This research explores the connection between the process for making a decision and the satisfaction that people have with the final decision. Making decisions in a democratic society about managing the environment or managing risks usually ends up displeasing some interest groups while pleasing others and yet, without widespread acceptance, decisions can be stalled in court or stymied outright. To improve democratic acceptance of decisions, regulatory bodies strive to broadly involve the interested and affected parties in dialogue and incorporate their input. While there is much advice from conflict resolution and public participation practitioners on how to do this well, there is little scientific understanding of how people judge the quality of these dialogues and how those judgments, in turn, affect the acceptance of decisions. In this project, the scientists learn how participants come to their beliefs about the fairness and competence of dialogue in a public participatory decision-making process. Experimental studies have suggested that there is a fair-process effect; people who think the discussion was fair are more willing to accept the resulting decision, even if they suffer negatively because of it. Theory suggests a comparable link between participants? perceived competence of a dialogue and decision acceptance.

By measuring specific qualities of the communication within decision-making processes, the research team is able to draw conclusions about how government agencies can better satisfy the expectations and needs of interested and affected parties and, thereby, produce decisions with higher democratic legitimacy.

Project Report

Theoretical Merit Our results provide support for the thesis that participatory democratic dialogue contributes to the legitimation of policy decisions. Deliberative democratic theory has for some years now analyzed the prospect that dialogue among stakeholders and decision makers could lead to public support for controversial decisions. This research contributed to the growing body of evidence supporting an independent contribution of democratic speech to public consent. Moreover, this research has helped to better understand just how different qualities of group deliberation influence decision acceptance. In particular, we found that participants who felt that the decision making process aptly considered the beliefs and values of everyone who would be affected by the decision felt the decision was acceptable, even if they did not agree with it. Broader Impacts This research has direct implications for risk governance and risk communication. The US National Academy of Sciences has frequently argued that an analytic-deliberative process should be used to make decisions about managing risks in highly controversial settings. There is a significant lack of knowledge about how to do this well. This research examined the communication that happens inside a participatory process to understand what, specifically, participants use to form judgments about the fairness or competence of the process. By better understanding what these qualities are, risk managers and organizers of public involvement can design processes that are more responsive to public needs.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Robert E. O'Connor
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Social and Environmental Research Institute
United States
Zip Code