Lately I have been working with a lot of people on the role of public participation in planning, specifically hazard mitigation planning. Many people say little can be accomplished toward any specific planning objective through public participation. As it is done now, I have to agree.
Public participation programs often suffer from a lack of clear objectives, roles, and methods of measuring success. Departments conduct participation in order to "check a box" instead of so doing in order to enhance some aspect of planning or of society. In my current work in Everett, I am hoping to work with the hazard mitigation folks to develop clear objectives and a method for measuring success so that participation can be more meaningful. I am also trying to determine other roles that public participation can have in hazard mitigation planning beyond just the typical "tell us how you prepare" or "what hazards do you think are worse" measures, both of which are nearly useless to actual mitigation efforts and technical improvements to the mitigation plan. I am hoping we use the process to introduce other questions, such as: what costs and benefits people and planning staff can find for different mitigation measures or the relative importance of different measures to specific communities. My interest in participation goes beyond this, however.
Fundamentally, I believe that public participation in local planning will be a/the key to helping to reverse or stymie the breakdown in social relationships due to our newfound ability to "customize" our social environments through our use of technology. This is not to say tech is bad, but that our society has historically depended on strong social relationships to ensure our ability to do everything from fight wars to respond to disasters to plan awesome parties. I believe that engaging people in something that impacts them directly, and so doing on a regular basis, can create a culture of citizen governance, education, and participation. I believe that creating a culture of citizen involvement and governance will allow us to be more resilient to challenges and will help us determine what we expect our government to provide and what we wish to provide ourselves.