 'left or right' choices in a behavioral experiment.

Best of the best: Who makes the most accurate decisions in expert groups?
New method predicts accuracy on the basis of similarity.

How do brains remember decisions?
Mammal brains -- including those of humans -- store and recall impressive amounts of information based on our good and bad decisions and interactions in an ever-changing world.

How we make complex decisions
MIT neuroscientists have identified a brain circuit that helps break complex decisions down into smaller pieces.

Read More: Decisions News and Decisions Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.