Monday, June 7, 2010

OpenGovRadio 6/8/10: The Secret Public-Participation Act of 1969

Here's what we'll discuss on this weeks's OpenGovRadio show (Tues., June 8st, 2:00 pm ET):

"The Secret Public-Participation Act of 1969"

Remember last fall, when you read about the 40th birthday of the Internet ("born" in 1969)?  I bet many people (of a certain age) were amazed that it had been around for so long, because most people had not even heard about it until 1995 or so.

I know this from personal experience because, in the early 1990s, when I tried to tell my friends and others about a worldwide network of millions of people sending messages through their personal computers, the typical reaction was Disbelief, followed by Denial:  "How can that be? Well, if that were true, then I would already know about it!"

That reaction seemed to occur more often in the Washington, D.C. area, where I lived at the time, due to the fact that they're are a lot more self-important people there.  They simply couldn't handle the idea that there was something REALLY BIG going on -- for years -- and that they hadn't known about it.

Okay, so maybe you weren't one of those people.  But, now, here's a test for you.

There's something else that's been around since 1969 that's REALLY BIG and that I bet you didn't really know about.  It goes by another name but it really should be called "The Secret Public-Paricipation Act of 1969".  That's because it's a U.S. law that requires federal departments and agencies to invite the public (that's you) to participate in their decision-making about their proposed policies and projects.

So, except for the minor decisions at federal agencies, like what kind of carpeting to buy, or how often to mow the grass around the buildings, YOU are supposed to be invited to comment on ALL the proposals that may affect or interest you.  (Note: A permit for an oil drilling platform is not a minor decision, as has now become apparent.)

The official name of this law is the "National Enviromental Policy Act of 1969" (aka, NEPA).  And, even though you may know it as the law that requires "Environmental Impact Statements" to be written, it is much more than that.  It's a federal law for improving "transparency, participation, and collaboration" that was around for almost 40 years before the President Obama launched the "Open Government Initiative".  It's just that a lot of people (like you?) don't know or think about it that way.

I'm Stephen Buckley, your host on OpenGovRadio, and my guest for the 6/8 show will be Judith Lee, owner of Environmental Planning Strategies, who has 25 years of experience and education in Natural Resource Management, Environmental Planning, and practical and effective implementation of NEPA and Public Involvement.  According to Ms. Lee in a 1997 article:

"After 25 years, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is still highly misunderstood and inefficiently implemented. NEPA, however, incorporates the components of a quality public interdisciplinary planning process. The components that make NEPA a powerful planning process - recognition of the role of uncertainty, interpersonal collaboration, nonlinear processes, and decision making with administrative and political risk - tend to make NEPA discomforting, at best, to many managers and practitioners. NEPA is not about more bullet-proof documents, more talented writers, more thorough data, more controllable public involvement processes, or even correct decisions. NEPA is about more participatory planning, incorporating the messy human components of values, politics, change, uncertainty, risk, strategy, emotions, and the diversity of personalities and life experiences that shape ourselves, our coping mechanisms, and our relationships."

In addition to listening to the show on your computer, you can add to the discussion with your comments and questions. You can do that in either (or all) of three ways:

A.  Post a Comment/Question on this Blog at least one hour before the show begins.  Scroll down to "green box" (below) and click on "Comment".  It must be concise, and focused on the Open Government Initiative (or else it will not be approved).  Commentors can choose to remain anonymous.

B.  Email a comment/question Confidentially to your host Stephen Buckley, who fully understands the risk of raising unwelcome questions within the government.  Mr. Buckley can then raise the question "on-air" without identifying you.

C.  Call-in "live" to (917) 388-4210 with your comment/question.  However --  The host will ONLY "go to the phones" AFTER all the posted Comments (see green box, below) have been addressed.  Callers are welcome to add/ask a "follow-up" to those posted Comments.

Handy Links to "Open Government":

1.  President's Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government (1/21/09)

2.  White House's Open Government Directive (12/8/09)

3.  OMB's "Initial Assessment of OpenGov Plans" of Federal Agencies

4.  OMB's "OpenGov Dashboard" for tracking Compliance by Federal Agencies

5.  GovLoop's Chart of the OpenGov Plans

6.  Transparent Leadership by Roger Schwarz (Government Executive magazine, 4/7/10)
"When you are transparent, you create better results and relationships because others understand your thinking. People always are trying to find the meaning of actions, especially leaders' behaviors. When you fail to be transparent, you increase the chance that others will come up with their own theories about your intentions and motives - theories that often will differ from yours.
7.  President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) -

8.  The BP oil spill and NEPA compliance (or lack thereof), as mentioned in an editorial by the Washington Post (6/6/10):

"Actually, it seems that for years government regulators dismissed the possibility that a big blowout could occur, downplaying the likelihood of that scenario in three 2007 studies and issuing BP a waiver from more detailed environmental analysis last year."

9.  "U.S. exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study" - Washington Post (5/4/10)

10.  Flowchart Diagram of the NEPA Process (from

11.  CEQ's "Citizen's Guide to NEPA" (2007)

12.  CEQ's "Collaboration in NEPA" (2007)

13.  CEQ's 30-Day Review of MMS NEPA Procedures for OCS Oil and Gas Exploration and Development (Note: FedReg notice says public comments due ASAP, not due June 17th). 

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Tiago Peixoto said...

Dear Stephen,

Actually, it seems that formal requirements for citizen participation go from as early as 1946, with the Administrative Procedures Act.

1) "Since the Administrative Procedures Act was adopted in 1946, establishing a policy for the involvement of citizens in the federal arena, legislative requirements have multiplied at all levels of government. At the federal level these range from the very broad freedom of information and government in the sunshine legislation to specific participation requirements in particular pieces of legislation such as the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, and the 1976 extension of the General Revenue Sharing Act of 1972. The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) has found that by the end of 1978 citizen participation requirements were included in 155 separate federal programs which involved over 80 percent of all grant funds at that level. These developments have been paralleled by the actions of state governments. The ACIR indicates that all 50 states have some form of open meeting laws, 47 have FOI legislation, 48 have administrative procedure acts with varying provisions for citizen involvement, and 32 have state offices of volunteerism."

Source: Cooper, Terry L. 1983. Citizen participation. In Organization Theory and Management, Edited by Thomas D. Lynch, 13-46. New York, NY: Marcel Dekker.

2) "According to the Attorney General's Manual on the Administrative Procedure Act (1947), drafted after the 1946 enactment of the APA, the basic purposes of the APA are: (1) to require agencies to keep the public informed of their organization, procedures and rules; (2) to provide for public participation in the rulemaking process; (...)


Stephen Buckley said...

Thanks, Tiago, for adding the providing the historical perspective.

So, yes, many years before NEPA (which I refer to as "The Secret Public-Participation Act of 1969"), there was the APA (Administrative Procedures Act) which, to keep things simple for the new learners, could be looked upon as "The Secret Public-Participation Act of 1946".

In a nutshell, APA is the federal law that requires federal agencies to ask for public feedback on proposed Regulations before a final decision is made.

NEPA is similar to APA in that it requires federal agencies to ask for public feedback on federal proposed Projects before a final decision is made.

And, since some people have noted that these laws are not really "Secret", I figured it was better than saying "The Largely- Unknown-and-Misunderstood ...".

Stephen Buckley said...

Here's a subsequent report(August 2010) confirming the connection of NEPA with Open Government:

"NEPA Success Stories:
Celebrating 40 Years of Transparency
and Open Government"

with a foreword quote by the first head of CEQ, Russell Train:

"As this publication shows,NEPA’s legacy is that what the people know has great value to a government that seeks their knowledge and takes it seriously."