Public Involvement

Who’s the Public in Public Involvement?


This is the first in a series of posts on the role of the public in governmental decision-making. This one addresses the practical implementation of a widely used model of participatory process. The next will suggest alternative ideas about how the public might be regarded, and the third will examine new technologies for participation that might permit alternative models to achieve considerable impact.

Who’s the public in public involvement? That’s a question that goes directly to the prevailing understanding not only about the composition of the general public but also the way it influences the policy and decision-making processes.

In recent years, activist organizations, legislatures and professionals in participatory processes have worked hard to move public and private agencies away from an old model of dealing with the public through one-way communication methods. Under that paradigm, an agency would announce decisions after they were substantially complete, take public comments only through a formal hearing without any attempt at dialogue, and then defend the decision from criticism, even if that meant litigation. It was basically a war mentality.

The new approach looked to the potential for building support among the public. To achieve that goal, more inclusive and interactive approaches were required that gave the public multiple opportunities to provide input.

Perhaps the most decisive influence for change was that the old model stopped working. As excluded groups built more and more power, they exerted political influence to create more open processes that would take into account the interests of a much wider public affected by major decisions. Without a broad base of support among the organized interest groups, governmental agencies could see that plans and decisions faced years of delay or outright defeat. So they came to accept the new model, though more time-consuming, out of political necessity.

But under the new participatory model, there is still the question of who comprises the public that actually gets involved and that agencies look to for potential support? To simplify, the public as a whole falls into two large groups.

  1. First are all the organized interests and communities that are capable of having a political impact and directly influencing the outcome of public decision-making. Even though many of these groups see themselves as representing the public, agencies look at them very differently and tend to exclude them from the “real” public.

  2. Second is the “general public” consisting of the great majority of the population that is not actively participating in the process. Often, they are affected by decisions on such things as water supply, law enforcement, park facilities, highways, public health programs – among an enormous number of other governmental services. But, for whatever reason, they don’t usually participate.

There is always the potential that many normally uninvolved people will get aroused enough by an impending decision to take part and perhaps form ad hoc groups to oppose or support a specific proposal. For that reason, they are often referred to as “latent” interest groups. Until they become active, however, they are out of the picture. That’s the classic picture of pluralist interest group politics.

So why is it routine for agencies to hold public meetings open to all comers? Who are they trying to involve? I think there are two major occasions when agencies need to hear from the general public as well as the organized interest groups.

  1. The issue itself has a broad effect on the population and requires either a large expenditure of existing public funds and/or potential increases in assessments, fees or taxes. These are always hot political decisions that often are decided by special elections. For that reason public agencies need to inform and win support from as many people as they can reach.

  2. The successful adoption and/or implementation of a decision is threatened by organized interest groups, and the agency seeks a countervailing force in the form of indications of widespread support among the general population. This is by far the more common situation.

However, the typical public meeting – that doesn’t pose the issue of new taxes – isn’t very effective in attracting the normally uninvolved public. One reason for this has to do with the relative value an agency assigns to the information received at these meetings. A hierarchy of political importance generally determines the agency’s valuation of the input it receives.

Let’s look at who’s likely to be in the audience at a public meeting devoted to a moderately controversial issue. An agency will look closely and size up the crowd. How many in attendance are likely to be considered members of the general public?

If we were to ask everyone to stand and then have those who aren’t in the general public group to sit, there would be very few on their feet at the end. Here’s how it might break out.

  1. Elected leaders are the honored guests, whose support for the effort is often critical to success because of their power in the decision-making process. Their usually quite brief appearances signal the importance of the issue to them personally and to the constituents who elected them. Since they don’t stay long in most cases, they don’t offer many specifics about the range of views among the public in their districts. (They don’t have to sit down because they’re already leaving.)

  2. Staff of other public agencies may form part of the audience. They offer comment on technical issues and speak from the policy perspectives of their programs. Since those programs have been established by legislative bodies and/or policies of high-ranking elective officials, they have some connection to the support of electeds and serve the public interest. That is not a link, however, to current opinion of the general public. They use the same methods as the agency sponsoring this event to reach the public. (They sit down.)

  3. A number of technical consultants may be present – either representing an interest group, working under contract with one of the public agencies involved, keeping up with new developments, or preparing to bid on contracts with the sponsoring agency. Naturally, they do not represent the general public. (They sit down.)

  4. Next is a key group – the representatives of the organized advocacy groups. Whether perceived as cooperative or antagonistic to the agency, they are well-known for pursuing specific agendas to meet their own needs rather than those of the general public. They interact with the agency in many contexts, including lobbying efforts out of the public eye. Sometimes an agency will see them as advancing positions that are completely inconsistent with the public interest, as it is understood by that agency. (They sit down.)

  5. Another group – generally not present in great numbers but still extremely important – are members of the news media. Public agencies have to treat them carefully in hopes that they will present their proposed action in a positive light. Sometimes, the agencies employ media strategists to brief influential reporters, arrange the placement of favorable opinion pieces or otherwise cultivate the press and media to show the project in the most favorable light possible. The press is regarded as a potential shaper of public opinion rather than a representative of it. Agencies may often look at the press in terms of the bias of their publications or the personal leanings of particular reporters. They are certainly not part of the general public. (Some sit, but others move around the room taking pictures.)

  6. There’s usually a sizable group who appear to be ordinary citizens. An agency will quickly sort out the crowd as soon as individuals start to speak. Then it will become clear that most, in fact, speak for specific interests, even if they don’t belong to an advocacy organization. They might be union members, for example, or ranchers, or home owners living close to a project site, or property owners with an anti-tax perspective or well-known community organizers, or supporters of a politician running for office, or perhaps just cranks who show up at lots of public meetings with bold opinions but don’t represent anyone. These folks are quickly ruled out of the general public. (Now they sit down.)

  7. That leaves a few still standing – generally very few – who are average citizens with no perceptible pre-formed opinion or interest to advocate. However, there are usually not enough of them present to be taken as broadly representative of an entire population. Often they will come and go without saying anything, or they may ask very basic questions which are easily answered. Others may bring up concerns that don’t relate to the issue at hand or may be so emotional that their concerns are dismissed as irrational. A few may make relevant and important points – but some of these will be phrased in non-technical terms and may not be usable as a basis for a decision, especially in a technically demanding field.

As a rule these few members of the general public will be listened to politely, but their comments will have little political significance in securing adoption of the proposed policy or plan.

However, the agency will get an important signal, even from just a few. First, the lightness of general public attendance probably means that the issue has not stirred up the general community and that most people either won’t notice the new decision or will be inclined to accept it. Second, if the agency hasn’t heard any major issues or complaints from those few at the meeting, they will have another sign that most people are likely to go along with the decision.

The general public tends to be seen as the silent majority that is satisfied with the services provided by government. The agencies know that if there is a breakdown in those services, they will hear from hundreds or thousands of people whose everyday lives will suffer as a result. And if new taxes are proposed, there will be a similar outcry. Those are the issues that will demand much greater attention to the general public.

The typical public involvement meeting, then, doesn’t have much to do with the public as a whole but a lot to do with interest groups, the news media and elected officials. Among these, it is the elected representatives that a public agency will look to for the primary symbol of support from the general public.

A major problem with this system stems from a limiting, and I would argue, inaccurate definition of “the public.” The next part in this series will review alternative definitions that require a different response to achieve meaningful involvement.


4 replies on “Who’s the Public in Public Involvement?”

John, a most interesting and timely article. The scenario you paint of who attends a public meeting is a bit disconcerting. We had our provincial (British Columbia) election last week – probably the biggest issue, post-election, was the record-low voter turnout; i.e., a disengaged “public”. I’m looking forward to your future posts on how to involve the public (especially those whom you call the “general public”) in meaningful ways.

Thanks, Ben –

It is disconcerting to listen to agency officials analyzing the public in this way. The attitude grows out of a with us or against us attitude. I’m going to explore that a bit more in the next couple of posts.

My best — John

What a wonderful article. The public is sometimes left out of the decision-making process which inevitably erodes the efficacy and likely success of the solution. To include the public in a meaningful way in most all government decision-making is imperative in my view. In Florida we have open government statutes that require most all decision making to occur at public meetings. This is important so that the public is involved but can become very tricky when claims are filed or litigation is threatened. We need to figure out a way to allow governement to function efficiently with the most public input possible. I look forward to your future articles.

Thanks, Sandra –

I couldn’t agree more about the need to increase the level of meaningful public involvement. You identify a key problem: how to combine extensive public input with efficient functioning of government. The collaborative public involvement model – which I’ll discuss in the next post – is often regarded as too resource intensive and time consuming to be used very often. Hence it’s dismissed as impractical – there’s too much pressure for quick results. So more conventional methods are used – and these mark a great improvement over past practice – but often tend to put the public in the position of reacting only rather than taking part on the front end in formulating policy. No one has quite figured this out yet, but I think a first step is changing the view of the public and its potential role.

Great to hear from you.

My best — John

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