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Closing time

Occasionally, a “knock” you hear against a public participation process (beyond having, say, one public hearing) is how long the process will take and, thereby, delay action.  Of course, numerous projects conducted with minimal to no public participation often find themselves delayed or even cancelled when public interest turns to concern or outrage and evolves into protests, lawsuits, or recall elections. So, one could argue that extra time devoted to public participation before a decision is made can save immense amounts of time (and other resources).
 
But what constitutes “enough time” for the public to participate?  Perhaps it should vary based on the magnitude of the decision, the affected population, the impact, the complexity, and so on.  It might make sense to have a standard amount of “notice” given to the public of an opportunity to participate, allowing time for review of background information before directly engaging in dialogue and deliberation. In giving that type of advance notice, one must consider how far out the average person plans their life schedules and what it would take for them to clear space for an in-person meeting, apart from other ways of participating (online, by phone, etc.).
 
This comes to mind after reading this editorial criticizing the lack of time allotted to a local discussion on transportation issues.  As an aside, public participation can only succeed (defining success as widespread public participation that they view as meaningful) if the media assist in publicizing opportunities to participate and in advocating in support of public participation on editorial pages.  But apart from that, the editorial raises important questions for conveners of public dialogue to consider, namely: how long does it take for the public to learn about an issue under discussion, process background information, formulate opinions, and discuss them in dialogue with others, in such a way that it meaningfully influences the decision?  I know of at least one agency who now gives at least two weeks notice for all community meetings, let alone time for the process as a whole. 
 
On the flip side, the release of notes and other results from community meetings in a timely fashion (read, less than a week) would seem to build trust and confidence within the public that their voices were heard.  So while it would make sense to provide a sufficient amount of time for a reasonable person to clear time on a schedule to participate, it would also be helpful to provide feedback on how input was processed in as timely a fashion as possible given the resources at hand to track the input. 
 

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