Public hearing is not only way to involve the public

There are many ways to effectively involve the public beyond the public hearing.

A room full of people listening to a young woman speaking
Public comment during a public meeting.

The public hearing: a ubiquitous event that local governments use to have “public input” for local zoning issues, budgets, project proposals and more. Many Michigan statutes require public hearings as part of the government’s process. Requiring public hearings started in the 1920s, and really took off in the 1960s in recognition of the need for public participation in government affairs.

Unfortunately, of the various techniques aimed at allowing the public to participate, the public hearing is not necessarily the most effective way to accomplish adequate public participation. Governments still use the public hearing because it is required by law in many instances, but there are additional options to consider for best practice.

Engaging the public in decision making is an important cornerstone of democracy. It is based on the idea that people who may be impacted by a decision have a right to be involved in the process. Additionally, involving the public during the process makes it less likely there will be opposition or even outrage later on.

Additional ways to involve the public include:

  • Public Meeting
  • Visioning
  • Focus Group
  • Citizen Advisory Committee
  • Charrette
  • Surveys
  • Visual Preference Survey
  • Negotiation and mediation
  • Facilitation
  • Delphi Technique

The national Cooperative Extension System website, eXtension has a section on Community Planning and Zoning where there are articles on public participation.

In the field of planning, a planning practice theory, communicative planning, brings the data forward from the rational planning practice so that from the beginning, everyone has a mutual understanding of facts. The government must then bring together a large number of people representing different stakeholders and viewpoints and to facilitate, talk, and mediate toward a consensus.

When practicing the communicative planning theory, it is important to involve people early in the process and empower them as much as possible. “A Ladder of Participation” by Sherry Arnstein (Journal of the American Planning Association, 1969) divides public participation into three levels:

  • Nonparticipation: When the public is generally uninformed, or the “participation” is only the public hearing at the end of the process.
  • Tokenism: Public might be informed, consulted, but does not participate in policymaking – the public does not really participate in or actually write the plan.
  • Citizen Power: The public participates actively in planning and policymaking.

The goal in communicative planning is for participation to be done at the “Citizen Power” level. Your community planning process or government decision process is not sufficient if it only involves very large public meetings, public notices are only found in places like in the classified or legal notice sections of the local newspaper, or is only a hearing at the end of the planning process after all decisions have already been made.

Best practice is not just holding a public hearing, but rather includes public participation early in the discussion on the issue, so that the level of participation is at Citizen Power. 

Michigan State University Extension land use educators provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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