What’s the Value of Public Participation?

Back to Summer 2021: Volume 110, Number 2

By Jessica Cameron, Marissa Denker, Kiersten Mailler & Joel Mills

For practitioners who concern themselves with the state of our civic health, there is much to be troubled by in recent years. It is a well-established perception that America is struggling under the strains of toxic polarization. A 2019 study found that 93 percent of Americans identify incivility as a problem, with 68 percent of respondents describing it as a “major problem.” Furthermore, 71 percent of US citizens conclude that the health of American democracy is threatened by it.1  Michael Shipler of Search for Common Ground, an organization with significant experience in peacebuilding in conflict zones around the world, recently observed that “the ingredients for prolonged – even armed – conflict are all present in today’s United States. But so, too, are the ingredients for creating a safer, healthier, more just society. The choice is ours.” 2

We know from experience that effective public processes can serve as a powerful countermeasure to polarization. Unfortunately, most of the public process work happening today is neither representative nor designed for healthy deliberation. Nor is it well-equipped to yield benefits to society. Frankly, too many public processes in America feed conflict and polarization because they are poorly designed. It is a disaster out there in our communities, which comes with steep costs to our nation’s civic health and ability to address key challenges.

Examining the Consequences

Consider two of our most pressing issues. Over the last several decades, housing and its corresponding land use policies have served as arguably the most controversial topic in our communities.  Community opposition to growth and development has fed local policy responses that have choked the housing supply. As one study concluded, “stringent restrictions to new housing supply” have “lowered aggregate U.S. growth by 36 percent from 1964 to 2009.” In 2009, the economy would have grown at an estimated 3.7 percent higher rate and the average worker would have earned approximately $3,685 more without such policies.3 The connection between the state of our public deliberations and the resulting housing crisis is clear. A 2018 study of 97 municipalities in Massachusetts revealed that official public meetings were often dominated by a group of residents who did not represent the community as a whole. These residents were overwhelmingly against new housing projects, which led to an insufficient housing supply, dramatic increases in housing costs, and the displacement of middle- and lower-income families.4

These dynamics are not unique to Massachusetts. In New York, 70 percent of affordable housing developers reported facing community opposition to their plans and 43 percent face opposition frequently or almost always. Almost 30 percent of developers encountered a legal challenge over a project.5 In 2016, Forbes Magazine estimated that the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) movements in combination with community opposition to hundreds of projects across the country during the prior decade cost America over $1 trillion annually.6 This result is stark. Today, every jurisdiction in America faces an affordable housing crisis.

Similarly, climate change has been politicized to the point of devolving into a toxic subject in many jurisdictions, leading to disparate policy responses, unhealthy public conversation and even less education on the environment. As a result, many citizens are not even aware of the risks of climate change. For instance, at least 6 million households are currently unaware that they are  living in 100-year flood zones. Almost 70 percent more homes are at substantial risk than are currently captured within the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Special Flood Hazard Areas, a designation that determines eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program.7 At the state level, a Colorado study revealed that 70 percent of residents thought they lived in low or moderate fire risk zones, while in actuality 80 percent live in high, very high, or extreme risk zones. Over half the state population now lives in fire prone areas, a 50 percent increase in the last 8 years. In California, over half of all new development since 1990 has occurred in high-risk fire zones.

Policies addressing today’s most pressing issues require effective public participation. Therefore, it is necessary to build a broad-based understanding of what constitutes an effective public process and develop the capacity to improve community dialogue and catalyze public action. Ironically, the idea of participatory work is currently under assault as the accumulation of bad experiences has led some local leaders to question its efficacy.

Evidence of Public Officials’ Views Toward Engagement

As community conflict becomes more prevalent and the quality of public dialogue declines, public officials have expressed increasing skepticism toward participatory work in general. Some of these opinions may be informed by experience, but they do not reflect exposure to quality processes. For instance, studies conducted by the National League of Cities on this subject have revealed that 58 percent of elected city officials were concerned about lack of trust and degree of disengagement between residents and government. Almost 3 in 10 municipal officials expressed dissatisfaction with the level of public engagement in their cities, and 53 percent reported that public engagement processes produce useful results “only sometimes.” A plurality of local officials (45 percent) did not believe their residents have the necessary skills and knowledge to participate effectively. Furthermore, almost half of respondents did not believe elected or appointed local officials had the skills, training or experience to lead effective deliberative public engagement efforts.8

Similarly, a 2018 Bloomberg survey of American Mayors reported that 96 percent of cities were active in informing residents, but the overwhelming majority of them (88 percent) preferred to seek input or feedback on their agendas rather than crowdsource new ideas from citizens (26 percent).9 In 2019, Smart Cities World released a study that identified a number of barriers to better engagement. As they reported, “When it comes to the biggest obstacles to better citizen engagement, public sector respondents said the key challenge is being worried that citizens will demand things they can’t deliver (33 percent). This was followed by the concern that not enough people will participate (22 percent) as well as a perception that involving citizens can be costly and overcomplicate things (17 percent).”10 Summarizing a statement by Christopher Cabaldon, the Mayor of West Sacramento, Governing Magazine captured the average public official’s view of the problem. As the article’s author writes, “Public meetings generate a warped sense of what the community is all about. They attract the affluent, the angry and the articulate. They do a poor job of expressing the views of the ordinary citizen.”11 If professionals want to improve the civic health of cities, they must focus on increasing awareness of the value of effective public processes particularly among city leaders whose prior experiences have been demonstrably poor.

Professional Views Toward Engagement

Professional trade magazines have recently contributed to a host of arguments against participatory work and, in some cases, have offered alternatives that suggest moving back toward top-down decision-making. Complaining about the “excessive, obstructionist community engagement in urban planning,” Architect Magazine asked, “Is there a place anymore for bottom-up planning?”12 New York City planner Janette Sadik-Khan went further, touting top-down city leadership as a necessary intervention. In a piece for Bloomberg City Lab, she offered a “paradoxical” revisionist view of famed urbanist Jane Jacobs and her nemesis, Robert Moses. As she argued, “what is most needed to achieve Jane Jacobs’s vision is to deploy a Robert Moses strategy—redesigning our streets quickly and decisively for an increasingly urban age, this time committed to accommodating population growth and offering residents more options for getting around without a car.”13 Such approaches are bound to lead to further conflict and the erosion of trust.

In a recent piece that critiques Denver city planning processes for Next City, Arielle Milkman asked, “‘Why does participatory planning — an approach originally conceived to make cities more just — fail?’…”What counts as good participation?” She argued that “without a more comprehensive approach that includes standards for participatory approaches, cities may continue to reach their targets for involving constituents in the planning process while the most vulnerable residents go unheard.”14 Of course, values-based standards have existed in the field for decades, but there is little awareness or operationalization happening in our communities. For instance, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has defined Core Values for the Practice of Public Participation using criteria of seven essential qualities. However, too many of the processes used in the field today are neither informed by nor reflective of these criteria. Until best practices become standard across the field, communities will continue to face challenges.

Building the Case

The views from public officials and the professional community frame the challenge for our field of work. To build awareness about the efficacy of public participation, a more provable business case is necessary. Our representatives must raise awareness of the value of effective public participation and the important differences between ineffective practices and effective ones. We need to prove our value to public decision makers with data that demonstrates return-on-investment for public process expenditures. In the past 6 months, a loose consortium of organizations active in this field has begun collaborating on this research question.  Our initiative has included representatives from civic engagement practitioners, academia, local government associations and professional organizations. This year, working with a team from Temple University’s Fox School of Business, we developed an initial research framework and a developmental calculator tool. A user can enter both expenditures from a public process, key performance indicators, and outcomes tied to existing social science valuations to establish a social return on investment (SROI).

The final product is a valuation that determines the return for every dollar spent on a public process. The tool will require significant further work with dozens of case studies to guide its refinement, but it represents a beginning to what we hope will become an important part of professional work moving forward. Our website, whycommunityengagement.com, invites municipal staff, researchers and other practitioners to join our initiative, download the tool, and pilot their own research on key performance indicators, social returns on investment and best practice case research. This research initiative must be participatory in order to build upon work across the field and further develop the tool. Join us and contribute to this expanding body of work. It is our hope that this effort will lead toward more systemic capacity in the future.

Lessons from the Field

In an era of increased polarization, public participation methods are increasingly valuable because they demonstrably lower the temperature on critical community conversations. However, decades of field work have also proven that effective public processes yield additional benefits. First, effective public processes improve decision making. Public participation can serve as a critically important phase of informed decisions by uncovering new information or alternatives that are novel, innovative and beneficial. Final decisions are more likely to reflect community values and priorities as a result. Public participation creates an opportunity to replace decision-making that creates ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ with more balanced solutions that demonstrate nuance and sensitivity to differing community priorities. Despite arguments to the contrary, effective processes frequently save project costs.

While city leaders often cite the cost of public participation as a barrier, studies have repeatedly shown that engaging the public at the beginning of a project can significantly reduce opposition and surrounding controversy that can lead to bureaucratic hurdles, public relations nightmares, litigation, and costly delays later on. Decisions that involve public conversation ultimately benefit from greater legitimacy, wider public understanding, and broader popular support than those that do not.

As a result, trust in local government and the credibility of local officials is often enhanced by an effective process. The long-term benefits of public participation in a community include the development of wells of civic capacity, leadership, and social capital that can be leveraged in the future. Public participation contributes to an informed citizenry and builds trust across community groups and between local authorities and the public. It also refines residents’ participatory skillsets and leadership potential. Developing the requisite analytic foundations to illustrate these experiences in the field can move us beyond “best practice storytelling” toward scientifically sound evidence of the benefits of effective public participation.

Future Directions in Practice

We view this research as a first step that will inform the development of future tools. For instance, recent years have inspired promising experiments with an emphasis on deliberation across differences, sometimes using new structures and techniques. In 2019, James Fishkin and Larry Diamond organized a deliberative polling experiment called “America in One Room” with a representative group of over 500 citizens from across the United States.  The experiment focused on five key issues of the presidential campaign; each participant received a handbook full of policy proposals from both parties and was surveyed before the process and at the end. During the process, participants deliberated in diverse groups with a facilitator. The process revealed the value of healthy discussion. Ninety-five percent of participants agreed that they “learned a lot about people very different from me.” As a result, the most polarizing proposals lost significant support during the process, and by the end some centrist proposals had gained overwhelming support. The percentage of participants who felt the system of American democracy was “working well” doubled from 30 percent to 60 percent. The study’s organizers concluded that “If a representative sample is polled following deliberation, it can give voice to the public’s considered judgments about what really needs to be done.”

Citizen assemblies represent another promising tool. They have become increasingly common in recent years as a response to the prevalence of criticism that participatory work led to inequitable outcomes because it was often conflict-ridden or unrepresentative. Grounded in the evidence-based work of Fishkin’s deliberative polling, a randomly selected but representative cross-section of the population undergoes a deliberative process to provide recommendations to elected bodies on everything from political reform to climate change policy.

While citizen assemblies don’t allow for widespread participatory work, they do provide an effective mechanism for convening representative publics. Participants are able to work across differences and come to decisions that represent broad swaths of the community, often garnering popular support for policy change on previously intractable issues. They illustrate the power of effective public deliberation to solve our most pressing issues. In Ireland, citizen assemblies paved the way for national referendums that led to constitutional change on both gay marriage and abortion. In the German-speaking region of Belgium, public officials empowered citizen assemblies permanently, giving citizens an active voice in policy development.

In recent years, some municipalities have crafted community engagement charters to co-design a set of locally customized standards for public process work. In Burlington, Ontario, the community engagement charter serves as “an agreement between and among Burlington City Council and the citizens of Burlington concerning citizen engagement with city government that establishes the commitments, responsibilities, and fundamental concepts of this relationship.”15 The charter establishes a series of clear expectations which inform and encourage public participation. Over five dozen city government staff have also completed IAP2 public participation training, demonstrating Burlington’s commitment to developing a real capacity for public process work in city government across departments and agencies.

In Alexandria, Virginia, heated conflict over the future of waterfront development led to a community reset. Through the “What’s Next Alexandria” community engagement initiative, the city co-designed a values-based standard with its citizenry. The process led to the formal adoption of a city resolution establishing civic engagement principles and processes. The resolution also provided for the creation of a civic engagement handbook to guide the city’s future public decision-making.

Use of these instruments is still nascent, but they hold the potential to turn the tide toward more effective democratic participation in our communities. In some professional circles, discussions about future practices have also considered establishing third-party accreditation for public processes modeled on experiences with election observation missions. However, this idea would be dependent upon widely recognized universal criteria for what constitutes a quality process. It would require significant additional work to develop, but we believe these kinds of ideas represent the collaborative mentality that will allow us to overcome our most daunting obstacles. We are optimistic that every dollar spent developing this capacity will deliver exponential democratic returns to our communities and enable better public decision-making as we face this century’s challenges.

Jessica Cameron is Head of Marketing at the virtual civic engagement group Bang the Table. 

Marisa Denker is the Director and Kiersten Mailler is the Manager of Strategic Planning at civic engagement firm Connect the Dots. 

Joel Mills is the Senior Director at the Center for Communities By Design at the AIA. 

1 https://www.webershandwick.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/CivilityInAmerica2019SolutionsforTomorrow.pdf

2 https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/05/18/how-america-talks-can-help-save-us-from-toxic-polarization-column/5035082001/

3 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/12/opinion/biden-infrastructure-zoning.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

4 https://www.housingpolitics.com/research/who_participates_in_local_government.pdf

5 https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/why-developers-dont-build-more-affordable-housing-opportunity-areas

6 https://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2015/07/30/nimby-nation-the-high-cost-to-america-of-saying-no-to-everything/?sh=bfeea084f8ef

7 https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/06/29/flood-risk-climate-change/

8 https://publicpolicy.pepperdine.edu/davenport-institute/content/researchreportmakinglocaldemocracywork.pdf

9 https://www.bbhub.io/dotorg/sites/2/2018/04/American-Mayors-Survey.pdf

10 https://www.smartcitiesworld.net/smart-cities-news/half-public-sector-say-they-do-nowhere-near-enough-to-involve-citizens-4295

11 https://www.governing.com/archive/gov-citizen-engagement.html

12 https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/urbanism-planning/control-the-masses-andres-duany_o

13 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-05/faced-with-today-s-nimbys-what-would-jane-jacobs-do

14 https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/why-participatory-planning-fails-and-how-to-fix-it

15 https://www.burlington.ca/en/your-city/engagement-charter.asp

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