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Citizen Participation in Decision-Making: Is it Worth the Effort?

Notwithstanding the ambiguous mention of utilizing scarce resources, the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) should be commended for its efforts to incorporate more citizen
involvement in environmental protection programs (Fiorino 2000). With improved community
relations as a motivating goal, the EPA pushed for national and regional enhancements in
environmental decision-making throughout the latter half of the 1990s. This ambitious effort
was not limited to the EPA, nor to just environmental management. At all levels of government,
citizen participation programs were launched, beginning in the 1950s (Day 1997), with the
underlying assumption that if citizens became actively involved as participants in their
democracy, the governance that emerged from this process would be more democratic and more
effective.
It is widely argued that increased community participation in government
decision- making produces many important benefits. Dissent is rare: It is
difficult to envision anything but positive outcomes from citizens joining the
policy process, collaborating with others, and reaching consensus to bring
about positive social and environmental change. This article, motivated by
contextual problems encountered in a participatory watershed management
initiative, reviews the citizen participation literature and analyzes key
considerations in determining whether community participation is an effective
policy-making tool. We list conditions under which community participation
may be costly and ineffective and when it can thrive and produce the greatest
gains in effective citizen governance. From the detritus of an unsuccessful
citizen-participation effort, we arrive at a more-informed approach to guide
policy makers in choosing a decision-making process that is appropriate for a
community’s particular needs.