An analysis of the consensus-based participation model in the Georgia Ports Authority's Stakeholder Evaluation Group
Wills, Caitlin Mara
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Over the past few decades, the environment has become a topic of considerable debate. Chief among the concerns in this new research arena is the role of citizens in environmental policy decisions. Indirect forms of public participation have failed to produce the cooperation and collaboration intended. Instead, these public hearings and comment periods have increased division and frustration. In response, researchers have begun suggesting more direct forms of participation and have identified a consensus-based stakeholder model as the solution. This approach relies on the assumptions of equality, free and open deliberation, the common good, and rational consensus which have become popular among democratic theorists in recent years. Despite strong critiques on a theoretical level and indications that the model may be impractical for the American political context, researchers continue to promote its use. The Georgia Port Authority’s [GPA] decision to create the consensus-based Stakeholder Evaluation Group [SEC] in January of 1999 in order to deal with opposition to its proposed deepening project reflects this recent trend. In this study, I explore the impact of the consensus-based stakeholder model on group practice through an analysis of the characterizations, myths, and ideographs, which comprised the vocabulary of the SEG. Specifically, I argue that the consensus-based model produced a rhetorical foundation for group deliberation that was inconsistent with practice. I trace the SEG’s struggle to produce a vocabulary that reflected actual practice and worked better over two and one-half years. I conclude that in the end, stakeholders’ need for efficiency resulted in their abandonment of the consensus-based foundation for a vocabulary of traditional decisionmaking approaches. I also discuss the implications of this finding for the future of public participation research.