Like any new field, the public participation field faces many challenges. Environmental activists and business leaders tend to be both white and middle class. Racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in many public participation processes. Language and cultural differences may account for some of the underrepresentation. But other barriers include a general fear of government agencies (who were sometimes sources of outright oppression in immigrants' countries of origin) and the belief that participation will not necessarily change the outcome.
The Internet provides a powerful new tool for participation, although all its potential uses are still being discovered. In the near future, agencies will not only use the Internet to provide information to the public, but almost all information repositories (places where copies of government documents are stored and made available to the public) are likely to become "virtual." Increasingly, the Internet is being explored as a tool for gathering public input and information. There is considerable concern, however, about a "digital divide," as the number of people with access to the Internet in the African-American, Latin, and Native American communities, and the poor in general, is considerably lower than in the public at large. People fear that the heavy use of the Internet by agencies will mean that minorities and the poor will not have the same access to the decision-making process as those people who are connected digitally. Activist groups, on the other hand, have embraced the Internet enthusiastically, and use it extensively for organizing and communication with other groups across the country.
Some developers and business have filed so-called strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP) suits against citizen activists whose involvement in the decision-making processes may have caused delays or blocked issuance of building or environmental permits. Often, SLAPP suits have little basis in the law, but activists must hire lawyers to defend themselves in such actions, frequently at great personal expense. Many private individuals are unable to afford this, even if they would win ultimately, whereas large companies usually have the resources to hire attorneys and keep the process going as a threat against future participation. Several state courts have rejected SLAPP suits summarily, and this may begin to curtail their use. see also Activism; Agencies, Regulatory; Arbitration; Citizen Suits; Consensus Building; Environmental Impact Statement; Environmental Justice; Government; Mediation; National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); Nongovernmental Organizations; Politics; Public Policy Decision Making; Regulatory Negotiation; Right to Know; WArren County, North Carolina.
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James L. Creighton
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