Wading through a sea of voices in an attempt to save the planet

I have been struggling lately to understand the balance of power between citizens and their rulers in governance. I know this is an age-old dilemma long explored by political scientists and philosophers, but it remains a critical concern nonetheless.  The majority of Americans could probably agree that the use of forced sterilizations to control population, as was practiced until the 1970s in some states in the U.S., was an abuse of government power. But what happens when the situation is more nuanced? Who can say what constitutes the “correct” or “appropriate” level of power for a government and what power the citizenry should retain in a democratic society?

My dissertation focuses on citizen responses to local sustainable development practices. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence and some research to suggest that local planners and government officials are experiencing significant push-back from some citizens concerning the appropriateness of these programs. I have been working with a team of researchers from Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, the University of Arizona and Portland State University that is examining disruptions in local government meetings, trying to understand if those interruptions are increasing in frequency and what concerns underlie them. We sent a survey to local government officials in Virginia and Oregon and to professional facilitators across the country addressing these matters. A preliminary analysis of this data suggests that most of the disruptions are either increasing in frequency or remaining at existing levels. There are few reports that meeting interruptions are declining in number. The causes of these citizen actions vary and the views of those pressing them range across the ideological spectrum. Some disruptions occur in response to the subject of public forums, while others protest the legitimacy or appropriateness of those gatherings and of the government officials conducting them.

One of the great things about our democracy is that these various perspectives are allowed to exist and their diversity is honored. However, this variety of viewpoints makes public decision-making more difficult. When our study team talks with local planners and other “street-level bureaucrats” (Lipsky 1980), they report that they are struggling with a new and often unexpected, and often highly emotionally charged attention to programs and public hearings, and they would like guidance in how to deal with these various publics. According to Lipsky, street-level bureaucrats–those local officials actively engaged with the public–are the embodiment of government policy, and “[i]n short, they hold the keys to a dimension of citizenship” (p. 4). These are powerful words. Providing advice, even when solicited, to individuals in these roles attempting to address citizen disruption of public meetings is a daunting challenge. Nevertheless, I seek to do so briefly in what follows.

A colleague, who is a professor of entrepreneurship and leadership, suggested that I look to the management literature for guidance in how to provide plans for paths forward for these local officials— specifically, stakeholder identification and salience. One particular piece by Mitchell, Agle, and Wood (1997) argued that organizations, and by extension for my purposes, publics, can determine how to respond to stakeholders by understanding three aspects of their relationship to a project or concern: How much power does a stakeholder have to influence the project? What is the individual or group’s legitimacy in relationship to the concern? And how urgent are the stakeholder’s claims about a matter? The combination and weighting of these three factors provides, this article advised, a way to ascertain which stakeholders deserve more attention.

Pondering this approach brought me full circle to my original question—how much power, then, does or should a government or public official possess in relation to an individual or group within their constituency? Who decides whether one person has a more legitimate claim than another in questions of governance? And, in my field, should the natural environment be considered a stakeholder? Should the environment have legitimacy, power and urgency in the hypothetical situation I posed? For my part, I certainly would argue that our natural resources deserve to be a salient stakeholder in conversations concerning public actions that will affect them.

It may be that those causing disruptions in public forums are doing so to increase their power in discussions of projects or policies they are protesting. They are certainly trying to create a more urgent situation by increasing the level of drama and emotional salience of their concerns. However, Bourdieu’s (1991) work reminds us that power has to be given: in democracies, at least, the citizenry must first give power and authority to government officials for them to serve as leaders. But the same goes for an exchange of power from government officials to the citizenry—the democratic government employs its power to ensure space and meetings that allow citizens to offer their views on pending public concerns. With so many different, and so often contentious, voices attempting to influence discussions around sustainable development projects, to whom should local officials listen? Do the street-level bureaucrats have the authority to gather feedback and then make whatever decisions they judge most worthy based on criteria they delimit (surely one-longstanding understanding of the meaning of government representation)? Or do they listen to those stakeholders who are protesting the loudest, or trying to claim the most power or legitimacy or urgency?

Many of the arguments protestors offer against sustainable development projects are tied to a belief that governments already possess undue control over their personal property and have already weakened their individual rights unacceptably. If we listen to those screaming the loudest, we may do so to the detriment of whatever project is at hand. How, then, do local officials account for those voices that are not being heard–either because those citizens do not or cannot attend public hearings or because their views are being drowned out by the claims of their louder neighbors? And how much power should local government decision-makers accord the environment and the ecosystem services it provides and which also deserve protection for the collective benefit?

My study of this issue has made me appreciate just how complex representation and governance can be and, indeed, I now understand them more deeply than I did when working for government. I certainly recognize why it is necessary for the public to have people in place to work for its collective good. But, as this brief essay has emphasized, I struggle with finding means by which to offer equal expressive space for those pressing their claims at high volume as well as those citizens, the “not-voiced,” who, for whatever array of reasons, are not doing so. In the specific case I am now studying, local officials must also balance the right to free expression and individual viewpoints and the need for protection of our natural resources. Many would say that these two things are not exclusive, but citizen comments often assume they are. Whatever one’s view of representation and of individual rights as well as of how the environment should be regarded in policy decision-making, local officials have no choice but to persevere and to continue to discern what their citizens most want and need and why, even when those populations are unreasonable or rancorous or worse. Local government officials that is, must continue to try to do good work on behalf of the communities they serve irrespective of the reasonableness with which their stakeholders behave.


Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services, Russell Sage Foundation.

Mitchell, R. K., et al. (1997). “Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts.” The Academy of Management Review 22(4): 853-886.

kim-cowgillKimberly Hodge Cowgill is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech. Associated with the department’s Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management program, Kim’s research focuses on political, social, and cultural factors associated with environmental decision-making. Her particular areas of interest include civil discourse, conflict analysis and resolution, governance, and sustainable development. She is also a graduate of the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute.

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