In response to legislation and pressure from citizens' groups over the last three decades, federal agencies have taken steps to include the public in a wide range of environmental decisions, such as how best to clean up Superfund sites or manage federal forest lands. Although some form of public participation is often required by law, agencies usually have broad discretion about the extent of that involvement. Approaches vary widely, from holding public information-gathering meetings to forming advisory groups to actively including citizens in making and implementing decisions.
Proponents of public participation argue that those who must live with the outcome of an environmental decision should have some influence on it. Critics maintain that public participation slows decision making and can lower its quality by including people unfamiliar with the science involved. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and departments of Energy and Agriculture asked the Research Council to assess whether public participation achieves desirable outcomes, and under what conditions.
Substantial evidence indicates that public participation is more likely to improve than to undermine the quality of decisions, the report says. Although scientists are usually in the best position to analyze the effects of environmental processes and actions, good analysis often requires information about local conditions, which is most likely to come from residents. Moreover, public values and concerns are important to frame the scientific questions asked, to ensure that the analyses address all of the issues relevant to those affected….Thomas Nast's cartoon of Boss Tweed, Wikimedia Commons