A communicative approach to understanding the association between procedural performance and legitimacy of outcomes
Funding:  National Science Foundation
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Project Summary

This research explores the connection between the process for making a decision and the satisfaction that people have with the final decision. Making decisions in a democratic society about managing the environment or managing risks usually ends up displeasing some interest groups while pleasing others and yet, without widespread acceptance, decisions can be stalled in court or stymied outright. To improve democratic acceptance of decisions, regulatory bodies strive to broadly involve the interested and affected parties in dialogue and incorporate their input. While there is much advice from conflict resolution and public participation practitioners on how to do this well, there is little scientific understanding of how people judge the quality of these dialogues and how those judgments, in turn, affect the acceptance of decisions. In this project, we will learn how participants come to their beliefs about the fairness and competence of dialogue in a public participatory decision-making process. Experimental studies have suggested that there is a fair-process effect; people who think the discussion was fair are more willing to accept the resulting decision, even if they suffer negatively because of it. Theory suggests a comparable link between participants' perceived competence of a dialogue and decision acceptance. By measuring specific qualities of the communication within these processes, we will test these theories and draw conclusions about how government agencies can better satisfy the expectations and needs of interested and affected parties and, thereby, produce decisions with higher democratic legitimacy.

Read more about the theoretical background of this project.

Project Summary
The fair process effect explains that people who feel they were treated fairly by authorities are more likely to accept the decision of those authorities. This effect is well documented in the social psychology research literature.  Risk managers and regulatory agencies must make public choices that are unpopular.  They seek to minimize public discontent and opposition by involving all interested and affected parties in a fair decision-making process.  However, many questions remain about how to run a good public participation process and planners need more prescriptive advice. Affected parties clearly do care about fairness, but evidence suggests they care about other things as well, namely making competent decisions.
 The intellectual merit of this proposed research is that it broadens inquiry into the fair process effect by investigating whether a “competent process effect” exists as well. Procedural competence is an assessment of how apt is the process at reaching the best possible understandings, given what is knowable at the time. It also makes an original contribution by approaching the problem from the perspective of communication theory, which predicts that competence and fairness of the process should matter to participants. The communication theory variables lead to more direct advice to planners who organize participatory decision-making processes. The study is a test of the fair process effect, but it significantly expands upon this in ways that may transform thinking of agency personnel who run participatory processes.
The broader impacts resulting from the proposed activity are that we will learn how to provide better guidance for public participation organizers in order to increase people’s satisfaction with the process and acceptance of the decision. The research will allow society to move beyond arguing for citizen participation on a normative basis alone. Because our communicative variables correspond closely with design features of the procedure, this research will produce knowledge that can readily be applied to improve deliberative process. A better process will lead to greater public acceptance for controversial decisions. A better process will also broaden the participation of underrepresented groups in policymaking. Findings from this research will be relevant to policy and decision-makers in a broad range of applications.
This research also has broader impacts on education by involving community college students and a graduate student in the research work. Due to our fortunate location, we can involve interested community college students in the research work. We propose to develop a mentoring relationship with two or more community college students that will last beyond the length of the project. We also propose a number of outreach efforts to get the results of this research into the hands of government staff responsible for public participation.
The strongest theoretical argument for the fair process effect comes from Tom Tyler, who suggests that people interpret fair treatment as validation of their identity with a group of which the authority figure is representative.  This research proposal makes a parallel, sociological argument that people care about how they are treated by others because of a social contract establishes mutual expectations for basic human dignity. In communication with others, but particularly with authority figures, people expect to be treated according to rules of proper speech. Fairness is implicit in these rules, but equally important is that people use speech to pursue common understanding. In other words, it is not enough that deliberation is fair, it must also competently reach understandings. Normative rules for speech have been posited by Habermas in his theory of communicative action and his theory of discourse ethics. We propose to operationalize these rules into variables that measure participants’ perceptions of the quality of the communication and to explore whether these predict support for decision outcomes. 


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