Building Public Trust and Improving Policy Through Deliberative Engagement Between Officials and Citizens

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PhD Candidate in Political Science, University of Utah

The opinions and preferences of citizens are often at odds with policies enacted by administrators and public officials. Although participation in collaborative governance projects has increased, administrative discretion still trumps deliberative public participation when decisions are made about where to place potentially dangerous or undesirable public projects. Public officials often feel they must retain discretionary control because they believe that average citizens lack the technical expertise and moral capacity to arrive at fair decisions on behalf of the larger community. Research I conducted with Mark Button suggests that these assumptions are misguided. Citizens do, in fact, have the capacity for an impartial civic participation, but they are often frustrated by poorly designed institutions that exclude them from participating in policy decisions that directly impact their communities. Over time, administrative exclusion actually generates the very divisive and self-interested conditions public officials hope to avoid.

Crowding Out Citizen Preferences and Capacities

Public officials, community leaders, and scholars of public administration have long recognized that citizen participation furthers the legitimacy and effectiveness of public policy responses to pressing social challenges. Beyond the instrumental value of public involvement in municipal planning, active citizen engagement fosters the development of essential civic capacities – helping citizens grappling public problems learn to weigh, evaluate, and consider alternative arguments or points of view. When opportunities for deliberative citizen engagement are included in processes for making binding decisions within a pluralistic society, they encourage reasoned discussions among equal citizens.

Despite the clear benefits of integrating citizens into administrative decision-making, such efforts run up against administrative demands to govern without citizen involvement. Indeed, one of the most fashionable approaches today calls for policymakers to engineer the right incentives, norms, or “nudges” to produce desired social behaviors. Well-meaning as this approach may be, it risks crowding-out processes that can nurture qualities of good citizenship. 

The risk of engineering from above is especially evident for official decisions about where to place controversial facilities such as prisons, waste treatment plants, and nuclear power plants. When public officials perceive citizens as too self-interested to participate in deciding where to place such facilities, they frequently try to head off citizen worries by offering monetary compensation for any inconvenience administrative decisions might cause. Or if citizens are perceived to be too ignorant to participate in decision-making, administrators may seek to educate the public about the advantages or effects of a facility. Yet if such efforts arouse further public fears or concerns, policymakers frequently feel justified in simply overruling public demands or ignoring citizens’ preferences. Whether though compensation or token instruction, administrative substitutes for active civic engagement inadvertently communicate to citizens that officials assume they lack public spiritedness and cannot be trusted. Over time, such messages from administrators become self-fulfilling processes, crowding-out any positive inclinations that might exist among the citizenry. The result can be a negative cycle of apathy, anger, and distrust, in which citizens no longer participate in civic discussions because they know that, in the end, government will make whatever decisions it wants. Citizens may learn to demand monetary compensation for inconveniences rather than seeking to participate in public decision-making. Ultimately, of course, such public responses confirm to administrators that their assumptions about public capacities and motivations are true. The cycle of distrust continues.

The Example of Homeless Site Location in Salt Lake City

In 2014, Salt Lake City formed the Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission to advise the mayor and city staff on the best location for a homeless services facility to replace the current downtown shelter. A similar committee was established at the county level. Between January of 2015 and November of 2016, more than a dozen committee meetings were held, but even though all meetings were open to the public, only two were specifically designated for deliberative public engagement and discussions focused only on concepts and never addressed actual locations. Despite the city’s repeated claims of commitment to public engagement, four locations for the new facilities were ultimately announced in December 2016 without any real public input. Opposition was immediate, with citizens especially angered that the city made decisions in closed-door administrative committee meetings, without consulting residents of neighborhoods where the facilities would be sited. When pressed as to why the public was not directly involved in the decision-making process, city officials simply stated their assumption that a public process would have been impossible given the strong feelings that city residents have about living near a shelter. As one official said, public deliberation would have been “too divisive.”

Breaking the Cycle of Distrust through Deliberative Engagement

Institutional practices that exclude the public from key policy decisions are misguided and, ultimately, counterproductive. When public officials primarily maneuver to contain or manage what they imagine will be irrational citizen resistance to optimal decisions, public distrust grows and optimal policy solutions become more difficult to fashion. Achieving a healthy balance between citizen participation and administrative discretion requires an ongoing institutional commitment to open, deliberative public engagement. And to break the cycle of distrust, the commitment to deliberation must go well beyond comment boards and public forums.

For active deliberative engagement to be both practical and effective, it must be grounded in an understanding of public reasoning as a messy, iterative, social practice, rather than simply a metric for efficient public participation. Active public engagement involves repeated efforts by public officials and citizens to reason together as part of a shared democratic process. Institutions and procedures need to ensure repeated opportunities to consider and weigh policy alternatives. For public officials, investments in creating and sustaining such processes are highly worthwhile, because citizens will become more trusting and willing to engage public needs. The formation and implementation of public policies will be strengthened long into the future.