Evaluating Citizen Advisory Boards: The Importance of Theory and Participant-Based Criteria and Practical Implications
The role of risk communication and public participation in environmental and public policy decision making has significantly increased over the last 15 years and remains an important social policy issue. In spite of this emphasis, government officials and participants in the process continue to struggle with what makes for “good” public participation. This study used two frameworks—one theoretical and one participant-based—to evaluate two U.S. Army Restoration Advisory Boards (RABs). The theoretical framework explores the extent to which the RABs facilitate Habermas's idealized conditions of speech as related to fairness. Not surprisingly, we found that the two RABs do not consistently foster the idealized aspects of fairness suggested by Habermas. The participant-based criteria were elicited through interviews with participants from the various stakeholder groups represented on the RAB, direct observation of RAB meetings, and a review of RAB-related documents. We found that participants' value outcomes (the results of participatory processes) and not just the process itself, which is the focus of the theoretical framework. We also found that participants in the various stakeholder groups had different perceptions of the goals of the participatory process, which were closely related to their notions of success. Our results illustrate both the complexity and importance of using multiple frameworks for evaluating participatory efforts and the need for more systematic evaluation.