Public Hearing



[Photo courtesy of Jay Williams,]


Democratic institutions scholars 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.”[2] Also known as public inquiries, public hearings are typically organized as a way to gather public opinions and concerns on political issues before a legislature, agency, or organization makes a decision or takes action. Public hearings can be called on more-or-less open topics or else are held on pre-drafted legislation, agendas, or action items. 

Most public hearings are held by local or state/regional governments and government agencies but may also be organized by non-governmental, civil society organizations at the local, regional, or even international level. In the United States, more than 97% of local governments hold public hearings. The high instance of hearings is attributable to the numerous state and federal laws which require government agencies to hold public consultations before using government funds or implementing decisions that will effect the general public. As Christopher Karpowitz notes, “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.”[1] However, while 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, hearings simply offer citizens a chance to share their opinions.

Problems and Purpose

Public hearings, also known as public inquiries, “are seen to legitimize controversial decisions taken in several important areas of governmental planning activity.”[3] 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."[1] Public hearings are thus often called as a way to assert or establish representative legitimacy although this is not always the outcome - especially in cases where the public's opinion is not reflected in the final decision. 

Public hearings are comparable to Citizens' Reference PanelsDirect Representation. A related online version is the Electoral District Forum.


According to participatory planning expert John 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.[3]

Public hearings as a consultative process has been used in numerous other scenarios and countries outside of the US legislative context. For example, public hearings are the go-to method for consultation during the yearly Participatory Budgeting cycles developed in South and Latin America. As well, several high profile, national-level public hearings (inquiries) have been held in Canada on extremely broad topics such as Mental Health, and, most recently, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.

Participant Recruitment and Selection

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.[2] 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.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

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. It is also common to have a presentation or educational lecture on the technical aspects of the issue under consideration - especially for issues that center around planning, such as infrastructure and zoning. Following opening presentations the rest of the hearing is devoted to public comments and questions.[2] A moderator is often present to ensure speakers do not go over the alloted time as established by organizers at the beginning of the event. Citizens typically approach a microphone and/or podium, and present facing the officials with backs to the citizen audience.[2]

[Photo Courtesy of Joe Andrucyk, Maryland Gov Pics:]

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 as both informational and consulative. Hearings are designated as 'informational' since officials and invited experts devote a significant amount of time to explaining the problem, discussing or defending their proposed actions, and answering the public questions. A hearing is also consultative because the opinions and suggestions are sourced from individuals outside of or unconnected to the decision-makers.[2] While those who speak at the public hearing are not involved in the final decision-making process, it is hoped (if not expected) that their ideas and opinions voiced during the consultation often guide or inform it.

Influence, Outcomes and Effects

Every public hearing achieves, at the very least, the exchange of information and opinions on a topic. While public participants often expect their opinions to influence the final decision, officials are not obligated to do so. However, by presenting information on the topic and answering public questions - the informational components of the process - public hearings may also serve to sway the public in favour of officials' proposed decisions or else communicate why a certain course of action may be taken. While the final decision may go against the public opinions or suggestions voiced at the hearing, the process at least makes the process transparent. As well, the consultative aspect of the hearing can improve public perceptions of the organizing body. Public hearings are often called by governments to assert or establish representative legitimacy. Hearings called by public agencies or NGOs can garner them public support which can be a way to legitimized their actions to other organizational or decision-making bodies. However, since those who call the hearing are not legally mandated to follow the advice or suggestions obtained, they can risk alienating the public or attracting criticism from participants. One way to minimize this is for officials to release thorough documentation of the decision-making process, including how input from the public hearings was or was not taken into consideration. 

The outcomes of public hearings vary widely; for those looking for more detailed descriptions, please refer to the External Links section for case entries.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Deliberative Aspects

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.[2] 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.”[1] 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.[1] 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.

Anti-Deliberative Aspects

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.”[4] 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.”[1] 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.[4] 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%.[5] 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.[1] 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.

Suggested Improvements

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]


Secondary Sources

  1. 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. 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. 3.0 3.1 Forester, John. Critical Theory and Public Life. Ch. Planning, Public Hearings, and the Politics of Discourse.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Gastil, John. Political Communication and Deliberation. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc., 2008. Print.
  5. 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.

External Links

Karpowitz, Christopher. "Context Matters: A Theory of Local Public Talk and Deliberative Reform"

Case Studies:

Public Hearings on the Construction of Belo Monte Dam in Brazil:

Public Hearings on Mental Health in Canada:

Public Hearings on Budget Cuts in Philadelphia:

Mongolia's Citizens' Hall:


While public hearings take place around the world, and much of the process is similar to that outlined below, this entry focuses mainly on public hearings in the United States.


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