IU professor helps lead project to re-think public participation in government

  • Dec. 10, 2013


BLOOMINGTON, Indiana -- Frustrated by public meetings that don’t serve the public, a team of experts and scholars that includes an Indiana University professor is recommending steps to encourage meaningful participation in government.

“Outdated laws often limit citizens to three minutes at a microphone in so-called public participation periods,” said Lisa Blomgren Amsler of the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Citizens can ask questions or make comments, but there’s little interaction or deliberation. Meeting rooms are empty or filled with angry citizens who feel ignored, so nothing is accomplished. The system is broken.”

Amsler, a nationally prominent expert in dispute resolution, is the lead author of "Making Public Participation Legal," a new publication of the National Civic League with support from the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. It includes tools such as a model ordinance that should help local and state governments improve public participation. The concepts could also be applied to the federal government, Amsler said.

“The laws governing public participation are at least 30 years old and pre-date social media, online forums and email listservs,” Amsler said. “The playing field has changed but the laws haven’t.”  

To address those changes and encourage inclusion, fairness and freedom of speech, here are some of the key recommendations:

  • Give residents, decision-makers and other stakeholders regular opportunities -- in a variety of ways and places, such as online forums, public meetings, and gatherings in neighborhoods, schools and workplaces -- to build relationships, discuss issues and celebrate community.
  • Invite people of all backgrounds and viewpoints to participate so citizens that some government officials dismiss as “the usual suspects” don’t dominate meetings.
  • Ensure participation has a tangible and readily apparent impact on policy decisions, public plans and public budgets.
  • Appoint a “public participation coordinator” within City Hall and set annual participation goals.

“If people feel they aren’t heard even when they try to speak out, then they will stop participating in their government and democracy itself will be threatened,” Amsler said. “Before it is too late, we hope local and state governments and even the federal government look at the tools we’ve developed and take action.”

About the report:

"Making Public Participation Legal" was produced by the Working Group on Legal Frameworks for Public Participation for the National Civic League with support from the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. It draws on the rich public engagement innovations to date by local governments throughout the U.S.

The Working Group has been coordinated by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. It includes representatives of the American Bar Association, International Municipal Lawyers Association, National League of Cities, Policy Consensus Initiative, International Association for Public Participation and International City/County Management Association, as well as leading practitioners and scholars of public participation. The report was issued to coincide with an event at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 23, 2013.

About the lead author:

Lisa Blomgren Amsler, formerly Lisa Blomgren Bingham, is a professor and Keller-Runden Chair in Public Service at SPEA Bloomington. After receiving her Juris Doctor from the University of Connecticut, she worked as an attorney in private practice representing local governments before launching an academic career that has resulted in many honors and awards. Amsler is an expert in collaborative governance, dispute resolution, mediation, and administrative, labor and employment law, and she has written numerous articles and book chapters about those topics.

About the School of Public and Environmental Affairs:

SPEA was founded in 1972 and is a world leader in public and environmental affairs and is the largest school of public administration and public policy in the United States. In the 2012 "Best Graduate Schools" by U.S. News & World Report, SPEA ranks second and is the nation's highest-ranked professional graduate program in public affairs at a public institution. Four of its specialty programs are ranked in the top-five listings.  SPEA's doctoral programs in public affairs and public policy are also ranked by the National Research Council as among the top 2 in the nation. 

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Lisa Blomgren Amsler

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Jim Hanchett

  • School of Public and Environmental Affairs
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