Report Finds Public Participation Improves Policy

A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences has concluded public participation processes can improve the quality of policies and help them become implemented. The 270-page report is the product of a research panel of a dozen experts. The report’s primary recommendation urges “Public participation should be fully incorporated into environmental assessment and decision-making processes, and it should be recognized by government agencies and other organizers of the processes as a requisite of effective action, not merely a formal procedural requirement.”

While I have not read the full study yet, I am not surprised by the findings. After all, in the words of panel head Thomas Dietz, since “a lot of science has to be applied to a very local context, local knowledge is essential.” Although a dearth of good research on the topic exists in the field of urban planning, I found several studies drawing similar conclusions. One interesting examination of 60 planning processes in Florida and Washington concluded that “with greater stakeholder involvement, comprehensive plans are stronger, and proposals made in plans are more likely to be implemented.” The study author went on to write (with two others) a subsequent article analyzing how states should mandate participation. I adopted that group’s general framework, derived as it was from the previous study of effectiveness, for my final paper describing how the Internet could be used as a participation tool.

I think the lesson from the National Academies panel must be driven home to the urban development community. Since we are so intimate with participation, we lose perspective on its broader importance and role. Given the legal requirements for transparency and professional approaches to participation, the key is to look beyond an obsession with the intellectually vague “NIMBYism” and design processes that foster consensus and prevent Morriss Fiorina’s “Extreme Voices” from having a monopoly. In particular, I think it means designing processes that are less time-intensive and allow involvement on a wider scale of commitment levels.

> [Read it Online] National Academies: Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making
> NYTimes: “Report Says Public Outreach, Done Right, Aids Policymaking
> Previous posts: NIMBYism, Urban Development, and the Public Involvement Solution, Public Participation in Urban Planning Series

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. If I ever manage to get a PhD in planning, my proposed dissertation topic would be on rearticulating the profession around enabling civic engagement since land use matters are those most likely to engage typical citizens in local civic affairs. As you know, I write quite a bit on this topic. In any case, I will check these cites out.

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