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Public Participation and Public Interest

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tommy Engram
November 15, 2016

In the beginning of the republic, there was the United States Constitution which vested all legislative powers in the Congress. Government was small, its scope was limited, and the people’s representatives were expected to live among their constituents so that they could know the public’s sentiments.

As the population grew and the economy expanded, government answered constituent demands and expanded to meet the nation’s needs. As it grew more powerful, government grew more corrupt, leading to a public uproar which culminated in the Progressive Era reforms. These reforms included the initiative, referendum, and recall at state and local levels. At the national level, it birthed the civil service system, women’s suffrage, prohibition, the direct election of senators, and our beloved graduated income tax. In the spirit of these reforms, the discipline of public administration took root in America.

The Great Depression brought us to the brink of economic meltdown. In response to public demands, a social welfare safety net was established and Congress took on the task of regulating almost every aspect of the economy. Faced with the resulting enormous burdens, Congress delegated authority to federal agencies to create rules and regulations to implement its general mandates. To clarify the process and answer complaints that bureaucrats were making laws, the Administrative Procedures Act required agencies to give notice of proposed rules and regulations, receive comments from interested parties, and specify how such comments were considered in the final formulation of the rule or regulation. The process of making a comment was defined as public participation.

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The concept of public participation caught on and has made its way into state and local government jargon. It has been touted as the means of determining the public interest, a goal that every well-informed and politically correct public administrator is encouraged to pursue.

Public participation is a very good way to learn the views of true stakeholders. Research for my doctoral dissertation included a questionnaire sent to randomly selected individuals who had made comments on a variety of proposed federal rules and regulations. Several hundred subjects replied. I compared their demographic and economic profiles with respondents of the most recent National Election Survey, a surrogate for the general public. As you might expect, persons making comments were substantially and significantly older, wealthier, and better educated than the means for the general public.

This is to be expected because older, wealthier, and better-educated people tend to have more skin in the game. They are willing to expend energy to protect their self-interest. But, even if we disregard the obvious class bias and self-interest motivations, is there any reason to believe that the opinions of the most interested parties on any issue truly represent the public interest? Is the public interest merely the sum of individual interests on a variety of issues? If so, does any governing body have the financial resources to fund the cumulative wish list which likely includes both improving services and reducing taxes?

Most local governments lack the orderly mechanisms of the Administrative Procedures Act. Efforts to achieve public participation are often less sophisticated. A favorite is drawing wisdom from the comments made by individuals who attend meetings of local governing bodies. If we skip over the prospect that such participants may be the close friends or relatives of the members of the governing body, the very fact that these individuals attended a meeting that the overwhelming majority of their peers avoid like the plague might mark their views as atypical.

A somewhat more unbiased way to achieve public participation is polling. The expertise necessary to write a good questionnaire and pull a random sample is readily available, even to jurisdictions with modest budgets. Polls can be done quickly and repeated periodically to trace the inevitable instability in results which we call trends. Polls give us data points from which we can calculate correlations, run regressions, and print pages of colorful graphs. But poll respondents rarely put much effort into responses and their knowledge of public policy issues may not be adequate to the task.

Akin to polling, if less scientific, are the marvelous innovations in social media. Anyone can float a policy proposal and almost instantly receive feedback in the form of “likes,” smiley faces, “Retweets,” and such. For the ardent advocate or opponent of the proposal, companies are available to manufacture as many positive or negative indicators as one might want, for a fee. The results are probably as reliable as you might get from any self-selected panel.

If these methods prove unproductive in discovering the public interest, there is always the Ouija Board. The bottom line is that the public interest is always difficult to determine, subject to debate, and more often what the public needs than what special interests want. Public participation in government decision-making offers no guarantee of finding it.


Author: After a career with BellSouth, Tommy Engram completed his doctorate in political science and taught college courses in government and public administration.  He has done extensive research in municipal government and has managed three small cities in Georgia and Tennessee. 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Public Participation and Public Interest

  1. Rod Erakovich Reply

    November 16, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    I appreciate the issues of public participation. To equate public participation with public interest seems problematic. I would define public interest in terms of government actions that meet the needs of all citizens rather than a majority or only those that express opinions. To define public interest this way, it is not the sum of the citizens opinions, it has more to do with the Kaldor-Hicks rule that public interest is gained when citizens benefit and can reimburse those that do not benefit.

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