The public hearing is the worst way to involve the public

While there are many ways to effectively involve the public, the public hearing is not one of them.

Many of us have attended a public hearing at one time or another. It is the ubiquitous event that local governments use to have “public input” for local zoning issues, budgets, project proposals, and more.

This is not a surprise, as many Michigan statutes require public hearings as part of the government’s process. Requiring public hearings started in the 1920s, and really took off in the 1960s in recognition of the need for public participation in government affairs.

But here is the irony: of all the various techniques aimed at allowing the public to particpate, the public hearing is one of the poorest and least-effective ways to accomplish good or effective public participation. Governments still use the public hearing because it is required by law in many instances. But it is not the best practice.

There are many more effective ways to engender public participation, and they are less likely to result in disputes or conflicts. One might even think of these techniques as “conflict resolution” by avoiding the conflict in the first place.

The national Cooperative Extension System website, eXtension has a section on Community Planning and Zoning that is further divided into Public Participation in Planning where there are about 20 articles on different aspects of public participation. I recommend starting with this article: “Introduction to Public Participation.” 

Among the better ways to involve the public are:

  • Public Meeting
  • Visioning
  • Focus Group
  • Citizen Advisory Committee
  • Charrette
  • Surveys
  • Visual Preference Survey
  • Negotiation and mediation
  • Facilitation
  • Delphi Technique
  • Increasing Public Participation
  • Framing an Issue to Invite Solutions
  • Encourage Community and Stakeholder Collaboration
  • How to be Engaged with Your Local Government on Sustainable Development
  • Using Focus Groups for Community Development
  • Elements That Make an Issue Amenable to Collaboration
  • Making Consensus Work
  • Why Involve the Public?
  • How is the Public Involved?

To access all of these article visit eXtension’s Community Planning and Zoning section on Public Participation in Planning article list.

Involving the public is part of a democratic process that includes politics, a variety of stakeholder interests, and more than one government body that makes plans, adopts policy and makes budget decisions.

In the field of planning, a planning practice theory, “Communicative Planning,” brings the data, or facts, forward from the Rational Planning practice so that from the beginning, everyone has a mutual understanding of the facts and data. The government must then bring together a large number of people representing different stakeholders and viewpoints and to facilitate, talk, and mediate toward a consensus.

When practicing the Communicative Planning theory it is important to involve people early in the process and empower them as much as possible. “A Ladder of Participation” by Sherry Arnstein (Journal of the American Planning Association, 1969) divides public participation into three levels:

  • Nonparticipation: When the public is generally uninformed, or the “participation” is only the public hearing at the end of the process.
  • Tokenism: Public might be informed, consulted, but does not participate in policymaking – the public does not really participate in or actually write the plan.
  • Citizen Power: The public participates actively in planning and policymaking.

The goal in Communicative Planning is for participation to be done at the “Citizen Power” level. Your community planning process or government decision process is not adequate if it only involves very large public meetings, public notice about meetings is not active and instead are only found in places like in the classified or legal notice sections of the local newspaper, or is only a hearing at the end of the planning process after all decisions have already been made.

Best practice is not just holding a public hearing, but rather includes public participation early in the discussion on the issue, so that the level of participation is at Citizen Power. 

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