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Public Participation and Why Zoom Alone Isn’t Good Enough

Videoconferencing has served us well during the pandemic, but it shouldn’t become the standalone “new normal” for public hearings after the crisis has passed. There’s a different dynamic when people are physically present.

People sitting in chairs listening during a public meeting.
Public participation remains the best way to share important local information. [Don Shrubshell/Tribune]
You’ve seen this picture many times: A politically connected company wants to build a new oil pipeline or power transmission line, or expand a polluting industrial plant in a neighborhood. The federal or state agencies’ environmental review is sketchy, too limited in considering reasonable alternatives, or done in cahoots with the company’s consultants. The deals are done in backrooms, hidden from public view.

The public — not only nearby residents but also community leaders and broader civic groups — is very concerned. The public hearing room at a governmental building or community center is full. There are buttons, banners and T-shirts, and the public officials are getting more than an earful. The company behind the project sometimes labels the community residents as “NIMBYs,” while local folks justifiably say they live in and care about their community’s health and well-being. Reporters get good copy for their stories, and the lively debate gets multi-media attention.

That public hearing might be messy and sometimes loud, though usually peaceful. That’s the heart of healthy democracy. Public participation and engagement help balance the decision-making process. It adds more information for elected policymakers and agency officials to consider, whether the subject is zoning changes, next year’s city budget, state tax policy, or where to build a new school or highway. And nowhere is the need for better decisions, informed by public input, more important than when a proposal would have an impact on the environment of a region or a community. Getting there — achieving better, fairer and more informed environmental results through public participation — is a central goal of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve been going in the wrong direction. The Trump administration systematically moved to constrain effective public participation in environmental decision-making. Some state agencies also have been adopting manipulative techniques to restrict effective public participation. The Biden administration says it will reverse many of the misguided Trump rollbacks, and roadblocks at the state and local level need to be removed as well. But restoring normality is not enough. We can and must do better.

How does Zoom best fit in?

During the COVID-19 crisis, many federal and state agencies, legislatures and city councils have understandably switched to holding public hearings via Zoom or over Skype, Hangouts, Teams and other videoconferencing platforms. That might be “acceptable as necessity” during this extraordinary pandemic, but shouldn’t become the “new normal” when the pandemic is behind us.

Let’s face it: Video-only hearings are just not as good as in-person, face-to-face public hearings and engagement. When people are physically present in the room with public officials and directly connecting with them, it’s a different dynamic than when people are muted on Zoom — and sometimes not even on camera — and have to type in a question.

When agency decision-makers actually see 100 people face-to-face in a meeting room, it matters. They better engage with them, and they must hear their ideas, concerns and suggestions for reasonable environmentally friendlier alternatives to a proposed oil pipeline, highly polluting plant or huge highway. That public participation can help make a positive difference in the outcomes for communities. Robust public participation is too valuable to lose.

There is a win-win solution here. Let’s adopt a “both-and” approach: “people in the physical room” public hearings that enable robust public engagement with agency decision-makers, and digital tools to connect and provide access for people to join and participate from their homes. These tools can complement and improve public hearings and participation.

Democracy values and wins with reasonable opportunities for engaged public participation. That can make a difference in better solutions for people, our communities and our planet. Let’s use modern technology to expand opportunities for meaningful public participation, but Zoom alone shouldn’t become the post-COVID new normal.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.

Executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center
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