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Study Shows How To Build Public Participation Capacity

February 2000

Recognizing that environmental protection is most effective when it has strong citizen support, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently begun a number of efforts to enhance public participation in its decision-making — activities like issuing permits and promulgating regulations. But a meaningful public role requires citizens who are informed and involved, a difficult task in a complex policy area that blends science, law, and other factors.

At the Agency’s request, the Environmental Law Institute has just completed a study of how to improve the “capacity” of citizens to participate in EPA activities. The report found several important obstacles to “capacity building” but offers a long-term strategy for EPA to enhance the ability of the public to participate in its decision-making.

In the report, Building Capacity to Participate
in Environmental Protection Agency Activities: A Needs Assessment and Analysis
, an ELI research team used interviews with citizen experts in the field to identify four key building blocks to build capacity for public participation.

First, citizens highlighted a need for timely, understandable information that explains the relevance of particular initiatives to specific communities. The research also pointed to the need for EPA to actively disseminate such information to affected communities.

Second, technical assistance is also critical to capacity building because of the complex nature of many EPA decisions, the citizens told the ELI researchers. Some citizens saw direct technical assistance as essential for allowing them to effectively counter industry positions, while others said the Agency itself should perform technical analyses on behalf of the public.

Third, education about the law was also identified as a key requirement. Not only do communities need to understand the legal framework of the laws that EPA implements, the citizens told the researchers, but they need to understand the processes that the Agency uses to implement laws, such as permitting and rulemaking procedures.

Finally, easy and inexpensive access to the documents that EPA uses to make its decisions, including copies of site specific materials, statutes, policies, and regulations, is also important to strengthening communities’ ability to participate effectively.

The study discusses several vehicles for delivering these capacity building tools, ranging from improved EPA mailing lists to new ombudsmen and hotline programs. The study identifies public and private programs from a variety of contexts that could serve as models for information exchange and dissemination, training, education, and other capacity building.

Removing impediments to capacity building efforts can also be important to improving public participation, and the study identifies several. These include the lack of defined role for the public in particular initiatives and the public’s lack of time, resources, and interest. The report also discusses citizen concerns regarding the need for new pubic participation processes that allow for a more integral role for the public and the possible need for increased oversight of state public participation programs.

Building Capacity to Participate in Environmental Protection Agency Activities: A Needs Assessment and Analysis can be downloaded for free or ordered by calling (800) 433-5120 or sending an email to orders@eli.org. For press copies, please contact pressrequest@eli.org.