As governments are faced with solving increasingly complex social issues, recognition is growing that research-based information alone cannot resolve these issues. Public consultation is a vital source of information to understand citizen and stakeholder interests better and incorporate diverse considerations into policy development. Along with these benefits, public consultation involves many challenges. It is a resource-intensive activity that requires significant time, planning, and relationship-building and can lead to many disputed outcomes, sometimes offering little practical guidance (Doberstein, 2022). Different consultation approaches will generate different outcomes, requiring tailor-made plans in every application. Despite these challenges, consultation is a valuable information channel between governments and the public.
Ensuring that stakeholder participation in consultations is diverse helps to achieve gathering comprehensive information. Seeking this diversity can be perceived as a burden, often leading to overrepresentation of business interests due to the opinion that these actors have the most resources, capacity, and expertise to provide (Fraussen et al., 2020). Research findings show that the use of closed consultation methods, such as workshops and expert groups, allow for more intentional targeting of diverse groups, as opposed to open consultations that typically lead to self-selection by well-organized, experienced, and high-resource participants (Fraissen et al., 2020). Consultations with local stakeholders about a proposed coastal Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore Islands demonstrates the importance of diverse information gathering in a consultation process. A range of information sources was used in the process of obtaining input from various groups about the proposed MPA. These sources included scientific studies, traditional knowledge sources from Indigenous communities, and information received from consultations. Despite the challenges that arose throughout the engagement process, ultimately involvement of a diverse set of stakeholders encouraged more comprehensive information gathering. The information reflected the perspectives of the communities represented in the Eastern Shore region, which was crucial during the first stages of the decision-making process (Moreland et al., 2021).
Shared expectations about the goals of consultation processes help to prevent the recreation of past errors and promote engagement that is less harmful for participants. The classification of consultation processes becomes essential in guiding organizers and selecting appropriate engagement strategies. Stakeholder perspectives can be best accessed when an engagement typology is understood (Ballesteros & Dickey-Collas, 2023). For instance, understanding that consultations involve a multitude of individuals with varying power dynamics is important because it notifies organizers of the potential for complexity. Throughout the consultation processes for the coastal Nova Scotia MPA, efforts were made to qualify who was present at these engagements to bring to light the potential dynamics in the consultation space. Direction is given to qualified roles in an engagement process, such as “expert,” “observer,” and “partner,” all of which contribute to the consultation space in varying ways. This method of classifying participation roles helps to avoid future conflicts and misunderstandings between participants (Ballesteros et al., 2023).
Advising participants from the outset of the level of influence their contributions will have on policy also helps to manage expectations. Health Canada (2000) offers five levels of public involvement, which range from informing and educating, to engaging and partnering. Participants become increasingly involved in the various levels, with the highest level empowering citizens to shape policy. The level of engagement in a consultation process will depend on factors such as the policy domain and the political nature of an issue (Doberstein, 2022). More involved engagement strategies should only be used when there is opportunity for true co-development and equal influence.
The Importance of Trust
Trust is a crucial element in evidence-based policy making. Policy makers utilize scientific evidence to ensure that the data and information are accurate and based on facts. Consultations can be a source of evidence and can inform decision making, but ultimately the building of trust is critical between stakeholders and those in the room with direct access to decision-making. Health Canada (2000) states in its policy toolkit regarding public involvement that “there is a new social environment characterized by a decline in public trust and a questioning of institutional legitimacy.” Chwalisz (2021) notes these challenges have grown even more difficult recently as governments around the world face a crisis of trust and populations are increasingly polarized. As information providers, stakeholders need to be reassured that their perspectives are heard and that they contribute to informing decision-makers (information receivers) (Health Canada, 2000).
In the case of the proposed Nova Scotia MPA, a rationale for building trust was reflected in the consultation process. Despite these efforts, however, a history of injustice and misinformation circulating in social media, fostered mistrust. The organizers still made efforts to establish transparency and build trust in order to combat the views some residents had regarding public engagements. This approach moved the needle on stakeholder confidence, but it was not enough to remove all uncertainty (Moreland et al., 2021).
Nature’s editorial board notes that there has also been a decline in trust between countries and blocs as they are increasingly using scientific cooperation to further their geopolitical objectives (Editors, 2022). For example, the editors argue the Trump Administration’s 2018 “China Initiative” led to a drop in the number of co-authored papers between researchers in the United States and China in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic also demonstrated a lack of geopolitical cooperation. Wealthy governments hoarded and opposed sharing vaccines and intellectual property, demonstrating a prioritization of short-sighted political interests over long-term equitable outcomes. This scenario offers a warning that international science may succumb to geopolitical pressures and weaken cooperative networks necessary for global science and science-based international treaties. There are no signs of short-sighted interests slowing down as the editors note that “we are likely to see more instances of nations using science and technology towards foreign-policy objectives” (Editors, 2022). This development demonstrates that establishment of trust is important at all levels of governance, ranging from the local to the international.
Consultation and Research-Based Information
The interaction between consultation and research-based information also creates tensions. Consultation processes can encounter challenges dealing with public resistance to a proposed action despite consensus from research-based sources (Doberstein, 2022). Especially in a crisis or highly-politicized situations, a government might face difficulties reconciling priorities between ensuring the public feels its concerns are listened to while also taking necessary action. However, public resistance itself should be received as a form of information, indicating that another approach to action might be needed. The Nova Scotia MPA consultation showcased how despite scientific consensus and efforts by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to declare the Eastern Shore region an Area of Interest (AOI), local resistance developed. Strategically, the DFO took a cooperative route and aimed to be transparent in the engagement process. Despite these efforts, fishers still felt their livelihood would be compromised, creating conflicts in the engagement process. In addition, locals that were aware of past government missteps, committed in the name of public interest, were still wary of the consultation process. This situation led the government to extend the timeline to establish the MPA from 2020 to 2025 in order to allow public input to be taken seriously and to inform alternative approaches (Moreland et al., 2021).
Ultimately, both public consultation and research-based information can fall victim to competing interests. Opposition to each source is not inherently a right versus wrong situation but instead is an indication of the need for further information gathering and sharing in order to bridge divisions among participants. Diverse participation, managing expectations, and building trust are vital in obtaining public input and add significant value to consultation processes.
Ballesteros, M., & Dickey-Collas, M. (2023). Managing participation across boundaries: A typology for stakeholder engagement in the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. Marine Policy, 147, 105389. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2022.105389
Chwalisz, C. (2021). The pandemic has pushed citizen panels online. Nature, 589(7841), 171. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-00046-7
Doberstein, C. (2022). How public servants confront common dilemmas in public engagement: Evidence from a survey of Canadian public officials. International Journal of Public Administration, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1080/01900692.2022.2085299
Editors. (2022). Global science must not be treated as a diplomatic pawn. Nature, 612(7941), 589-590. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-04477-8
Fraussen, B., Albareda, A., & Braun, C. (2020). Conceptualizing consultation approaches: Identifying combinations of consultation tools and analyzing their implications for stakeholder diversity. Policy Sciences, 53(3), 473-493.https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-020-09382-3
Health Canada. (2000). Health Canada policy toolkit for public involvement in decision making. Ottawa: Health Policy and Communications Branch. https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/hc-sc/migration/hc-sc/ahc-asc/alt_formats/pacrb-dgapcr/pdf/public-consult/2000decision-eng.pdf
Moreland, H. R., De Santo, E. M., & MacDonald, B. H. (2021). Understanding the role of information in marine policy development: Establishing a coastal marine protected area in Nova Scotia, Canada. FACETS, 6, 1-30. https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2020-0109
Authors: Zahra Dhubow, Stefan Lawson, and Vicki Madziak
This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.