The Failure and the Promise of Public Participation

Dr. Mark Funkhouser in Governing: “In a recent study entitled Making Public Participation Legal, Matt Leighninger cites a Knight Foundation report that found that attending a public meeting was more likely to reduce a person’s sense of efficacy and attachment to the community than to increase it. That sad fact is no surprise to the government officials who have to run — and endure — public meetings.
Every public official who has served for any length of time has horror stories about these forums. The usual suspects show up — the self-appointed activists (who sometimes seem to be just a little nuts) and the lobbyists. Regular folks have made the calculation that only in extreme circumstance, when they are really scared or angry, is attending a public hearing worth their time. And who can blame them when it seems clear that the game is rigged, the decisions already have been made, and they’ll probably have to sit through hours of blather before they get their three minutes at the microphone?
So much transparency and yet so little trust. Despite the fact that governments are pumping out more and more information to citizens, trust in government has edged lower and lower, pushed in part no doubt by the lingering economic hardships and government cutbacks resulting from the recession. Most public officials I talk to now take it as an article of faith that the public generally disrespects them and the governments they work for.
Clearly the relationship between citizens and their governments needs to be reframed. Fortunately, over the last couple of decades lots of techniques have been developed by advocates of deliberative democracy and citizen participation that provide both more meaningful engagement and better community outcomes. There are decision-making forums, “visioning” forums and facilitated group meetings, most of which feature some combination of large-group, small-group and online interactions.
But here’s the rub: Our legal framework doesn’t support these new methods of public participation. This fact is made clear in Making Public Participation Legal, which was compiled by a working group that included people from the National Civic League, the American Bar Association, the International City/County Management Association and a number of leading practitioners of public participation.
The requirements for public meetings in local governments are generally built into state statutes such as sunshine or open-meetings laws or other laws governing administrative procedures. These laws may require public hearings in certain circumstances and mandate that advance notice, along with an agenda, be posted for any meeting of an “official body” — from the state legislature to a subcommittee of the city council or an advisory board of some kind. And a “meeting” is one in which a quorum attends. So if three of a city council’s nine members sit on the finance committee and two of the committee members happen to show up at a public meeting, they may risk having violated the open-meetings law…”