Public Participation and Democracy

Frank Dukes

Director, Institute for Environmental Negotiation, University of Virginia

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Can you talk a little about the link between public conflict resolution processes and democracy?


A: One of my most significant projects involved working with bringing together the tobacco farm community and the public health community. It's significant because of the differences. That is, the tobacco farm community saw people advocating public health as trying to put them out of business; they called them "the antis". The public health community was really sympathetic to the farmers. They weren't trying to put the farmers out of business. The general attitude was if you're producing a product that's illegal, you really need to do something else. Its not the type of issue that our government, or processes of governance are set up to address. There simply was no forum for the two communities to come together. Whatever was going to come of bringing them together was going to have to be put into the public policy process.

Due to some foundation funding, we were able to work for seven years, some pretty substantial part of the work actually, bringing together people from the tobacco farming community with the public health community, so that organizations like the American Tobacco Society, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Hearth Association, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, local coalitions, state ones, Farm Bureau, Tobacco Coops, the state tobacco farm organization, advocacy organizations, and the Concerned Friends of Tobacco. After a period, really taking a fair amount of time,

they actually started to see that they actually had some common ground and that there were some things they were able to work on, and then feed that into the policy process.

For example, when the time came, Virginia, like other states, received substantial funding from a settlement something like three hundred and sixty billion dollars or so coming in over 25 years from the state's attorney generals and the tobacco companies for the effects of tobacco. Virginia's share of that was supposed to be something like 4.2 billion dollars, and the farm community and the public health community met and said, "We understand each others needs, and we think that this money could easily end up be used for roads or some general purpose, so lets use it for tobacco purposes." They agreed to go together to sponsor legislation jointly that would support tobacco control initiatives, particularly preventing youth access to tobacco programs.

Over 420 million dollars over four years would be used as funding that would assist tobacco farmers as tobacco is becoming less used to compensate them for their lost income that they're getting from being able to produce less tobacco, and to secure other forms of economic development and that's to the tune of about 2.1 billion dollars over 25 years. This is an example of a process that you cannot find, there's no public body that could do this, but what is coming out of all feeds into the sort of public decision-making processes.

In that case it was in Virginia, and they are also working with Congress right now to make an alliance with the farmers and the health advocates, something called AHEAD. There's actually a meeting July 16 of this year, where they're working together in the US Congress to get appropriate FDA legislation over tobacco products, the type that the health advocates think is appropriate. It will not be the type that the tobacco industry is willing to live with, and to secure support for a new tobacco program that will insure the production of tobacco by tobacco farmers that will insure that they can get the value out of the quota that they currently have, and that they've invested money in so they can get some money out of that also.

How that fits in terms of democracy is that we need to find ways that our communities can come together, instead of being torn apart. Our traditional mechanisms of decision making aren't necessarily set up, sometimes they can be effective, but they can also tend to exacerbate problems, and tear people apart. If you look at democracy with a little "d" and you have a public hearing, a typical format for that would be having a governing body that's sitting higher than you, lets say that they have differing opinions, and one goes up to the microphone, with his back to the audience and opponents, and gets a limited amount of time to say what one needs to say.

By virtue of that limited time and appeal, they have to make their case as strongly as they can in that short period of time, and the other person that responds has to respond in the same way. That tends to exacerbate the differences that people have, and the differences are real; as opposed to finding forums where the people can be brought together and still articulate their differences. They can see if these are the differences that really are meaningful, or are these differences that can be brought together for this particular issue, and where they will feel like they have had a voice in decisions that are made; as opposed to getting up the microphone, you give your speech, and no one responds to you, and you wonder, was this all a charade, had they already made up their mind? There's no way of knowing.

A lot of us who are doing this work in the public sector see what we are doing as enhancing democracy, and that we're finding ways that we can create these spaces for democracy with a small 'd' and people can come together to talk more effectively in open processes, inclusive processes, not behind closed doors. We're creating a climate that says decisions need to be made, that we need to be open, that we need to be transparent, and that's also the kinds of training that we're doing with the Natural Resources Leadership Institute.

Q: So, when these democratic processes, with a little 'd', take place, and in the best of cases, the decisions that they reach filter up into some sort of a legislative body, and then becomes Democracy with a large "D"?

A: Right. Sometimes it's the legislature that's saying, we're sponsoring these processes also, or it's a public agency that's sponsoring these processes. The tobacco work was really something that was sponsored on its own, it was clear it was outside of government, where its not always clear that its outside of government; they're simply another form of governance that people are using.

Q: In 50 years, if this is the way that decisions get made everywhere, the idea would be that more people are participating in making decisions, are more connected to their communities, and have a better sense of how to affect their own space, and their own surroundings?

A: Very good way of saying that. These processes are educating, like you said, so people are learning about ways that we can affect our communities. They are also providing a greater sense of ownership. If I'm brought into this process then I have a greater responsibility, and now I'm listening to someone else who has a different perspective. I can't just say, "You have to shut down your farm because what I want is more important than what you want." I have to say, "What I want is important, but I have to find ways to address what your important concerns are also." So, that was very well said.