by David Gruber, Senior Consultant

This report discusses how organizations—public and private—can gain consensus and public support for their projects and policies.


Public support is often critical to the success of a new project or policy in government or in business. Obtaining that support has become a complex process, however. Companies and government agencies often find their new policies, programs, or facilities challenged by citizens and interest groups. The key obstacles to obtaining public support in such a climate are (1) the widespread distrust of public and private institutions; (2) the complexity of the issues that institutions and the public face, and (3) the conflicting demands of interest groups.

It is often thought that changing communication techniques will help organizations clear these hurdles. Better ad campaigns, contacts with the right people, or support for groups that champion the “right” cause will bring the public into line, the thinking goes. But these methods only partially address the three obstacles listed above. The key to working with a restive public today is to change the way decisions are made.

The obstacles to gaining public support often arise in connection with “distributional” issues, so named by Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank in their 1987 book Breaking the Impasse. Distributional issues are those in which benefits and costs must be allocated among different groups in a community or in society at large. Health care, school financing, economic development, environmental regulation, facility siting, and other issues fit this description. Policymakers in each area encounter the same three obstacles whenever consensus on an issue is lacking.

To help overcome them, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed its Relative Risk Analysis Project in which citizens, scientists, and government officials prioritize the most important environmental issues facing their respective states. The city of Kent, Ohio, recently brought citizens and local government leaders together to develop city goals and provide direction for budgeting to meet those goals. Provincial governments in Canada have used consensus-building programs to site hazardous waste facilities. Alternative forms of decision making are growing in use.

Unilateral Decision Making

When a company wants to site a facility or a government agency wants to develop a new policy in response to a social problem, it usually acts unilaterally: The organization conducts research, studies options, reaches a decision, develops a plan of action, and informs the public of the decision and its benefits. From start to finish, the organization controls, or attempts to control, the process. That characteristic makes the unilateral approach less effective in overcoming the obstacles to public support for two reasons.

1. Control in the hands of one organization fosters public fragmentation.
Decisions made within an organization are necessarily shaped to fit the needs of that organization, survival being its most important goal. A government agency, for example, may believe it politically necessary to address the needs of certain constituents over those of others, or a business may believe it needs a specific profit margin to justify investment in a new project. The organization develops options and adopts the one that ensures that the primary goal will be met while also benefiting the public. Thus, the decision is based on one organization’s view of mutual benefit.

But many other views about what constitutes mutual benefit may exist among the various interest groups that make up the public, all of whom will want to define it in their own favor. It is unlikely that the research conducted for unilateral decision making will take these definitions into account. Even if it does, it is one thing to study what interest groups say they want and another to determine what they are willing to give up to get what they want. Respondents are unlikely to reveal negotiating positions, especially when the decision-making process precludes negotiation.

Bereft of such information on distributional issues, the effort to persuade the public of the merits of a decision becomes more difficult. All competing groups are asked to cross a predetermined, unmovable line represented by the organization’s policy decision; they may be willing to budge from their positions, yet not so far as to cross that line.

The organization that formulated the policy must decide whether to push to have its policy fully adopted or spend extra time, effort, and money to learn where agreement can be reached with all affected parties. If it opts for the former, the organization may increase public distrust through its unwillingness to entertain solutions other than its own. In its effort to clarify issues by presenting only one proposal, it may complicate them by presenting data other affected parties may question, misunderstand, or refuse to reject.

By excluding other viewpoints or options, the organization may alienate interest groups whose support it needs to reach a solution. Ultimately, it may succeed only in drawing more sharply the divisions between itself and opposing segments of the public. If the organization, after failing to persuade the public of the benefits of its decision, opts to negotiate with opposing groups, it must clear the added height it has placed on the three hurdles to public support.

2. Control is vulnerable to attack.
Controlling an issue in today’s political climate is difficult. Distrust, complexity, and the demands of interest groups can loosen the controlling organization’s grip.

If it distrusts the organization promoting a unilaterally developed policy, the public will not listen to its message, or will not believe it, and will seek information from alternative sources such as the media, research firms, or opposition groups. The organization’s message may then become diluted, confused, contradicted, or negated in many people’s minds.

Control also can be eroded by the complexity of the issues addressed by the organization’s policy. A public information campaign will be absorbed and understood by various members of the public at different rates. Its message may be misunderstood by some and half understood by others. The message may be refracted through the particular interests of specific groups and show a different color to each. Or the public, between the time it was consulted for research and the time the policy was publicized, may have shifted its position in light of new information.

Interest groups, for their part, will attempt to wrest control of the issue from the organization. They usually act unilaterally on behalf of their constituents and in so doing replicate the decision-making style of their foes and fall prey to the same obstacles when dealing with the public. With each group looking out for itself, few groups are likely to be satisfied with the result, if there is one. The organization that made the original decision could just as easily face stalemate and the prospect of going back to the drawing board.

The Role of Public Involvement

Public involvement has been suggested as an alternative means of building trust among competing groups so that a consensus can be reached on complex issues. (See Michigan Commentary, “Public Involvement: Rebuilding Trust in an Age of Uncertainty,” Public Sector Consultants, March 5, 1993.) The approach differs from that of the traditional decision-making process in significant ways.

1. Organizations share control of the decision-making process with other affected parties.
Groups with disparate interests will work together if they have determined that a solution to a given issue must be reached and that unilateral action will not reach it. To enable such groups to cooperate, a process must be developed that, like the solution the parties strive to achieve, is fair, efficient, wise, and stable—terms again taken from Breaking the Impasse. Each party to the public involvement process helps to fashion and govern it. Each can serve as a check on the behavior of other members to blunt the pursuit of unilateral advantage and create an equilibrium that allows for joint analysis and joint resolution of the issue at hand.

In a process in which competing participants work directly with each other as equals, the focus of the process can shift from persuasion to problem solving, from the promotion of a single point of view to the development of a common view. Information can be shared in the interest of agreeing on the exact nature and dimensions of the problem as it affects each participant. Complex issues can be broken down and analyzed in a time frame that allows all participants to work out the intricacies. Questions can be asked and answered by participants or advisors brought into the process. New information can be assimilated as the process continues.

Shared control can also reduce conflict. Commitment to finding a common solution may act as a brake on rivalries and antagonisms among process participants. There should be less need to use the media and other forums to argue positions, send up trial balloons, or garner public support since the public will be at the table. Organizations may balk at such an approach because they are unaccustomed to sharing control, which they equate with losing control and outright defeat. But in fact they may gain resolution to the issues important to them in a manner that reduces conflict and cost in the long run. The organization will survive, and the public will be more satisfied than it might have been under the organization’s unilaterally created policy. The organization also will have developed a relationship with the public based on trust that will lead to greater public confidence in the future.

2. A variety of policy options come before the public.
Shared control and a focus on problem solving encourage participants in the public involvement process to forthrightly express their individual interests and ideas for resolution. Certainly, participants in the group can battle for leverage by concealing their negotiating positions, but they will find this inefficient and counterproductive. Putting the chips on the table early will allow the group to shape the best solution from a variety of possibilities without wasting alot of time on infighting. Participants will develop the tools needed to draw a line at which everyone can meet, rather than a line which many refuse to cross.

3. The process incorporates mechanisms for building trust, managing complexity, and working with interest groups.
Public involvement is most effective when initiated early in the formulation of a policy or project. Inviting participants into the process signals an organization’s intention to place the needs and concerns of the public on an equal footing with its own and to share the process. It also signals a desire to avoid conflict down the road. A public official acting unilaterally, according to Breaking the Impasse, may spend twice as much time in court as in negotiations to avoid court. Commitment to public involvement is the first step in building public trust.

That trust is strengthened through the process itself, assuming all parties act in good faith. Participants learn about the issues and each other; they rely on one another to reach a resolution that benefits all concerned. It is not merely a matter of trading interests to find an agreement all parties can “live with”; rather, it is an effort to find a new solution that could not have been imagined without the contributions of all involved.

Shared control and a focus on problem solving release the creative energies of public involvement participants. Free to generate and test a variety of solutions, they are better able to move beyond their original positions and expand their view of what is possible.

In sum, public involvement recognizes the relationships among distrust, complexity, and the competition of interests in the development of policy affecting the public. The value of the process lies in its ability to overcome these obstacles by addressing them directly. Its benefits include reduced conflict, fewer costly delays in developing and implementing policy, and more extensive public support for policy decisions.

Informing the Public

Credibility is an important by-product of a successful public involvement effort. If the process is representative of all interests affected by the issue under discussion, the resolution reached should generally satisfy the public at large. Remaining dissenters may be those who were not brought into the process (a potentially fatal oversight) or those who saw no benefit to the process (in which case the process may have been doomed from the start and should not have been undertaken).

Credibility emerges from the process and the results. When success is achieved through public involvement, the way it is achieved can be as important in terms of public acceptance as what is achieved. Here is where traditional one-way public information efforts become critically important. Joint communications from the group or communications from individual participants in the public involvement process can testify to the quality of the process, the results, and the breadth of representation. Rather than persuading the public to adopt a particular point of view, they inform the public about the integrity of the decision-making effort and the results reached. In doing so these communications build public confidence in the ability of disparate interests to achieve solutions by which everyone can advance.

Companies and government agencies involved in distributional issues can easily incorporate public involvement into their decision-making routines. When a new issue arises, they can identify the key stakeholders—all the affected parties—and invite them into the policy planning process. Participants in the process can then develop procedures for conducting research, analyzing information, developing options, selecting the best option, and reporting to the public at large. They can establish procedural goals, set deadlines and meeting dates, and develop communication vehicles for keeping themselves informed between meetings and for informing the outside world. They can even throw themselves a party when resolution is reached.

To ensure the integrity of the process, participants can develop criteria for evaluating progress, critique the process at regular intervals, keep watch for stakeholders who may have been left out, and be open to new stakeholders who may become important at later stages of policy development or implementation. To overcome rivalries, the group may choose to work with a neutral party to conduct research, run meetings, or put forward proposals generated by members of the group.

An organization’s open commitment to public involvement in policy making can begin the process of rebuilding trust in a climate marked by dissension and stalemate. It is itself a statement of trust in the public, that the organization is willing to meet the complexities of policy making head on, and that the organization and interest groups can use their differences to create better solutions. The act of faith inherent in such a statement can inaugurate a new spirit in policy making that replaces the traditional battle for hearts and minds with sound decisions by the minds that matter most.

Copyright © 1994