A public comment period is a set length of time designated for citizens to provide input on a proposal or action by a business or government agency. The concept of public comment is rooted in the general political theory of constitutional democracy, which rejects the idea of a closed, tyrannical ruling system in favor of an open style of government that derives its power from its citizens.
In today’s society, public comment periods are primarily associated with government proposals of a certain impactful or controversial nature, where the opinions of those affected by the action are intentionally sought, recorded and considered as a facet of the agency’s decision-making process.
The length of a public comment period can vary greatly, from a few minutes reserved during a city council meeting for the public to address specific proposals or general issues, to a period of weeks or even months for more comprehensive proposals typically made by a state or federal agency.
In these bigger cases, the agency typically posts a public notice of the proposal in advance of a public comment period and might also send the notice specifically to known interested parties. When the public comment period opens, the agency provides tools for submitting comments in writing, via email or text, and typically through one or more public hearings, where comments can be expressed verbally before a panel of agency decision-makers.
A notable example of a public comment period is specified in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) rules established by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) of 1970. If a proposal is found to warrant an EIS – a document laying out all the environmental impacts of a given proposal – the agency looking to enact the proposal is required to follow specific public comment rules to ensure the inclusion of opinions from all interested stakeholders. Typically, the agency will hold an open public comment period for a month or more. It is then required to include all submitted comments – along with the agency’s response to each – in the final version of the EIS.