Challenges and Benefits of Public Consultations as Advisory Processes

Stakeholder engagement in evidence-based policy and decision making is an important multifaceted advisory process, which is characterized by several challenges relating to information management. In complex areas such as public health or the environment, effective decision-making involves commitment from policymakers to understand the subject in question holistically as well as be aware that policies affect a wide variety of stakeholders. Policymakers need to address the concerns of stakeholders by implementing appropriate guidelines and taking a transdisciplinary approach (Nascimento, Iglesias, Owen, Schade, & Shanley, 2018). This boundary spanning process typically involves the public because the results of policies that are established eventually affect many citizens. Gastil (2017) discusses the design of deliberative processes and believes policymakers must consider not only the process itself, but other factors, such as, how to recruit and retain engaged participants and the outcomes policymakers and civil organizations hope to achieve. Therefore, it is important to design a public consultation in a way that focuses on the diversity of the citizens, the quality of deliberation, as well as analysis of the general impact (Gastil, 2017). In this approach, policy makers can not only promote public engagement practices, but also use the practices to contribute to the larger deliberative and engagement system.

Policymakers can benefit from the collaboration of researchers and citizen scientists by reducing costs, increasing the means of data collection, and combining a variety of forms of knowledge to strengthen policies. The rationale for future decisions could be explained by including an explicit justification that accounts for the information relied upon, costs or benefits weighed, and the full implications of the decision (Jacob et al., 2018). Gastil (2017) believes that multiple designs of the deliberation processes have been proven to be effective at organizing diverse publics that carefully consider options about issues and proposed policies. These proven processes often produce better quality recommendations based on the level of insights and judgements arising from the consultations, which also reflect the efficiency of the collaboration activity. However, current barriers that can impede these collaborative efforts involve a lack of trust in data quality, continuing issues with data interoperability, and absence or incomplete consensus of scientific validity (Nascimento et al., 2018). While it is well recognized that citizen science has the potential to involve people of all levels to effectively focus on a common goal, tangible examples of citizen science being used to influence evidence-based policymaking remain rare (Nascimento et al., 2018).

In Canada, the Health Canada Policy Toolkit for Public Involvement in Decision Making illustrates the intricacies of including the public in the development of governmental policy. This toolkit is an extensive document, which clearly outlines the reasoning for public participation in policy making (Health Canada, 2000). The departmental toolkit combines a variety of situational options for Health Canada employees to follow. With an understanding of the expected outcomes of each option and use of consistent terminology, Health Canada employees are able to navigate the level of public involvement that is necessary while also being aware of their alignment with the departmental vision (Health Canada, 2000). The case studies included in the toolkit give historical examples of situations where public health was a concern in the country and emphasize the importance of public inclusion to enhance our democracy and for policy development to be transparent.

If the focus moves from a federal to provincial standpoint in Canada, the importance of public consultations is equally observed in an example of the Government of Ontario in relation to decision making in environmental policy. However, issues beyond policy and project frameworks are unveiled in this example as standard models for science or environmental project development attempt to integrate community engagement practices as a component of the consultation process. The 2017 article “From consultation to collaboration: A participatory framework for positive community engagement with wind energy projects in Ontario, Canada” depicts the manner in which community engagement practices impacted decision making processes in wind energy projects (Jami & Walsh, 2017). The use of such practices intermeshed with science is a complex process. The evidence-based research conducted to support the benefits of the project was subjected to social implications which can contradict and undermine the very premise of the initiative. In cross-sectoral collaboration involving science in Canadian policy related decision-making, sharing information is critical, particularly for informing and evaluating decisions made in the public interest (Jacob et al., 2018).

In the case of the wind energy project developments, a specific conceptual framework for creating community engagement was implemented for the projects, which integrated science and social processes to ensure effective consultation and public participation. The framework used Arnstein’s ladder of participation as the foundation of its integrative model. However, difficulties were encountered despite incorporating Arnstein’s model and a knowledge broker as part of the wind project development framework to ensure effective communication between organizations and participants during public consultation. Obstacles were observed in the organizations’ inability to remain fully compliant with their own processes and frameworks of stakeholder engagement and in underestimation of the role and influence of individual self-interest and concerns for participants. Thus, the overall efficacy of the decision making process was challenged. The community engagement strategy was not successful because of the approach taken. Instead of responding to concerns from a “decide-announce-defend” approach, public consultation developers should approach these interactions from a mindset of openly addressing concerns and questions (Jami & Walsh, 2017, p. 23). Therefore, despite application of an integrated public engagement approach as part of their project development framework, internal practices were seen to negatively affect the outcomes they were aspiring to achieve. This scenario was also observed in the UK where weak public engagement practices were seen in environmental decision-making.

De Santo (2016) highlights issues in public participation during the selection process for marine conservation zones in the UK. In this article, De Santo explored the quality of stakeholder participation during the selection process. The goal of the process was premised in the fact that stakeholders would ultimately assess and make recommendations in a stakeholder-led model of decision making. However, despite legislative mandates and frameworks of public participation supported by the Aarhus Convention and EU Directives, successful public participation was not achieved. The failure of this public engagement initiative prevailed due to departmental management, which was characterized by minimal project oversight, organizational changes within the department heading the consultation, too many actors, and poor applications of consultation frameworks (De Santo, 2016). Based on the complexity of balancing numerous factors in the science-policy interface in decision making, the UK government department was perceived as incapable of handling the science scope of the project, and did not fully follow due process in its assessments. This outcome, in turn, created a situation in which the credibility and accountability of the decisions made by the stakeholders was questioned (De Santo, 2016).

Together, the selected papers considered in this post underscore the importance of public participation throughout the entire process of policymaking, rather than only involving stakeholders in the final stages. The recent articles, in particular, highlight complexities associated with stakeholder engagement in relation to the science policy interface. Despite the difficulties that may be encountered, the importance of stakeholder inclusivity at all levels of decision making was emphasized. Numerous models of stakeholder engagement have been developed and tested. The Health Canada toolkit, for example, describes a suite of options. Choosing the right model for a particular consultation is important and the experiences in the research outlined in this post can inform that selection. Public engagement in policy development contributes to policies that can account for the needs of all parties.



De Santo, E. M. (2016). Assessing public “participation” in environmental decision-making:Lessons learned from the UK Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) site selection process. Marine Policy, 64, 91-101.

Gastil, J. (2017). Designing public deliberations at the intersection of science and public policy. In K. H. Jamieson, D. Kahan, & D. A. Scheufele (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of the science of science communication (pp. 233-242). New York: Oxford University Press.

Health Canada. (2000).Health Canada policy toolkit for public involvement in decision making. Ottawa: Health Policy and Communications Branch. Retrieved from

Jacob, A. L., Moore, J. W., Fox, C. H., Sunter, E. J., Gauthier, D., Westwood, A. R., & Ford, A. T.(2018). Cross-sectoral input for the potential role of science in Canada’s environmental assessment. Facets, 3(1), 512–529.

Jami, A. A., & Walsh, P. R. (2017). From consultation to collaboration: A participatory framework for positive community engagement with wind energy projects in Ontario,Canada. Energy Research & Social Science, 27, 14–24.

Nascimento, S., Iglesias, J. M. R., Owen, R., Schade, S., & Shanley, L. (2018). Citizen science for policy formulation and implementation. In S. Hecker, M. Haklay, A. Bowser, Z. Makuch, J.Vogel, & A. Bonn (Eds.). Citizen science: Innovation in open science, society, and policy(pp. 219-240). London: UCL Press.


Authors:Qian Li, Colleen Savage, and Odeisa Stewart


This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.


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