The function of public consultation and advisory processes in the development of public policy is complex and evolving. Some recent literature on this subject offers insights about the numerous roles that these processes can play in informing and developing policies and other governance practices, both at a global level and within a democratically governed state such as Canada.
Observations from Recent Literature
The involvement of policy networks and communities is typically very important in policy outcomes (Pal, 2010). Understanding the characteristics and activities of policy communities and networks is important for optimizing this crucial role (Pal, 2010). The level of understanding will increase as the management of policy development and implementation needs undergoes changes that will allow for better recognition and utilization of newer forms of cooperation and interaction among the public and private sectors. A major challenge surrounding such changes involves the creation of a balance between traditional forms of governance and newer network practices to promote real, influential, and democratic participation of the public (Pal, 2010).
The relationship between scientists and the public with regard to policymaking is another theme discussed in the literature. For example, after examining factors that contribute to scientists’ willingness to engage the adult public online, J. Besley concluded that a majority of scientists are interested and enthusiastic about participating in online engagement with the public on issues related to science policy development (Besley, 2015). However, further study is needed to determine how this relationship can be more effectively cultivated and used. More and better communication training for scientists is needed and greater emphasis on the time commitments taken up by communication are also important matters in promoting further engagement between scientists and the public (Besley, 2015).
A case study about the marine conservation zone site selection process in the UK offers a number of lessons for governments regarding involving the public in decision making, or adopting a “stakeholder-led” approach including:
- When there are regional projects, the standards of evidence should be harmonized among the projects.
- Focus needs to be maintained on the purpose of a project throughout a complicated process such as facilitating a stakeholder-led approach.
- Governments need to recognize and respond to the growing public desire for democratized environmental conservation and the public’s interest in holding governments accountable for their decisions and actions.
- Governments need to develop more comprehensive understanding of the complex processes involving multiple stakeholders in decision making, as well as the risks and opportunities associated with this involvement. (De Santo, 2016)
A chapter from Doubleday and Wilsdon’s Future Directions for Scientific Advice in Whitehall (2013) explores the subject of “Networks, Publics and Policy” from several standpoints:
- Policymakers should revamp their agenda for incorporating scientific advice and use of networks in policy development. For this to be accomplished, both policymakers and members of scientific networks need to increase their understanding about the complex processes and use the insights gained to support improved forms of governance.
- Governments collect evidence throughout public dialogue that ideally feeds into policy formation. Policymakers face the challenge of openly absorbing and synthesizing a wide variety of public input. Nonetheless, it is important to work through the process in order to identify constructive roles for multiple inputs such as expertise, evidence, and the views of the public, and avoid becoming overcome by the task while attempting to establish a balance of the roles for policy action.
- It is important for policymakers to refrain from becoming “spooked” by the conduct and lack of expertise often found in online discussions surrounding science policy. Although policymakers sometimes feel the need to clean up or delete messy discourse found in online engagement, it is important to remember that this mess can help to build capacity for coherent exchanges, trust, learning, and understanding, and can contribute to the development of sound evidence and science policy.
- Foresight is an important aspect of policymaking, and longer term perspectives are typically required for effective development of scientific evidence and policies. The UK’s Foresight Programme attempts to embrace this value.
- The UK Parliament has fewer resources for integrating scientific advisory processes into decision-making than the wider government bureaucracy. Further study is needed about the decision-making processes as well as greater understanding of the relationship between scientific researchers and parliamentarians. (Doubleday & Wilsdon, 2013)
In Canada, the Health Canada Policy Toolkit for Public Involvement in Decision Making is designed to support the federal department’s mission to improve Canadians’ health by providing direction for Health Canada’s employees about involving the public in policy and regulatory decisions. The toolkit outlines a public involvement continuum consisting of five levels, namely, inform/educate, gather information, discuss or involve, engage, and partner. The degree of engagement increases across the continuum, which allows the department to select the most appropriate level based on each policy or regulatory scenario (Health Canada, 2000).
Key Interpretations of the Literature
All of the authors of the literature considered in this post agree that public consultation and scientific advisory processes play an important role in the policy and decision making activities. However, a number of factors and limitations can prevent this role from fulfilling its full potential, such as:
- Managing the relationships between multiple actors involved in the process
- Viewing policy networks/communities as internationally engaged players
- Recognizing and understanding the leadership role of governments
- Optimizing communication between actors (scientists, the public, and governments).
Some roles of the public consultation and advisory processes that stand out in the literature are:
- The importance of the provision of evidence and expert/non-expert input on related scientific issues
- The understanding that results from the widened lens to view scientific information and the issues under review
- Further creation and support for the democratic practice of policymaking
- The opportunity to appreciate the complexity of scientific discourse and its contribution to the development of sound evidence and policy.
A final takeaway from the literature cited in this post is the role that online engagement can play in collecting input from the public on scientific subjects. This form of engagement, though not yet fully accepted in policy and decision making processes, is recognized as holding considerable potential for gathering information from the public and applying it to strengthen policy.
Besley, J. C. (2015). What do scientists think about the public and does it matter to their online engagement? Science and Public Policy, 42, 201-214.
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.
Doubleday, R., & Wilsdon, J. (2013). Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall. Section 4, Networks, publics and policy (pp. 86-120). Collaborative initiative of the University of Cambridge; University of Sussex, Alliance for Useful Evidence; Institute for Government; and Sciencewise.
Health Canada. (2000). Health Canada policy toolkit for public involvement in decision making. Ottawa: Health Policy and Communications Branch. Retrieved from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/pubs/_public-consult/2000decision/index-eng.php
Pal, L. A. (2010). Policy communities and networks. In Beyond policy analysis: Public issue management in turbulent times (pp. 237-283) (4th ed.). Toronto: Thomson-Nelson.
Author: Amanda Lloyd
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.