The Verdict is in: Public Involvement Works



The jury’s back and we’ve been vindicated.  (And check out the caliber of the jury.)   

  • “When done correctly, public participation improves the quality of federal agencies’ decisions about the environment.”
  • “Well-managed public involvement also increases the legitimacy of decisions…”
  • “Substantial evidence indicates that public participation is more likely to improve than to undermine the quality of decisions.”


These quotes come from a report recently released by The National Academies (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council) looked objectively at the legitimacy and effectiveness of public participation.  The report was sponsored by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 


As most of us know, public participation is often a requirement of law. But how it’s conducted and managed by federal, state and local agencies differs. Some agencies take it seriously and try to do it well. And others…well…don’t.


The report recommends ways agencies can manage public participation effectively and points to matching the process to the context, noting there’s no one way that works every time.  I got giddy reading it.  It also says that some efforts to involve the public have made matters worse, especially when the objective was to divert people from criticizing the agency, and to making sure that people said things that were “safe” for the agency.  This usually occurs when public relations and lobbying efforts are poorly disguised with public involvement wrapping paper.


At a conference recently I heard someone say, “…collaboration and building consensus are the only ways to get big projects done anymore,” and authentic public participation is consensus building at its core. Many of us have repeatedly proven these principles on the ground, over time, but this is the first time in my recollection that organizations with this much credibility have looked closely and objectively at the topic. You can find more at www.nap.edu.     





John Zogby’s (the pollster) new book, The Way We’ll Be looks at the future of American life based on data that he’s collected for years.  I read it on a plane recently and in addition to his interesting generational breakdowns, social changes, and buying habits for both clothes and candidates, he has a strong take on trust and authenticity.  He’s surprisingly optimistic and much of what he writes about is really pertinent to the work that we do.  We’ll be talking more about it in the future.


He says:


As much as it is being driven by epidemic dissembling at the highest levels, the push toward authenticity is also fueled by the near ubiquity of non-events and overblown ones: candidate “debates” that are debates in name only, political “town” meetings where only partisans are allowed in…

The public wants a higher standard, and since no one above them seems inclined to point the way, they are doing it in their own lives.  This is not so much a grassroots movement as a ground-up sensibility – a fundamental shift in public attitude that like the old wildcat labor strikes is all the more volatile because no one specific is leading it.


Running out of Chocolate

Yeah, I know, this falls into the category of don’t we have enough to worry about?  But for those of you who don’t have any money in the stock market to lose, and didn’t buy a house at the top of the mortgage bubble, I wanted to give you something to — chew on. 


According to a recent story, the cacao bean is in danger. The Nature Conservation Research Council (NCRC) announced that in 20 years time, “Chocolate will be much like caviar today.” Why?


Unsustainable rainforest farming practices are to blame, and over time, some predict it will to lead to an overall shortage of cacao.


While you might lament the news, a reality check might put this in perspective. Most of the world’s cacao is grown in West Africa.  Even though Ghana is a net exporter of cacao, most people who live there can’t afford a Hershey bar.


While we worry about losses associated with global warming, it’s worth remembering that half the world is already living that reality.

Posted in Past Mailings