Before settling for a public hearing, consider the continuum of public involvement

Referring to the continuum of public involvement before the next big community decision will help your local government design the most effective method for engaging the public.

Over several hundred years, democracy as we know it has come to be known as “representative democracy.” It is a democratic form that is characterized by elected representatives acting in formal institutions and processes for the people of the district from which they were elected. Some have argued, however, that since the middle of the last century, democracy has been evolving into a form that is better termed a “monitoring democracy.” A monitoring democracy involves a broader set of interests and processes, including citizen juries, appointed commissions, special committees, focus groups, etc. Such groups exist outside the formal institution, but inform and influence the actions of the representative democracy.

Further evidence of evolution beyond a strict representative democracy is the growing number of citizens that are seeking more direct ways to be involved in decision-making. With such motivation, “Citizens are arguing for a new notion of governance that requires political leadership to engage with citizenry in ways that allow for ongoing input into decision-making and policy formation,” explained Kumi Naidoo at the World Bank Presidential Fellows Lecture.

Recognizing this new democratic reality, how should a governmental unit involve the public in various decisions and policy formulations? Figure 1 depicts a framework for considering such a question. The continuum of public involvement uses three scales to depict various types of public participation methods, levels of interaction with the public, and loci of decision making. Various intensities or levels of public involvement are presented in the five columns of the figure. The level of public involvement intensifies from left to right.

Figure 1:
public involvement continuum
Credit: North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. “Local Watershed Planning: Getting Citizens Involved.” 

  1. Keeping the public informed
    Sometimes it is perfectly appropriate for a governmental unit to maintain full control of a decision and simply inform the public of the issue, the decision and the outcome. For instance, an employment-related concern between the elected body and its chief administrative official would be the kind of issue that would typically be handled internally with the public being informed. Although the flow of communication is one-way, the end result should be an informed and educated public. A press release or an informational meeting can accomplish this goal.
  2. Informing and listening
    Other times the governmental unit may wish to inform public opinion on a particular issue and then collect feedback on how to handle that issue. Let’s say for example a major public infrastructure investment is needed (e.g. a new fire station). The local government may wish to educate the public as to why the infrastructure is needed, how much it will cost and how the improvement will benefit the community. The decision making body then may wish to gather design ideas or comments on various siting considerations. The decision is still that of the governmental unit, but the public’s input is highly valuable for arriving at a decision that has the broadest support by the community. The public hearing, which is required for many local government decisions, is an example method for this level of public involvement.
  3. Incorporating public concerns and interests
    To have a true dialogue with the public, involvement methods that allow for two-way communication are needed. Open houses, public meetings and advisory committees (assuming the public is adequately represented) allow for information exchange whereby the governmental unit responds to the public’s comments and reengages the public in still more conversation and deliberation. The intent is to create a process and environment that provides multiple opportunities to inform, listen and refine decisions or plans. The final decision remains in the hands of the governmental unit. With heightened interest in being involved in decisions, the public seems to be demanding this level of public involvement as the new minimum for many community decisions.
  4. Partnering with the public
    Policy development at the local level that involves diverse interests or groups requires still more intensity of public involvement. Issues that involve many diverse interests, are broad in complexity (or geography), are controversial or costly require more intensity of public involvement. Even policy development by government units is best undertaken with broad public participation. Partnering with the public means that the decision making authority is no longer exclusively in the hands of the governmental unit. Instead, decisions are made by consensus in which the governmental unit actively works with the public towards a shared vision, policy or decision. Facilitated processes to raise concerns, share ideas, minimize conflicting views and bring diverse interests into greater alignment are typical of the methods within this level of public involvement.
  5. Implementing what the public decides
    The ultimate way to involve the public in decision making is for the public to make the decisions. Like the last level of public involvement described, facilitation techniques on the part of the governmental unit or a third party are fundamental to the process. The difference between partnering with the public and implementing what the public decides is that, with the latter, the governmental unit is not at the table. Instead, when implementing what the public decides, the governmental unit is only enabling the public dialogue or decision making process to take place and committing to endorsing, authorizing or implementing whatever it is the public ultimately decides. A charrette is an example of a public involvement method that takes the intensity of public participation to the level at which decisions are made by the stakeholders themselves.

In addition to varying levels of public participation, there are also varying levels of time and cost associated with the public involvement continuum. While these are legitimate factors to consider when selecting a public participation method, governmental units should recognize the added value that results from effectively involving the public in terms of improved communication, increased awareness, broader understanding, and heightened trust. For more information on effective public participation, visit the eXtension Community Planning and Zoning section on Public Participation in Planning.

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