Relationships among preferences for process, preferences for outcomes, perceptions of context, and individual characteristics in environmental and risk decision-making
Funding:  National Science Foundation
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Project Summary

Beginning with the assumption that members of the public, stakeholder interest groups, and professional experts should be involved in decision making about environmental and risk policies that are contentious and non-routine, this research proposes to advance our theoretical understanding of these kinds of public participation processes. The field of public participation is well known for its experienced practioners and excellent handbooks. Recently the scholarship on theory of public participation has also been growing. Theories on public participation have emerged out of management sciences, decision theory, political science, philosophy, communication studies, and small group psychology. A recent National Research Council committee report on risk characterization advanced the idea of conceptualizing public participation processes as an iterative, non-linear combination of analysis and deliberation. However, despite these theoretical developments and wise practitioner reflections, there is little systematic research on public participation processes.

Theory of public participation needs to be further developed to integrate insights from these different disciplines and different units of analysis. What is needed is theory that captures the full breadth of principles that are important to understanding public participation. One of the key assumptions of this proposal is that we must tap the knowledge of people who actually take part in public participation processes, in addition to tapping the theoretical knowledge.

Theory of public participation also needs to be better developed to understand how the historical and social context, as well as the personalities of the people involved, influence the performance of public participatory approaches. This proposal assumes that the same participation model (e.g. citizen juries) may not yield the exact same outcomes in two different social settings. Yet there is no theory of public participation that adequately explains how context matters. Certain handbooks for public participation practitioners do give hints as to what context features planners should pay attention to, but the theory of why and how these features matter is undeveloped.

This research proposes a systematic comparison of public participation processes in three different policy venues: forest policy making, watershed planning, and radiation health effects protection. For each venue we propose case studies to inquire into participants’ ideas of what matters in a public participation process. By selecting individuals with vastly different points of view about the process, we will gather a wide breath of principles that theory of public participation should incorporate. To make sense of these different points of view, we propose to use Q methodology. We have found this a satisfactory method in three previous research studies on public participation. Q methodology is a way of using inverted factor analysis to reveal the presense of pre-existing social discourses about a topic.

We also propose to conduct a second order Q analysis across the case studies to explore whether there are stable discourses about what is a good public participation process that are independent of characteristics of the policy venue. Our analysis will involve comparing results across the three policy venues and within the cases in each venue. We also propose to use a short survey instrument to inquire about personal charactistics of people who complete the Q sort as a way to explore relations between beliefs about good process and personality attributes.

Results will enable us to make progress on theory of public participation. Such theory will be useful to planners and organizers of public participation processes and will thereby lead to improved decisions about environmental and risk issues.

Read more about the theoretical background of this project.

We have continued our focus on better understanding preferences for process and building a theory of public participation in a project completed in 2003. We are investigated three main questions associated with public participation in environmental decision-making:

  • are there views of what is the most appropriate type of public participation process that are similar regardless of the topic being discussed (e.g., clean-up of radiological contamination at DOE facilities, forestry management, watershed planning)?
  • how do elements of the context in which a decision-making process is situated affect peoples’ perception of what would be the most appropriate form of public participation?
  • are individuals’ ideas of what is the most appropriate decision-making process shaped by their personal experience, their interest group affiliation, or their motivation to participate in the process?

To address these questions we designed a systematic case comparison study of 10 public participation processes in three different policy venues. Three case studies were conducted in each policy arena of forest management, watershed planning, and radiation clean-up and health effects protection. A tenth case study was completed on a National Park Service planning process. In each case study we asked about a dozen individuals to do a Q sort exercise about how they would design the process and complete two surveys. In addition, they ordered their preferences for twenty outcomes of the participation process.

The case studies were:

  • Forest management in the Finger Lakes National Forest (New York).
  • Forest management in the Applegate region (Oregon).
  • Forest management in the greater Flagstaff region (Arizona). 
  • Morro Bay National Estuary Program (California).
  • Dungeness River Management (Washington).
  • Raritan Basin Watershed Management Project (New Jersey).
  • Setting standards for clean-up of radionuclides in soils at Rocky Flats (Colorado). 
  • Assessing public health risks from radiological contamination at Fernald (Ohio). (final report)
  • Plutonium contamination from sewage sludge in Livermore (California). (final report)
  • Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area (Massachusetts).

Our case study reports describe the analyses and findings for each case. In addition, we have analysed data from single policy arenas (e.g. combines data from 3 forest cases) and conducted a full composite analysis, which combines all 117 Q sorts into a single case analysis. In addition, we are finding numerous correlations among our four perspectives on process and preferences for outcomes, perspectives of the context, and individual characteristics.


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