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“The public hearing is perhaps the most widespread venue for public participation in the United States, used by all levels of government for a variety of purposes.”
A public hearing is a type of public meeting, and much literature refers to it as such, however there are some distinctive aspects that make a hearing different. Abigail Williamson and Archon Fung define a public hearing as “an open gathering of officials and citizens, in which citizens are permitted to offer comments, but officials are not obliged to act on them or, typically, even to respond publicly.” The main purpose of a public hearing is to allow citizens the chance to voice opinions and concerns over a decision facing a legislature, agency, or organization.
Most public hearings are held by local or state governments and government agencies, such as the US EPA or California Coastal Commission, as well as local organizations such as a school PTA. More than 97% of local governments hold public hearings, and this high percentage is largely because under most state and federal laws, government agencies are required to hold public hearings before making a final decision that will use government funds and effect the general public. However, even though public hearings are typically required by law, the agency or organization is not required to base their decision on the views and issues presented at the hearing, rather the hearing is a simply a chance for citizens to share opinions.
Public hearings can also be referred to as public inquiries, and “are seen to legitimize controversial decisions taken in several important areas of governmental planning activity.” Hearings give citizens a chance to contribute to the discussion over decisions made by the officials, and as Karpowitz states, “common public hearings are critical institutions for public voice."
A public hearing is typically held when a government, government agency, or organization is making a decision on a course of action, such as a law or plan for construction. The hearing is organized and held by the government agency or organization in the area where the issue will take place and have the greatest effect. Sometimes it is well publicized in the local media, while other times it is barely mentioned, and the level of publicity mostly depends on the amount of controversy surrounding the issue. The level of publicity, in turn, determines how well attended the hearing will be, ranging from auditoriums full of concerned citizens to a small room with only the officials. For most hearings, the agency holding the hearing must notify all the parties they believe to be interested and effected by the outcome of the decision. The public hearing is then made open to the public, and participants are self-selected individuals as well as the representatives from the government agency or organization. In addition, sometimes experts from fields relevant to the issue will be asked to present information and answer questions.
The structure of each public hearing varies depending on the specifications made by the organizing group, however a typical hearing begins with statements and presentations made by the officials presiding over the hearing. In addition, at the beginning there is typically a presentation of the technical aspects, especially for issues that center around planning, such as construction of a bridge. These presentations are then followed by a period for public comments and questions. The citizens comments are limited in time, for example two minutes, with a period usually established at the beginning of the hearing. Citizens typically approach a microphone and/or podium, and present facing the officials with backs to the citizen audience.
As Williamson and Fung explain, the type of relationship between the citizens who attend the public hearing and the agency or organization that is making the final decision can be classified in two categories: informational and consultation. The informational aspect is because the officials at the hearing are given a chance to explain the proposed action and answer citizen’s questions on the issue. A hearing is also a consultation, because citizens and outside experts are typically invited to give opinions and suggest alternative solutions to the officials who will make the final decision.
According to Forester, the use of public hearings began following the process of the enclosure of public lands that occurred in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the beginning of the enclosure process, for each plot of land that was going to be enclosed, a separate act of Parliament was required. Public meetings were held in order to create a petition to parliament to enclose the land, and later to hear objections to the act created by Parliament. These public meetings were resided over by a commission, who were bound by impartiality. The commissioners were originally assigned, however, in later years there was at least one who was publicly appointed. In 1845, the General Inclosure Act created permanent commissioners who sent all bills to Parliament, and one publicly appointed commissioner who resided over the public meetings to hear citizen concerns. This use of commissions to hear public concerns over the enclosure of lands was one of the first examples of a public hearing, and emphasizes how most public hearings today are used when dealing with public lands as well as private properties.
US Environmental Protection Agency
California Coastal Commission
Analysis and Criticism
While many officials and citizens cringe at the idea of holding or attending a public hearing, there are many aspects that make it a good example of a deliberative process. First, by allowing citizens to present their views on issues, officials are able to get a better sense of the public support or opposition to a particular issue. Even though officials may or may not ultimately be swayed in their decision by these public comments, the hearing allows citizens the chance to feel as though their voice was heard. The chance to speak can also provide an opportunity for citizens to “change the behavior of their elected representatives by providing information, making a show of support, delaying decisions, shaming, and agenda setting.” In addition, while the time constraint of the public hearing can limit some voices, it allows for the equal opportunity of all view points to be presented, without one person dominating the discussion at any time. This equality can also provide a greater opportunity for minority opinions to be heard by the officials. However, one of the greatest benefits of a public hearing is allowing a face-to-face discussion of different sides of an issue, especially between elected officials and citizens. The public hearing is an opportunity for citizens to communicate with those making decisions in a process other than simply voting on a ballot or sending an email.
However, although the ideal public hearing would have those deliberative aspects outlined above, that is usually not the case, and much of the literature published on the subject has outlined three major issues with public hearings. The first problem with public hearings is timing, since most hearings are held later in the decision-making process. (Webler and Renn) This timing invites more complaints from citizens, rather than a discussion of pros and cons, and causes those citizens to “perceive that those ‘hearing’ their input have already chose to ignore it.” The second problem is the structure of the meeting. Citizens are usually only able to give brief statements, which does not provide the appropriate speaking time to develop different opinions. The “testimonial format” does not give a chance for citizens to develop and exchange ideas and solutions, and instead causes them to “take on the role of activists advocating their cause.” In addition, because most public hearings are held by government agencies for things such as planning or construction, the conversation can be technical, making it difficult for those who are not experts in the field to understand the discussion. A third problem that was exposed in a study by Cook, Delli Carpini, and Jocobs found that the percentage of the public that attends public meetings is only at 25%. Similarly, the majority of people who attend the meetings tend to be more educated and wealthy, leading to a disproportionate representation of view points. As Williamson argues, those who attend public meetings tend to be those with the most interest and economic stake in the outcome of the decision. Furthermore, those who speak tend to be those with the most intense opinions, whereas most people who attend a hearing do not speak at all. This sometimes disproportionately high level of extreme positions can make it difficult to arrive at any kind of consensus. However, as Karpowitz also points out, there have been numerous studies that have shown contradictory findings, or no statistically significant findings at all, about the type of view points that are present at hearings.
In Karpowitz discussion on public hearings, he outlines two improvements tat could be implemented to help hearings become more deliberative. First, he suggests that all hearings begin with a welcome statement by the officials presiding over the hearing, acknowledging all the groups present. By recognizing the different view points, people will feel more comfortable talking, and may encourage more viewpoints to be discussed. In addition, if the officials acknowledge the parties present, those who are speaking are more likely to feel as though the officials are really listening to what they have to say. The second suggestion is to allow more time for the officials to respond to the comments made by citizens. Instead of just a brief, “Thank you,” if officials respond to each comment, it will foster a better discussion, moving away from the advocacy feel of the hearing.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Karpowitz, Christopher. "Context Matters: A Theory of Local Public Talk and Deliberative Reform" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Marriott Wardman Park, Omni Shoreham, Washington Hilton, Washington, DC, Sep 01, 2005. 2009-05-25
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Williamson, Abby, and Archon Fung. Political Deliberation: Where We Are and Where We Can Go. National Civic Review. Winter 2004. Print.
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 Forester, John. Critical Theory and Public Life. Ch. Planning, Public Hearings, and the Politics of Discourse.
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 Gastil, John. Political Communication and Deliberation. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc., 2008. Print.
- ↑ Delli Carpini, Michael X., Fay Lomax Cook, and Lawrence R. Jacobs. Participation and Citizen Engagement: A Review of the Empirical Literature. Annual Review of Political Science, Volume 7, Issue 1. 2007. 315-344. Print.
- A good example of a city's outline about public hearings and how they work: Winnipeg Public Hearings
Note: While public hearings take place around the world, and much of the process is similar to that outlined below, this entry currently focuses on public hearings in the United States.