From chaos to harmony : public participation and environmental policy
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Water quality issues in the Leon River watershed in Texas exemplify the challenges water resource managers and the public face in the ongoing effort to improve water quality in our nation’s water bodies. Some pollutant sources are difficult to regulate and likely managed through non-regulatory means, such as voluntary action. The Leon River challenge is how to go beyond regulations to address the concerns of citizens and produce options they want to develop and implement voluntarily that address a common good. This dissertation argues that voluntary measures work only if those who must take action support the action, otherwise conflict can occur. Thus, it is critical to learn what people are willing to do to promote the public good (e.g., swimmable streams). This can be achieved through an effective public process. Public participation processes may have barriers that impede success, such as inadequate access, intimidation, competing interests, limited accountability, and scientific mistrust. This dissertation developed process enhancements to overcome these barriers based on documented public participation principles. This research tested whether specific enhancements can improve the quality of a public process and achieve desired process outcomes. This dissertation reports on quasi-experiments with stakeholders making actual environmental decisions. The findings suggest that these enhancements are capable of reducing conflict and reducing the time to produce environmental policy. Five process enhancements (representation, film, narratives, deliberative decision-making, and decision support) were put into operation to provide options for government agencies and stakeholders to consider when undertaking public participation processes. The lack of access can be avoided by giving stakeholders voice with representation through different types of meetings levels (e.g., focus groups and town hall meetings). Films, when captured, edited, and shown to others, can remove the mechanisms typically associated with the intimidation perceived by speakers during discussions. Narratives were used to collect information about stakeholders to develop a deeper understanding of the diversity of interests affected by a policy, avoiding gridlock from positional bargaining. Deliberative decision-making (no voting) can assure stakeholders have real and equitable decision-making power, with scenarios collaboratively developed that address the common good. Application of a decision support system (DSS) as an overlay to a scientific model can provide stakeholders direct access to science so they can develop scenarios, evaluate alternatives, and choose solutions.