The latest informal assessment gives them mixed reviews.
It lead me to take a quick look at the CEQ guidance for collaboration during NEPA (2007). I don’t find that it makes a great case for collaboration between federal agencies and the public. It is more directly aimed at interagency collaboration, where the authorities are more clear and positions more equal than those for the general public.
While the guidance suggests that the same principles could apply to the general public, its warnings for when to not collaborate seem likely to apply in the cases where we want to think of it as an alternative to litigation:
Parties have little motivation to collaborate if they believe they have better ways to achieve their interests. If a party believes it can achieve its goals through unilateral action, the courts, or the legislature, it might not be motivated to collaborate with others.
The specific situation the CEQ guidance applies to is “where an agency engages other governmental entities and/or a balanced set of affected and interested parties…” Who gets to determine “balance” and based on what criteria?
I’d like to make a distinction (that CEQ didn’t make) between ‘collaborative groups’ and collaboration with such groups by the government. The former would always be a good thing, and it would be reasonable for an agency to pay more attention in the NEPA process to (what it perceives as) a balanced collaborative group’s recommendations (for purpose and need, proposed action, alternatives that respond to environmental impacts, and even the preferred alternative) than for single-interest groups. But for agency to give them preferential treatment, by collaborating with them, and not others, is asking for trouble (from NEPA and FACA at least). Some of the forest plan collaboration going on seems more like that.