Public Participation

Heidi Burgess
Cate Malek

September 2005

The Beginnings of Public Participation

In the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, the public became much more concerned about and involved in governmental decision-making processes than they had been before. Pressures for increasing the level of public participation in government decision making at the local, state, and federal levels have led to a wide variety of processes that enable the public to learn about and have input into governmental decisions. While this has increased the confidence that the public has in its governmental decision-making process, it has also slowed that process down, and sometimes, almost brought it to a halt, as different groups clash over possible options.

Types of Public Participation

The most common (but often least effective) form of public participation is the public hearing. Here, government representatives give a presentation on a proposed decision, and then the public is asked to stand up and give short (1-3 minute) speeches indicating their thoughts on the proposal. Typically, only critics come to such hearings. Although the government agency can get a feel for the extent and nature of the opposition, public hearings rarely give a good indication of overall public opinion, nor do they yield good information about why people feel the way they do. Thus, they do not contribute effectively to problem solving or mutual cooperation.

Other forms of public participation may yield more helpful information, but they are all slower and/or more expensive. Advisory committees made up of citizens can better measure public opinion, though they require a level of commitment from the members that few people can provide. Also, citizen members often have different values than expert committee members. These value differences often lead to infighting, which may detract from the committee's effectiveness.

Ballot initiatives are another form of public participation, which have greatly increased in popularity in the United States over the last decade. Ballot initiatives are proposed laws or constitutional amendments that are initiated and voted upon by the public, not by a legislative body. While the ability to act as a legislature gives the public much more power over public decisions, as the number of initiatives increases, more and more people are voting on things they do not really understand. In addition, ballot initiatives often oversimplify problems and do not weigh different priorities against each other. While a legislature may have to balance funding for education, health care, law enforcement, and other priorities, the public tends to look at initiatives on a case-by-case basis, without considering that choosing one thing may take away funds from something else. For that reason, ballot initiatives often do not yield effective remedies to problems, despite their popular support.

Standards for Public Participation Processes

The International Association for Public Participation lists seven standards for public participation:

  1. The public should have a say in decisions about actions that affect their lives.
  2. Public participation includes the promise that the public's contribution will influence the decision.
  3. The process communicates the interests and meets the process needs of all participants.
  4. The process seeks out and facilitates the involvement of people potentially affected by the proposed decision.
  5. The process involves participants in defining how they will participate--thus how the process will be structured.
  6. The public participation process provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
  7. The public participation process communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.[1]

Other standards, suggested by the Co-Intelligence Institute include:

  1. Involve all "relevant" parties.
  2. "Empower the people's engagement"--in other words, get them feeling "involved."
  3. Utilize multiple "forms of knowing." This includes rational, scientific methods, narrative (story-telling methods), intuitive methods, etc.
  4. Ensure high-quality dialogue.
  5. Establish and on-going participatory process (as opposed to, for instance, a one-shot public hearing).
  6. Move from positions to interests, needs, and mutual solutions.
  7. Help people feel fully heard.[2]

Public Participation in Practice

Boulder, Colorado is a picturesque city located at the base of the Rocky Mountains. It is surrounded by miles of open space, purchased by the city at considerable taxpayer expense. While the Boulder citizenry has long supported the purchase and maintenance of open space land, there are many differing opinions about how it should be used. Some see it primarily as a recreational resource: they want to hike, bike, run, and observe nature in the wild foothill areas. Others see it as a buffer against further development. Still others want it to be closed to public use so it can be protected habitat for other species. These differences have led to serious difficulties for the Open Space Department.

In order to deal with these conflicts, the department uses a variety of public participation methods: public hearings, an advisory committee, even referenda. These techniques have helped guide policy, although the strong division of opinion has hampered effective public decision-making. After rejecting advice received at public hearings and from an advisory committee, the Open Space Department tried a consensus-process with many (but not all) stakeholder groups to try to agree to a management plan for the city's open areas. At this writing, the group did succeed in reaching a broad-based consensus, but it appears that the Open Space Board of Trustees does not agree with the consensus and may not implement it. If this occurs, years of public participation will have been undertaken in vain.[3]

Even though public participation can slow the decision making process down, it is often legally required, and can avoid costly lawsuits at the other end if unpopular decisions are made without adequate public input.

Another example from Boulder illustrates the dangers of not using public participation. In 1995, a new school board was elected in the Boulder Valley School District. This school board was politically very different from its predecessors. It was a much more conservative board, dedicated to improving the quality of teaching and student achievement. They planned to reverse many earlier decisions of past boards, which were seen to be politically correct, but ineffective when it came to achieving high test scores.

Since this board was sure they knew what the problems were with the schools and what needed to be done to fix them, they tried to make as many decisions as quickly as possible, without involving the public any more than was absolutely necessary. They limited the number of speakers who could speak at board meetings, and limited the few who could speak to two minutes each. They voted on measures before they were supposed to, so people who were opposed to what they planned did not have time to respond before the decision was made.

The result of this approach is that the community completely reversed itself in two years. The 1995 school board was almost entirely voted out of office in 1997, and a go-slow-and-carefully school board was elected in its place.[4]

Public Participation, Democratization, and Civil Society

Increasing public participation in governmental decision-making is also becoming a large part of democratization processes and the strengthening of civil society in regions trying to recover from violent conflict and/or to make a transition to a more democratic form of government.

Public participation at the national level does not refer only to voting. It implies an open dialogue in which citizens have a voice in the decisions that affect them. International law grants the right to public participation. However, in a report from the United States Institute of Peace, Vivien Hart writes, "This right packs a moral punch but it lacks legal teeth and effective enforcement."[5]

However, even though governments may not be legally required to solicit public participation, it is often in their best interest to do so. Public participation can be a powerful tool for legitimizing a new government. Hart writes:

A claim of necessity for participation is based on the belief that without the general sense of "ownership" that comes from sharing authorship, today's public will not understand, respect, support, and live within the constraints of constitutional government.[6]

A striking example of this is in Zimbabwe, where the government short-circuited their democratization process by failing to take advantage of public participation. In 1999, under pressure from opposition groups, President Robert Mugabe reluctantly established a commission to draft a constitution. From a distance, it appeared to be a model process complete with public hearings, an outreach program of town hall meetings and other community activities, a multilingual media campaign, scientific polling, and an international conference. But, in reality, the president's party controlled the constitutional commission. The commission drafted the document and sent it to President Mugabe with no opportunity for further public comment. Mugabe quickly forwarded it for a referendum vote without possibility of amendment. The electorate rejected the constitution by 54 to 46 percent. Hart writes that, "immediately after the vote Lewis Machipisa editorialized in Africa News that this "'no' vote is also a 'no' vote against the arrogance that we experienced from the government. They didn't treat us as people who mattered.""[7]

The example of Zimbabwe illustrates a problem that is often seen with public participation in new democracies. Governments and institutions are capable of opening space for participation as a way to silence their critics. A report from the Institute for Development Studies-Participation Group warns of the "policy mirage, where the rhetoric around opportunities for policy change attracts many people to engage, but at the end of the day much energy has been spent and the policy is still eternally postponed."[8]

Hart writes, "Genuine public participation requires social inclusion, personal security, and freedom of speech and assembly. A strong civil society, civic education, and good channels of communication between all levels of society facilitate this process. Only a considerable commitment of time and resources will make genuine public participation possible."[9]

When seriously pursued, public participation can be remarkably helpful for democratization. The classic example of this is South Africa:

In all, it took seven years, from 1989 to 1996, to achieve the final constitution... Throughout these years, outbreaks of violence threatened the process...From 1994 through 1996 the South African process became a full-scale demonstration of participatory constitution making. Until that time, the public had had no direct role in constitution making. Now their elected representatives in the assembly reached out to educate them and invite their views. The educational effort included a media and advertising campaign using newspapers, radio and television, billboards, and the sides of buses; an assembly newspaper with a circulation of 160,000; cartoons; a web site; and public meetings; together these efforts reached an estimated 73 percent of the population. From 1994 through 1996 the Constitutional Assembly received two million submissions, from individuals and many advocacy groups, professional associations, and other interests...[10]

Many argue that this effective use of public participation smoothed South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy. Hart concludes, "At its best, participatory constitutionalism works and counteracts the arguments in support of elite negotiation as the sole effective mode. At its worst, as in Zimbabwe, it provides only another guise for the exercise of raw power."[11]


[1] IAP2 Core Values, ?

[2] The Co-Intelligence Institute,

[3] These observations come from Guy Burgess, who has been an active citizen participant in this process for many years.

[4] The source here is Heidi Burgess's personal experience.

[5] Vivien Hart, "Democratic Constitution Making," , July 2003.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] Cindy Clark, "Making Change Happen: Advocacy and Citizen Participation," Institute for Development Studies-Participation Group, , 2001

[9] Hart, ibid.

[10] Hart, ibid.

[11] Hart, ibid.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi and Cate Malek. "Public Participation." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2005 <>.

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