A Little Less Input, Please

Gathering all the public input you can may sound like a good idea, but it's often more of a pain than a panacea.
January 2005
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

There are few concepts in government management that have as clear a ring of power and authority as "public input." We live in a democracy, right? So, what could make more sense than getting the public's point of view when making important decisions about new programs or capital investments? To challenge the utility of public input would seem un- American somehow.

So, let's get one thing out of the way here. We are good Americans. We take every opportunity to vote. We mist over at patriotic songs (although not Sousa marches). And our professional careers have been devoted to helping states, counties and cities improve their work. But it just so happens that we think the idea of gathering all the public input possible deserves some closer examination.

After conversations with dozens of states in recent months, it has become clear to us that the members of the public who are generally providing input are not what you would picture in a civics text. They're not Joe and Jane from down the street who are committed to discussing some angle of the state's operating budget. Rather, as Michael Meotti, president of the nonpartisan Connecticut Policy and Economic Council, puts it, "It's usually just the usual suspects." That is, when public hearings are held, state officials often know in advance who many of the attendees will be. In the old days, they were likely to be called members of "special interest groups." Of course, in general discourse, special interest groups are not good. Groups that provide public input, however, are. It's all just semantics, but you get the idea.

Ultimately, it's the responsibility of state and local officials to set priorities for the various "inputs" that come pouring in. Trying to please everyone can be rather expensive. In Wisconsin, Alice Morehouse, budget chief for the Department of Transportation, talks about being frustrated when her department comes up with an affordable, well-thought-out plan that just gets bigger and more unwieldy as public input goes on and on. A major project, she points out, requires more public input than a smaller one, and the comments from the public tend to change the project. Communities want interchanges; tourist areas ask for more lanes; rural regions demand a focus on conservation; and farm communities may not want the major project altogether. "Cost overruns," she says, "tend to come from buying the consensus."

The extreme end of public input, of course, is at the polling place where a number of states--largely in the western portion of the nation--are faced with ballot measures that give citizens their say in a big way. Kim Reuben, a research fellow at the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California describes these initiative efforts as "a noble cause." But she worries about citizens making decisions when they're not faced with the hard work of comparing one priority to another. "It makes it harder to fund programs that are necessary but not necessarily popular," she says.

Of course, we agree that there are certainly a large number of instances in which public input is a genuinely useful tool for budgeters and policy makers. It usually seems to work best when there are clear-cut choices involved, and the public can help make the decision.

For example, Joyce Bigbee, the legislative finance director in Alabama, points to the state's decision to close several mental health facilities. This is, at best, a hard job, but the department put in the time and effort to listen to the public, and that made the decisions not nearly as painful as they would have been otherwise. "They listened to people who had families in those facilities," Bigbee says. "They worked with them, one on one, to explain the options. And there was very little backlash."

Similarly when Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner announced her goal to provide kindergarten instruction for the entire state by 2008, a great many questions were raised. "People attended public hearings, they wrote lots of letters and we had school districts beating down our doors asking what the plan was," says budget director Jennifer Davis. Based on input from those meetings, Delaware moved forward with competitive pilot programs that use different models. At the end of the year, the state plans to go back to the groups involved in each of the pilots to determine which works best for the state as a whole.

Our point here is that public input is neither a panacea nor a pain. It can be one or the other or--most frequently--it can be both. Clearly, when the whole world is on the menu, people tend to over- order. "We probably err on the side of having too many public hearings, and that slows us down," says one official from an eastern state. "But when we do get buy in, it sure helps us down the line."