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How Public Hearings Can Distort Decision Making and How Online Forums Can Mitigate this Distorting Influence

Public hearings are often the most influential channel for feedback to government decision makers. Therefore it’s problematic that this influence is frequently distorted by public hearing feedback that is not representative of the views of the majority of a community. This distorted influence is caused by three dynamics: (1) a spectrum of impediments to civic engagement and in particular – attending public hearings; (2) a presumption that feedback in a public hearing is representative of a community; and (3) a dynamic called the referendum effect – that occurs when government leaders are pressured to make decisions based on the majority opinion that is expressed in a public hearing (even when it is not representative of the community).

This article explains and provides examples of those three dynamics; then describes how online public comment forums can mitigate these distorting dynamics.

Note that this article in no way argues that public hearings should be excluded from the government decision-making process. Instead, the article identifies a problem with public hearings and highlights an approach to mitigate the problem.

Spectrum of Impediments to Civic Engagement

There is a spectrum of factors that prevent people from participating in government decision-making processes such as voting and public hearings. Indeed, for US presidential elections, the number of registered voters that actually vote is about 60% — and that percentage is lower for national mid-term elections as well as elections with only state or local ballots. Moreover, the percentage of a community that participates in public hearings is typically infinitesimal. The impediments to civic engagement include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Preoccupation: people are too busy with parenting, working and/or other responsibilities;
  • Intimidation: people are worried that if they speak-out, then they will incur retribution;
  • Immobility: people can’t get to a public hearing due to physical or transportation issues;
  • Ignorance: people aren’t aware of a public hearing or the importance of its issue;
  • Cynicism: people don’t think that their participation will influence the decision;
  • Indifference: people don’t care;
  • Confidence: people believe that their elected officials will make the right decision.

It’s important to emphasize that people that exhibit these impediments aren’t bad people – on the contrary, many of them are upstanding parents and/or hard working, productive members of society. These impediments are simply a reality of modern life. The only bad implication of these impediments is when governments don’t acknowledge their pervasiveness and consequently don’t account for them in the decision-making process.

Public Hearing Proxy Presumption

Despite the spectrum of impediments to civic engagement, a common presumption about public hearings is that, the people that are here are the people that care – and a corollary, the people that aren’t here don’t care. The press and the public as well as government leaders can espouse this mindset that the public hearing is a legitimate proxy for the community; and this can be an especially popular mindset when a public hearing is one-sided and has relatively high attendance – yet only comprises a small fraction of the community’s population.

Indeed, it’s hard to hypothesize about the views of people that aren’t at a public hearing. Moreover, when the feedback at a public hearing is largely one-sided, then it can seem presumptuous for anyone – especially government leaders, to assume that the views of people that aren’t at the public hearing differ from the views of people that are present.

Nevertheless, this presumption can be true – as exemplified by the 2008 Berkeley City Council public hearing on the marine recruiting center in downtown Berkeley. In this example, the marathon public hearing was packed with people who supported a proposal to declare the marine recruitment center an unwanted intruder. When the Council approved the proposal, there was subsequently a backlash from the citizens and businesses of Berkeley that resulted in the Council embarrassingly rescinding its decision two weeks later.

The Referendum Effect

The referendum effect characterizes the loss of decision-making autonomy that government leaders incur when they are pressured to make decisions that are based on the majority opinion that is expressed via public feedback – regardless of whether that feedback reflects the views of the majority of the community. In other words, the public hearing can effectively become a referendum, and thereby usurp the decision-making independence of government leaders in our representative democracy.

The referendum effect can be especially intense when a public hearing is one-sided. This type of public hearing puts pressure on elected officials because if their decision goes against the sentiments of the one-sided public hearing, then the officials can be accused of not supporting the (apparent) will of the people – even when the one-sided feedback doesn’t accurately reflect the community’s views.

The pressure to comply with the public hearing is typically exerted by the people at the public hearing, but it can also be self-imposed by elected officials because they assume that the people who are not at the public hearing are indifferent, apathetic and/or are less likely to vote.

Distorting Government Decision Making

Here’s how the above three dynamics conflate to distort the decision making of government leaders. First, the spectrum of impediments to civic engagement result in government leaders not getting feedback that is representative of their community. Second, the members of the public, the press and even government leaders ignore or downplay the civic engagement impediments and assume that feedback from a public hearing is representative of the community – or at least representative of the people that care. Third, elected official feel pressured to comply with the majority feedback in the public hearing – in order to demonstrate that they support the (apparent) will of the people.

In Berkeley again, there is a recent example of the potential for this distorted influence: the July 17, 2012 Berkeley City Council public hearing regarding a proposal to post a ballot measure that deals with sitting on sidewalks in the City’s commercial district (AKA the civil sidewalks initiative). The marathon public hearing on this topic was largely against the proposal – and some of those speaking against the proposal were transients (i.e. sidewalk sitters) who were not citizens of Berkeley. In contrast, the impediments to civic engagement resulted in most Berkeley citizens not attending the public hearing. Moreover, some business owners with storefronts in Berkeley were intimidated from speaking in favor of the proposal because they feared vandalism, boycotts and other retribution. As a result of these dynamics, the influence of the City’s own citizens on it government was overshadowed by a one-sided public hearing that included transients and other non-citizens.

Using Online Public Comment Forums to Mitigate Distorted Influence

There are several ways in which online public comment forums (OPCFs) can counter the above three dynamics that can distort the decision making of government leaders.

First, OPCFs mitigate the impediments to providing public feedback to government leaders. In particular, OPCFs can help people that are preoccupied or immobile by enabling them to readily provide public feedback at a convenient place and time. OPCFs, can also address people that are intimidated by enabling them to post a public comment without publically revealing their identity (though they still must register and therefore they aren’t anonymous). OPCFs can address people that are ignorant about an issue by using social media to broaden awareness of the issue within a community. Finally, by increasing public trust in their government, OPDFs can potentially decrease cynicism in the community.

An additional way that OPCFs can counter the three dynamics that can distort decision-making is by positioning OPCFs as supplements to public hearings. This positioning improves the plausibility of the assumption that the aggregate public feedback is representative of the community. In particular, OPCFs can broaden and diversify the people that participate – especially among people with moderate opinions (as opposed to extreme opinions).

As a supplement to the conventional public hearing, an OPCF provides another data set of feedback for the community and government leaders to factor into their assessment of the community sentiment. Together, these two data sets can offset the referendum effect in the following two ways: (1) If the feedback from the OPCF resembles the feedback from the public hearing, then this can give government leaders more confidence that they are getting feedback that is representative of the community, and therefore they can be more comfortable in complying with the feedback; and (2) conversely, if the feedback from the OPCF conflicts with the feedback from the public hearing, then this can give government leaders the political fortitude to not agree with the public hearing feedback.

To use another Berkeley example, the latter scenario occurred in a 2011 Berkeley City Council meeting on a proposal to resettle Guantanamo detainees in the City. As with the Berkeley marine recruitment issue, the public hearing was packed with people in favor of the proposal. However, members of the city council posted an OPCF in advance of the public hearing; and a majority of the OPCF feedback was against the proposal. This gave some council members the political fortitude to go against the public hearing and defeat the proposal.

Michael Alvarez Cohen is a co-founder and board member of Peak Democracy Inc (PeakDemocracy.com), a member of the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board, a board member of the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association in Berkeley, and a representative on the East Bay Green Corridor initiative. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Chris Cairns

Amazing piece, Michael. I really think taking that angle that OPCF can act as a supplement to conventional public hearing will make this solution a success. I’d like to hear more examples of how OPCF is being used. Perhaps 3-5 short case studies?

Michael Cohen

Chris, Thanks for your feedback.

One of the best case studies is in your own County of Arlington. Check-out their Open Arlington online public comment forum: http://arlingtonplace.us/openarlington/.

Likewise, Arlington public schools uses online public comment forums: http://www.apsva.us/Page/15925

Here are 5 other examples:

Salt Lake City UT: http://www.slcclassic.com/opencityhall

Alpharetta GA: http://www.peakdemocracy.com/portals/73/Forum_280

Germantown TN: http://www.peakdemocracy.com/portals/80/forum_home

Delray Beach FL: http://mydelraybeach.com/open-city-hall

Vallejo CA: http://www.ci.vallejo.ca.us/GovSite/default.asp?serviceID1=1022&Frame=L1