Creating a common understanding of the problem enables participants and policy makers to develop a representative problem definition and thus move into the criteria identification phase of the policy development process. A representative problem definition "narrows the context within which alternative solutions will be generated and evaluated" (p. 353). This narrowing is important because without it, the rest of the policy development process will lack the focus necessary to reach a solution.
The authors' table shows that, during the alternative generation phase, the purposes Discover, Educate, and Legitimize are used. Discovery, in this phase, is used to develop solutions. The public is educated, in this phase, on the issue, about the possible alternatives, and what might happen if no action were taken. Legitimization is necessary for this phase in the process in order for the public to accept the outcome.
The table shows that during the evaluation of alternatives, the purposes Educate, Measure, and Legitimized are used. The public can be educated during this phase on the consequences of different alternatives. Measuring the public's opinion is useful during this phase to determine the political feasibility of any particular alternative.
During the final phase -- alternative recommendation -- the table shows that the purposes Educate, Persuade, and Legitimize are used. Persuasion is an important purpose in this phase to build public support. Education is an important purpose in this phase if the issue is a low conflict one, and the public wasn't included earlier in the process. Legitimization can also be gained in this phase, if it is a low conflict issue.
The nature of the issue under consideration is the second dimension in designing public participation in policy development. The desirability of citizen involvement and which participation mechanisms are appropriate vary with different issues.
Walters et al. identify six issue characteristics that affect the success of public participation: the degree of conflict, the number of stakeholders, the level of confidence in information about the issue, the amount of alternatives, the knowledge of outcomes, and the probability of the outcomes.
High conflict issues necessitate early citizen participation to develop consensus and legitimacy, as well as methods that emphasize compromise. The number of stakeholders necessitates varying actions as well. When stakeholders are organized into a few groups, communication can be made via group leaders. If stakeholders are poorly organized, participation should deal directly with the stakeholders through, for example, the media or town meetings.
The level of confidence in the information on issues has a direct effect on how much focus should be place on educating participants on the issue itself. Low confidence on issues can be the result of unavailable data, unreliable sources, or outdated or missing information. In this case, administrators should determine the availability of any data that might increase confidence. If there is still a lack of confidence in information, an explanation of limitations on available information, and the impact of such limitations, should be provided to participants.
If participants come to doubt the reliability of the information, consensus building can be difficult. Administrators should search for corroborating sources and efforts should then be made to convince group leaders of the reliability of information. When group leaders become convinced of the information, this spreads to those in their groups, as those in their groups tend to trust their leaders as reliable sources of information.
Complicating the matter, a lack of confidence in information shrinks the number of policy options that stakeholders will consider. In this case, an educational process should be pursued for the diminished number of policy options thus afforded. Lack of confidence in information surrounding an issue may also occur simply because the information is highly technical. In this case, publications can also explain technical complexities to stakeholders.
When there are a large amount of policy alternatives, achieving consensus around any one alternative becomes less likely. Further, identifying each alternative can become marginal, resulting in an "unending" spiral of public involvement as "more and more alternatives are introduced" (p. 355). In this situation, efforts should be made both in making each alternative as concrete as possible and in building consensus.
Knowledge of the effects of each alternative can also complicate policy problems. If knowledge of the alternatives are known fairly well, "education, measurement, and persuasion efforts can focus on the benefits and risks of the various alternatives" (p. 355). If knowledge of the alternatives is unknown or uncertain, participation should be focused on minimizing the worst outcomes or incremental improvement. Moreover, in the case that the effects of alternatives are uncertain, decisions tend to be based more on principle or value.
When the probability of outcomes is uncertain, focus groups, working task forces, or town meetings with a focus on education should be pursued.
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