Public participation has become an integral part of environmental policymaking. Dispute resolution—with its focus on deliberation, problem solving, and consensus seeking among a small group of people—is one of the alternatives decisionmakers increasingly turn to for involving the public. This paper evaluates dispute resolution as a form of public participation by measuring its success against five “social goals”: incorporating public values into decisions, increasing the substantive quality of decisions, resolving conflict, building trust, and educating the public.
The data for the analysis come from a “case survey,” in which researchers read and coded information on more than 100 attributes of 239 published case studies of public involvement in environmental decisionmaking. These cases describe a variety of planning, management, and implementation activities carried out by environmental and natural resource agencies at many levels of government. The paper demonstrates that dispute resolution processes typically do much better than other forms of public participation in achieving social goals, but only among the small group of actual participants. The dispute resolution cases do far worse in extending the benefits of participation to the wider public. Many dispute resolution cases lack significant outreach, either to inform the wider public or to draw the wider public’s values into decisionmaking.
The benefits of conflict resolution or trust formation also often do not extend beyond a small group of participants. The findings have normative implications for the desirability of dispute resolution in certain types of environmental decisions. They also have practical implications because the exclusion of the wider public from decisionmaking can come back to haunt project proponents in the implementation stage.