The laws designed to allow members of the public to have a voice in their government are actually stifling the conversation, according to an Indiana University Bloomington expert.
Lisa Blomgren Amsler, professor in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, is the lead author of, “Making Public Participation Legal,” a report by the National Civic League with support from the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. The study warns that in local and state proceedings across the country, “democracy is dwindling, three minutes at a time.”
Amsler and her colleagues note that the decades-old public meeting format where officials make a presentation followed by citizens having three minutes to ask questions or make comments provides little opportunity for interaction or deliberation.
“When combined with other kinds of engagement opportunities, traditional public hearings can work, mainly by providing a sense of closure and validation to public debate on an issue,” the report stated. “But since our legal framework supports only the bare minimum of deliberation, the pressure of dealing with contentious policy issues falls squarely on a format that isn’t up to the task.”
In turn, the relationship between citizens and their public institutions can fray, which can undermine the legitimacy and financial stability of government.
A working group that included representatives from the International Municipal Lawyers Association, the American Bar Association and the National League of Cities developed new legal tools for public participation in local and state governments. Amsler said the tools drew inspiration from the alternative dispute resolution laws.
“Simply by authorizing public agencies to use mediation, facilitation and other ADR processes, those laws resulted in a dramatic proliferation of these practices at every level of the legal system,” Amsler stated in the report.
Key recommendations from the study for improving public participation include:
• Giving residents, decision-makers and other stakeholders regular opportunities – in a variety of places such as online forums, public meetings, and gatherings in neighborhoods, schools and workplaces – to build relationships, discuss issues and celebrate community
• Inviting people of all backgrounds and viewpoints to participate so the same citizens don’t dominate meetings
• Ensuring participation has a tangible and readily apparent impact on policy decision, public plans and public budgets
• Appointing a “public participation coordinator” within City Hall and setting annual participation goals