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International Cooperation

Public Participation Guide: Citizen Advisory Boards

Citizen advisory boards are known by many names—boards, committees, groups, task forces, etc. Citizen advisory boards consist of a representative group of stakeholders from a particular community appointed to provide comments and advice on a project or issue.

Boards generally meet on a regular schedule over a period of time to develop a detailed knowledge of the project and issues and to share their relevant perspectives, ideas, concerns, and interests. Boards often work to identify areas of common ground and/or consensus recommendations.

Advantages

  • Provides broad-based input into planning and decision-making from a range of stakeholder interests that are affected by a proposal or issue
  • May work over time to generate in-depth knowledge and ownership of a project or issue in a way that less intensive efforts cannot achieve
  • Allows for the in-depth and focused involvement and input of a wide range of stakeholders, including often marginalized communities
  • Allows for development of consensus (where achievable) and detailed recommendations for action on complex issues that affect the broader community
  • Allows for in-depth understanding of project issues among stakeholders represented on the board
  • Provides opportunities for exploring alternative strategies and building on commonalities and alliances
  • Provides for a detailed analysis of project issues, timelines and deliverables and a focus on the outcomes
  • Enables participants to gain an understanding of other perspectives leading toward common ground for recommendations

Challenges to Consider

  • Convening must be done in such a way as to result in a fair and balanced group that is widely perceived to represent the community at large
  • The range of interests must be broad enough to represent all those affected, and members must possess the relevant background and skills to assist in addressing the problem at hand
  • Boards must be provided a meaningful role in the decision process and should not be viewed as a rubber stamp
  • Participants must be willing to work together on a common challenge
  • Sponsors must be aware of potential conflicts among stakeholders to ensure that key issues are addressed early in the process
  • A clear mission, charter, and ground rules need to be agreed to by all members
  • The sponsor should work closely with the board to ensure that it does not take on an agenda that is not within the context of the project or range of public influence
  • Individual members’ comments to the media may not coincide with the board’s decisions or the sponsor’s policies; a set of principles can be developed to provide guidelines on members’ comments to and interactions with the media
  • The general public may not embrace committee recommendations unless the committee keeps the public informed of developments and progress being made throughout the process
  • It is not always possible to achieve consensus
  • Can be very time and labor intensive if the issue is significant

Principles for Successful Planning

  • Conduct a thorough stakeholder analysis and convene the board such that all relevant community interests are fairly represented in its membership
  • Select a strong chairperson who understands good process; avoid putting the loudest or most opinionated stakeholder in the chair position
  • Avoid alternative and backup representatives, as full and continuous participation is generally needed to build the understanding and relationships required for consensus building
  • Get agreement of all members on a clear mission for the advisory board and the requirements of member participation
  • The sponsor should work closely with the board throughout its life and be careful not to let the board spend a lot of time developing recommendations that have no chance of being accepted
  • Use experienced neutral third-party facilitators to manage the overall board process
  • Set expectations to ensure that members continually communicate with their constituents to keep the larger community informed and engaged throughout the process
  • Do not rush the process, it takes time for board members to build relationships and trust and become fully informed enough about the project in order to develop meaningful results
  • Maintain regular contact between board activities and the broader community; seek opportunities for broader public interaction with the board
  • Record decisions and keep a running summary of board deliberations, make sure all decisions are supported by a clear and detailed rationale to share with the broader public
  • Produce a detailed final report of recommendations including a thorough rationale for decisions

Resources Needed

Staffing

  • Facilitator
  • Administrative and logistical support
  • Technical project support to develop briefing papers and information
  • Independent technical experts
  • Interpreters, if necessary

Materials

  • Regular meeting venues
  • Briefing books, presentations and materials
  • Tours
  • Refreshments
  • Child care

Planning Time

  • Convening an advisory board may take several months to identify, invite, and confirm members
  • Care should be taken to have a formational meeting to ensure all members agree to mission and process of the board
  • Well functioning advisory boards require a great deal of time and effort to prepare for each meeting

Implementation Time

  • Advisory boards generally meet once per month for several hours up to full-day meetings
  • It generally takes 12 to 18 months for most boards to address issues and develop recommendations; complex and controversial projects can take significantly longer

Group Size

  • Most boards range from 12 to 25 persons in size
  • Boards larger than 20 persons are difficult to facilitate, however it is more important to ensure that all key community interests are represented rather than to try to find the ideal size

Cost

  • Boards can be very expensive to form and manage.
  • Independent facilitation is essential and independent technical support is also often required
  • Boards also need a great deal of administrative support

Most relevant participation levels:

  • Most appropriate at higher levels of the spectrum, particularly involve, collaborate and empower
  • It generally makes little sense to ask stakeholders to contribute the level of effort required of a board if the agency is not interested and committed to serious consideration of consensus recommendations

For More Information:

EPA's Community Advisory Groups Toolkit 

Explore the full Public Participation Guide.


Contacts

For additional information on EPA's Public Participation Guide, contact:

Shereen Kandil
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2650R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460
E-mail: kandil.shereen@epa.gov