Public Participation and Agency Planning

By Lindstrom, Matthew; Nie, Martin A. | The Public Manager, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Public Participation and Agency Planning


Lindstrom, Matthew, Nie, Martin A., The Public Manager


The question of how public agencies collect and use public information in developing plans and programs is an old but important one. This article is based on a mail survey of state transportation agencies and supports the following:

* enhancing citizen participation in the agency planning process, if done correctly and honestly, is worthwhile;

* there are a number of case-specific and innovative ways beside that of the traditional public hearing that are effective and useful, and

* increasing public input in the planning process helps agencies increase their chances of program and planning success.

The Importance of Public Participation

The importance of public involvement in the political decision-making process is well known and often cited in administrative literature. There are a number of requirements that bureaucracies must abide by allowing for some degree of citizen involvement and input in agency decision-making such as those in the Federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991. These statutory requirements recognize that public agencies cannot be managed closed and shielded from the public but must rather proactively seek the public's input. While ISTEA calls for creating "new partnerships" in state and metropolitan transportation planning, some research finds that many states and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) seem to be responding to the new requirements in a "disappointingly perfunctory manner." For example, one study shows that 58 percent of states surveyed were doing the minimum or less in meeting ISTEA public participation requirements. [1]

There are an array of benefits gained from proactively soliciting substantive public participation: positive public relations, more public trust and support, greater ability to deal with various contingencies and angered constituencies, heightened citizen interest, and knowledge of agency activities, protection against costly delays and lawsuits, and increased overall planning success. Despite various agency struggles, some state and local efforts such as Virginia's s Department of Transportation, Seattle's Vision 2020 program, and Pima County's (Arizona) MPO are greatly improving the public participation process and what to do with such information once it is gathered. These and other jurisdictions have used participation techniques such as citizen advisory committees, mailing lists, Internet sites, and citizen surveys to utilize public input successfully.

Varied Strategies for Input

In 1996, a written mail survey was sent to 107 state transportation officials responsible for citizen participation. [2] With 61 responses, the survey had a 57 percent response rate. The survey was used to ascertain the types of methods transportation agencies employ in acquiring citizen input into the planning process and what level of satisfaction they have had with each.

The first survey question asked "what are the methods you most frequently use to obtain customer (driver-voter) input in your planning and investment decisions." Respondents were instructed to check up to four out of 15 possible methods and Table 1 shows those that were most often cited and the percentage of this total. Due to the statutory requirements of ISTEA, public meetings and hearings are most often cited. Citizen's advisory committees, media strategies, and citizen surveys rank next highest among those surveyed. Those citing other methods use newsletters, a public luncheon, an open house, and a county fair exposition to solicit public involvement.

Table 2 shows how respondents ranked each of the four methods they checked in Table 1 and lists those methods in the order that received the highest level of mean (average) satisfaction (with 1 being the lowest level of satisfaction and 10 being the highest). It is important to note the number of times methods are cited as well as the method's rated success.

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