Section 8: Citizen Participation
Jack Becker (2014). When a Highway Divides a City Improving Decision Making in Syracuse, New York. E-PARCC Case Study on Collaborative Governance.
Irvin, R. A., & Stansbury, J. (2004). Citizen participation in decision making: is it worth the effort? Public Administration Review, 64(1), 55-65.
Author: Orlan, Samuel Lawrence; Editor: Damon-Cronmiller, Christopher
Since the 1950s many governmental organizations at all levels have launched citizen-participation programs, predicated on the assumption that if citizens become more actively involved, then governance will emerge as more democratic and effective. A popular assumption is that an engaged citizenry promotes policies grounded in citizen preference and developes a greater understanding of the tough decisions government administrators must make; which in turn fosters a less divisive and confrontational environment that is easier to govern and regulate. Yet, there are social and economic costs of citizen participation, as Irvin and Stansbury point out.
Improved participation could stop the erosion of public trust evidenced by widespread hostility toward government entities. In evaluating the effectiveness of the citizen-participation process, there are two tiers of benefits (process and outcomes) and two beneficiaries (government and citizens.) One decision process advantage is the benefit of education. Administrators can educate citizens by explaining their reasons and clarifying their logic in the hope that a greater level of community understanding will yield better policy decisions; thus leading to improved environmental and social outcomes. Citizens can educate administrators by informing them of certain community positions, since policies that are well grounded in citizen preferences tend to be implemented in a smoother, less costly manner.
Another advantage is that the government can persuade citizens and vice versa. Government leaders can build trust and allay anxiety and/or hostility, while citizens can enlighten their leaders on their own needs and concerns. Whether government merely works to win over citizen sentiment, or if it truly collaborates with citizens, is up for debate. Nevertheless, if goverment officials can persuade influential community members, enthusiasm for the policy will likely spread throughout the community as a whole. The citizen-participation process also allows for the government to gain legitimacy and for citizens to gain skills for activist citizenship. Citizen advisory boards additionally provide an “opportunity to meet face to face with and personally persuade decision makers.”
Furthermore, citizen participation can help break gridlocks and lead to positive outcomes. Participatory initiatives can vastly improve social outcomes because they put pressure on politicians to take actions for which they are reluctant (e.g. implement budget cuts.) Likewise, government agencies can obtain political support to make decisions they would have a difficult time doing unilaterally. From a government standpoint, public participation reduces the probability of litigation making it cost-effective. This does not mean that disgruntled stakeholders will not walk out of the process or go to court, but that it is the cost-efficient decision compared to no stakeholder participation at all. Overall, citizen-participation results in better policy and implementation decisions. Environmental policy formation is one specific area where citizen-participation is incredibly useful for informing regulators exactly where volatile public backlash is likely to occur, and for winning the sympathies of a few influential citizens in places where opposition to environmental regulation is strongest.
On the flipside, citizen participation can also be both time consuming and costly. The per-decision cost of citizen-participation groups is normally much higher than the decision making of a single government administrator who is likely technically trained and politically astute enough to recognize the probable consequences of the decision, and may come to the same decision that the community group chose with considerably less deliberation time. Many argue that decisions happen slowly enough in government organizations without complicating it with public forums. A robust participation process could very well divert resources away from an agency’s mission. Others argue that the social-capital value that citizens gain by becoming involved offsets these costs, and does not account for smoother, and thus cheaper, implementation due to smarter policy.
Community size and demeanor can also serve as a drawback. When the group is small and homogeneous, as is the case in many rural communities, collaborative decision making works better than in larger areas where it is naïve to think 10-15 citizen representatives can alter popular opinion of a much larger diverse group. Many communities also demonstrate complacency in regards to citizen participation and top-down administration is simply the most efficient. A study showed that while community members indicted their intent to participate, less than 1% followed up by seeking information to join a participatory process. Also, there is nothing to suggest that those who actually do participate automatically possess altruistic concern for others.
Another disadvantage is the “representation” itself and lack of authority. Citizens are not paid for their time so citizen-participation committees tend to be dominated by strongly partisan individuals whose livelihoods or values are strongly affected by the decisions being made, or by those who live comfortably enough to allow them to participate regularly. Usually, committees are disproportionally comprised of top socioeconomic individuals, and studies show that the median income of these members are usually higher than regional averages. Often, decisions are ignored or merely taken under advisement which breeds resentment. Lack of a real “voice” can lead to the participation processes backfiring and an increase in public dissatisfaction.
Environmental Decision-Making Case Study
In considering new management alternatives for the Papillion Creek watershed in Omaha, researchers received a grant from the EPA to incorporate multicriteria decision-making methodology into a participatory process with area stakeholders. Working groups were formed that included agency representatives, rural public, urban public, recreational users, and developers. However, articles in local newspapers, brochures, phone calls, and even free pizza were unsuccessful in attracting interested stakeholders to public meetings. The project failed to spark widespread public interest because of a failure to define the problem so people did not regard it as a crisis issue. EPA officials acknowledged from the start that the stakeholders’ decisions would be strictly advisory, and they failed to involve certain stakeholders with extensive political influence. Subsequently,the project was doomed due to widespread public complacency.
Ideal/Non-Ideal Conditions for Citizen Participation
There should be careful selection of a representative group of stakeholders, a transparent decision-making process to build trust among all participants, clear authority in decision making, competent and unbiased group facilitators, regular meetings, and adequate financial resources to support the group process. Low-cost indicators and high-benefit indictors should be identified. Examples include “citizens readily volunteer for projects that benefit the entire community” and “hostility toward government entities is high, and the agency seeks validation from community members to successfully implement policy,” respectively. An administrator might be better advised to use a more streamlined decision-making process if high-cost, low-benefit indicators are present. Examples include “low-income residents are key stakeholders for the issue at hand and should be included, yet they cannot because of work and family priorities” and “the decisions of the group are likely to be ignored, no matter how much effort goes into their formation.” Widespread public benefit should be the goal of any public policy, and any administrator needs to consider the advantages and disadvantages of a citizen-centric decision-making process.