William Robertson


Public Participation in Policy Creation and Implementation

Michael Walter 15 April 2010 PSAA 634: Public Management Dr. Scott Robinson The George Bush School of Government and Public Service Texas A&M University

Walter, Michael M.

Introduction The area of civic engagement has gone through numerous changes in the past century, from a confrontational and aggressive method characterized by protests and demonstrations in the 1970s, to more organized measures as evidenced by neighborhood councils adopted by major cities in the 1990s (Cooper et. al. 2006, 76-79). The case of William Robertson, director of the Bureau of Street Services for the City of Los Angeles provides an example of how agency heads, especially at the municipal level can engage the public in the decision making processes, and work with neighborhoods to address their concerns. The City of Los Angeles covers over 470 square miles and has over 6,500 miles of streets within it. The vastness of the city, the varied geography and large area common to municipalities in southern California already provided significant challenges. In 1999, as a part of a new city charter, neighborhood councils were established throughout the city. Robertson was now compelled to meet with the councils to redress their concerns. Rather than meeting it with contempt and negativity, Robertson used it as a tool by which he could hear the concerns of the citizens and made it part of his strategy to address the problems his agency was supposed to be solving. His style also contributed to his ability to bring various groups with competing interests into consensus. He actively engaged citizens in discussions about the issues within their community, finding solutions in creative ways, and explaining what he can and cannot do and why, and in doing that, pacified resistance in the short term while long-term situations are found. Robertson’s approach to public comment is unique in that he helps to build a sense of trust between his agency and the community, and between the community and himself. His military experience has shown him that leaders need to address the concerns of their followers not simply from a top-down approach, but that they must be on the front lines with them. The descriptions that Cooper and Bryer use to describe Robertson’s interactions in the neighborhood meeting formats are indicative of the deliberative approach style that Cooper, Bryer and Meek describe (2006, 82).



William Robertson: Public Participation in Policy Creation and Implementation


Recommendation Along with Bryer and Cooper, I agree with the approach Robertson used to address the issues of his constituency and the active participation he had with neighborhood council meetings. My recommendation would be to engage communities within the city in a similar deliberative, public, and balanced discussion between organized community councils and administrative agencies or directors. This would provide an opportunity for actionable deliberative discussion on issues relating to the public. By enhancing public involvement with limited appropriation power, such as Los Angeles did in the Robertson case, you may result in a higher level of administrative response. Public managers who use the deliberative approach can either work within established structures, or they can create mechanisms for deliberative public involvement in policy creation or implementation (Cooper et. al. 2006, 85). Robertson actively responded to the changes with a desire to participate when other managers from similar agencies viewed the changing structure with “wariness and skepticism… as an initiative that asked department officials to do more without additional funding” (Cooper and Bryer, 2010, 89). Not only did Robertson respond to an edict of the new city charter by participating in neighborhood council meetings, he actively sought public input when he created a plan to earmark $100,000 to each of the 87 neighborhood councils to distribute among the divisions of the Bureau of Street Services (Cooper and Bryer, 2010, 91). Robertson may have had a number of options in which to satisfy the public comment requirement, but he chose to meet the communities in the locations where they already existed, claiming that “it is important for professionals in government to meet citizens on their own ground to show that they care and that they are willing to work with them to solve their problems and respond to their concerns” (Cooper and Bryer, 2010, 89). By showing an authentic interest in the needs of the communities, he generated an environment of trust between himself and the communities. He did this by stepping into communities and conversations at their level, avoiding technical language, and arriving without prepared remarks behind which to hide. Aside from his active involvement in the meetings, he


Walter, Michael M.

also encouraged his subordinates and employees to attend the meetings and began to mentor his direct subordinates to help them “confront their fears of working with the public (Cooper and Bryer, 2010, 89).”

Justification The method by which Robertson actively engaged his constituency is supported by evidence from the academy. The model that he used follows the deliberative model that Cooper, Bryer and Meek (2006) and Halvorsen (2003) describe. It is characterized by high-quality face-to-face interactions that bring two or more opinions into a discussion and provide a point-counter-point discussion and seeking consensus “through lengthy, sometimes tedious deliberation”(Cooper et. al. 2006, 82). Many of the public comment mechanisms in place tend to be one-way discussions, where written opinions are submitted to departments as they make administrative rules and changes. Golden’s research of this mechanism showed an imbalance between community and constituency interests and those of business interests (1998, 252). It also showed that agencies tend to make very little to no changes as a result of

the responses they receive through this process. Golden’s (1998, 259) research cited the fact that out of ten final rules, only one was changed “a great deal.” Cooper et. al. (2006, 81) point out the reality that many common public involvement mechanisms tend to be one-way conversations, normally late in the process, resulting in little to no actual effect on legislative or administrative action. Evidence has shown that by utilizing a method of written public comment, agencies are able to hide behind the wall of formal communication, something that can be remedied if an agency official has to stand in front of a room of citizen commentators. Golden’s research on federal rulemaking shows an example where an agency listened to the recommendation of a single participant over the recommendation of six other similar participating organizations. This brings forth the assumption that agencies may “pick and choose” which public comments to listen to and use as justification for a certain policy direction. The use of public deliberative meetings may also have a positive effect on the citizen participants themselves. Citizens who participate in high-quality publicly deliberative meetings tend to show more



William Robertson: Public Participation in Policy Creation and Implementation


tempered opinions of certain topics in the public sphere (Halvorsen, 2003, 539). By exposing people to differing opinions, you may be able to elevate the discussion beyond the highly polarized and give citizens an opportunity to hear a balanced discussion of the issue. This may not directly result in a complete switch from one side to the other, but reduces the complexity of problem solving by allowing multiple opinions to have credence and input in policy formation. Halvorsen (2003, 537) states, “High quality participation opportunities may build tolerance for and understanding of those with conflicting viewpoints.” By providing a thoughtful conversation of differing opinions, you may begin to reduce the polarization of ideology. Cooper et. al. (2006, 82) cite a study on immigration that found that those citizens who did not participate in the meeting tended to strongly agree or strongly disagree with statements about the policy area, and they attribute that to not having had the opportunity to weigh pros and cons of their positions. Cooper et. al. (2006, 83) mention the use of multiple questionnaires as an alternative form of the deliberative approach, by introducing multiple questionnaires that build upon each other, with follow up questionnaires being written based on the answers given in the initial questionnaire. While this might seem like a legitimate type of deliberative action, it results in very high transaction costs for the government, and may result in distorted responses given the types of people who might take the time to answer the questionnaire. While creating a web-based survey could reduce the transaction cost of multiple questionnaires, the question of equity remains, as those members of the population without reliable Internet access would not be measured. Geographically diverse deliberative community meetings also play a role in reducing the power of issue groups, those groups that arise as a result of a specific issue, normally carrying a politically popular opinion, petitioning the government, and then disbanding after the perceived problem is solved to their liking. In essence, the public meeting involves a cross-section of the community in a way that traditional federal-style public comment has not. Providing this type of access to citizens can also help instill legitimacy in the process (Halvorsen, 2003, 536). Access itself is closely linked to representation, which is essential to the citizen’s view of fairness. (Halvorsen, 2003, 536)

Walter, Michael M.

The use of public meetings also has a positive association with the public’s perception of their own power. Halvorsen (2003,539) notes that those who had been previously exposed to comfortable and convenient meetings were positively associated with the idea that their voices were heard, and that they had actively participated in the process of governance. Her research also showed a positive relationship between attendance of public meetings and the participants’ view of the agency. Public meetings can help build positive sentiments within communities. Drawbacks While the use of deliberative public meetings and direct involvement with the citizenry may appear to solve the varied issues of access and citizen participation, there are numerous things which could take away from the effectiveness of such meetings. A first of these are preexistent cultures within organizations and the ability or willingness to change approaches to problems given the results of citizen participation. Government actors may not be willing to take action based on the opinions of who they say as non-experts (Cooper et. al 2006, 83), which is directly a result of the progressive era reforms of government in the early 1920s, where government became more methodological than driven by public opinion. While a deliberative process might work in the short-term, positive associations with governmental agencies that actively seek public comment are not overwhelming, but tend to stay within the neutral range (Halvorsen, 2003, 540). Without a committed willingness by the agency to change their policies as a result of public involvement, the long-term ramifications could be negative. “High-quality citizen involvement can backfire if the public learns over time that their participation is meaningless. A history of participation with no visible impact on agency decisions can be worse than no participation at all. (Halvorsen, 2003, 540)” Another reality of public involvement is the organization’s reputation in the community before the meetings take place. Research has shown that peoples’ beliefs about agencies stem from numerous sources of information, ranging from personal experiences, media reports, and conversations with other



William Robertson: Public Participation in Policy Creation and Implementation


community members. Changing beliefs about agencies in the space of time in which one meeting occurs can be difficult (Halvorsen, 2003, 540) By bringing the meeting to communities, one might hope to solve the problem of equity. However, research by Fung (2006, 67) has shown that many of the people who attend public meetings tend to be wealthier and more highly educated than the general population, which ultimately does not provide a perfect representative sample of the population. Also, the allocation of resources needed to host these meetings, which may involve child care and catering as suggested by Halvorsen (2003, 536), might be prohibitive given the large geographic areas and multiple neighborhoods that would need to be included to reduce inequity.

Conclusion While the use of deliberative public meetings has been a positive advancement in involving the public in policy creation and implementation, it is increasingly being noted that there are barriers in providing high-quality, accessible and effective meetings. It takes commitment from public agency leadership, communities and citizens. William Robertson’s approach to public meetings is indicative of an approach that works within his community given the structure of neighborhood councils, and his personality. While we hope that the public can be involved in future policy creation and implementation, it will take more than just attending occasional community meetings.


Walter, Michael M.

Works Cited Cooper, Terry L. and Thomas A Bryer. 2010 “William Robertson: Exemplar of Politics and Public Management Rightly Understood.” In Public Management, ed. Richard J. Stillman II. Boston: Wadsworth

Cooper, Terry L., Thomas J. Bryer, and Jack W. Meek. 2006. “Citizen-Centered Collaborative Public Management.” Public Administration Review Special Issue: 76-88.

Fung, Archon. 2006. “Varieties of Participation in Complex Governance.” Public Administration Review Special Issue: 66-75

Golden, Marissa Martino. 1998. “Interest Groups in the Rule-Making Process: Who Participates? Whose Voices Get Heard?” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. 2: 245-270

Halvorsen, Kathleen E. 2003. “Assessing the Effects of Public Participation.” Public Administration Review 65(5): 535-543



Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful