Rationalizing public participation goals: How contextual and organizational factors shape public managers' decision-making process

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Rosemary O'Leary


Public participation, Organizational, Managers, Decision-making, Rationalizing

Subject Categories

Public Administration | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Involving the public is an increasingly important component of agency decision-making, yet there is a dearth of systematic analysis of public managers' justification of public participation efforts and choice of public participation activities. The majority of public participation studies focus exclusively on a single case studies that examine either a discreet policy issue or public participation process. This thesis broadens the scope of analysis to provide more generalizable evidence for the relationship between organization, context and public participation. The thesis analyzes thirty-two Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, completed by four U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Districts from 1997--2003.

The thesis contributes in three key areas of bureaucratic decision-making and public participation, (1) identifying how public participation goals are articulated by public managers; (2) examining the influence of contextual factors on the formulation of public participation goals; and (3) examining the influence of organizational factors on the formulation of public participation goals.

This study finds that the substantive and normative rationales, rather than the instrumental rationale, are the two dominate perspectives expressed by public managers in articulating the purpose of public participation. This suggests that public managers view public participation as a means of improving the substantive quality of the decision, informing and educating the public, and incorporating public values into agency decisions. In contrast, reducing conflict among competing interest groups and building trust in public agencies are not principle purposes of public participation.

The findings suggest that context does matter, but some contextual factors are more relevant than others. Of the three contextual factors examined in this study, number of stakeholders participating in EIS, the geographic scope of the project, and degree of project's technicality, the latter characteristic yielded the greatest difference in how public managers expressed public participation goals.

The results of this study also suggest that organizational characteristics are more important than contextual forces in influencing how public managers express public participation goals. Specifically, public manager's decision-making strategy regarding public participation is shaped by the composition and interaction with non-federal government agencies.


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