Public Role in Decision Making Supported by Expert Committee

September 3, 2008

A committee commissioned by the National Academies has found that the public's role in government decision-making processes on environmental matters is invaluable, when properly handled.

That may not seem like stunning news, in a country that has several hundred years of democracy under its belt. It may seem even less surprising to the generations that grew up assuming that public involvement mandated by environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act is a given.

But in the past decade or so, there have been many attempts to whittle away at the public's role in government decisions on topics such as endangered species, forest and fisheries management plans, and oil and gas leasing. Similar struggles to balance the public good with expedited decision making play out daily in city and county decisions regarding zoning, annexation, building permits, parks and open space, and other topics.

However, the inevitable delays that occur by involving the public tend to be worth it, according to the National Research Council's report, released on Aug. 22, 2008. At the same time, involving the public in a token process, or one that is designed to conceal or avoid conflicts, is detrimental, the authors say.

EPA, FDA, the Dept. of Energy, and the Dept. of Agriculture requested the report. It'll be useful to know about this report any time any of these or other federal agencies are discussing the level or type of, or alterations to, public involvement in their decision making.

The public face that EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission put on their public involvement processes can be viewed at:

Some other federal agencies have a similar package of materials.

In addition to using this new report at the federal level, it may be valuable at the local level. For instance, the city of Boulder, CO, has staunchly upheld its decades-old policy of having all city council decisions open to the public, including decisions typically deemed by other jurisdictions as sensitive and suitable for closed-session discussions only, such as financial and personnel matters. Now the city is considering closing some of its sessions to the public.

  • An ex-city councilman, Steve Pomerance, argues against this change in an Aug. 17, 2008, editorial in the Boulder Daily Camera.

If your story merits outside commentary on public involvement, you might want to try members of the International Association for Public Participation.