Expert Commentary

Public participation, procedural fairness and local governance

2012 study from the University of Nebraska examines how outreach efforts by local authorities can increase satisfaction with government and use of tax dollars.

Considerable research in the field of local governance has focused on how levels of public participation can influence perceptions about the fairness and justice of decisions by municipalities. Common occasions where such dynamics are on display in communities across America are town or city meetings at budgeting time.

A 2012 study from researchers at the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, “Public Participation, Procedural Fairness and Evaluations of Local Governance: The Moderating Role of Uncertainty,” examined the budgeting procedures and related public outreach in Lincoln, Neb., from 2008 to 2010. The city’s budget processes included phone and online surveys, public deliberations and meetings with officials. In the study, published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, participants in the original surveys agreed to respond to later questions about their overall “satisfaction with city services and their views on city budgeting.” About 200 responded to these follow-up inquiries.

The study’s findings include:

  • Information emphasizing the public’s voice in governmental decisions can lead to increased perceptions of fairness. “Public participation does not only have an effect upon notions of process fairness but it also appears that information about public input processes can drive perceptions of outcome fairness as well.”
  • Increased perceptions of process fairness “positively impact overall evaluations of government and policy support represented by the perceived value of tax dollars.”
  • These dynamics have particularly strong implications for those citizens who may be the most detached from the governance process and who lack information: “The effects of process fairness will be greater among individuals high in uncertainty about city government.” This is likely “because the fairness of processes used by government provides uncertain individuals with information regarding the authority’s behavior, which, in turn, shapes the ways in which the respondent evaluates government.”

The researchers conclude that their findings “have important implications for understanding decision acceptance among the general public and may even help researchers understand the public’s trust, or lack of trust, in public institutions…. An increasing amount of governmental business requires public input — President Obama issued a call for Transparency and Open Government aimed at fostering public participation immediately on assuming office in January 2009 — thus, it is essential that researchers strive to understand public perceptions toward governmental efforts to incorporate formalized public outreach efforts.”

Tags: municipal, ethics

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