Public consultations are a key feature of effective policy making. This blog post analyzes four publications on the topic of public consultations with regard to key findings, limitations, and best practices. The four publications vary in their focus: a book chapter by Leslie Pal provides the theoretical underpinnings of public consultations (Pal, 2010), a document prepared by Health Canada (2000) outlines how public consultations should work in the area of health care, a policy brief by the OECD (2001) provides a number of best practices for public consultations, and an edited compilation of reports provides information regarding the “future directions for scientific advice” (Doubleday & Wilson, 2013).
The importance of developing a firm understanding of who the stakeholders outside of government are and how they will be affected by a policy under development before public consultations are held is the first key finding from these publications. Leslie Pal notes the significance of policy communities in the development of policy, which are groups of citizens interested in policies and who want to influence them (Pal, 2010, p. 265). Policy communities are a likely place to find citizens who should be consulted regarding a policy because typically they are the best informed and the most engaged. By understanding the make-up of the policy community for an issue a government is able to understand better who should be involved in consultation. David Cleevely noted that often times networks include people who are thought leaders, who he labels as “super nodes”: they are well connected and are adept at communicating and disseminating information (Doubleday & Wilson, 2013, p. 89). Although possibly difficult, a government should also seek to understand the thought leaders or “super nodes” on a particular subject and engage them in public consultations. By gaining a thorough understanding of how policy communities interact and how they intend to influence policy, a government is better able to form policy and to acknowledge the interests of the attentive public (Pal, 2010, p. 265).
A second finding from the four publications is that public consultations can help build trust and social cohesion between governments and the public (OECD, 2001, p. 1). Trust can be developed through public consultations if members of the public feel as though they are being meaningfully engaged and their thoughts and feelings on a topic are being taken seriously. To build public trust, the government must report back to the public regarding how their suggestions were used and why some were incorporated and others dismissed (Pal, 2010, p. 282). This level of transparency allows the public to gain a better understanding of how policy is developed, as well as allowing people to feel as though they were part of the process. Improved social cohesion can also be a benefit that results from public consultations and citizen engagement. By engaging citizens on issues that affect their communities, governments are able to help build “shared values” and encourage “people to have a sense that they are engaged in a common enterprise and face shared challenges as members of a same community” (Health Canada, 2000, p. 16).
A third finding is that public involvement in the policy development process is best understood as a continuum. Health Canada and the OECD both provide conceptions of the public consultation continuum that are similar in most respects. The continuums go from least involvement of the public to most: information sharing/education to consultation to partnerships (Health Canada, 2000, p. 12; OECD, 2001, p. 2). In the information sharing/education stage, a government shares information with the public but does not request feedback or input from the public (ibid). In the consultation stage, the citizens provide feedback to the government (ibid). In the partnership stage, the government partners with citizens and the citizens actively engage in every step of the policy making process (ibid). When developing a plan for public involvement, understanding this continuum is important because a government needs to understand what its objectives are and then match the objectives to the different stages on the continuum.
The final finding is that, for public consultation to be successful, a government must clearly define its objective and then select public consultation tools consistent with the objective. To assist government agencies in deciding how to involve the public, Health Canada provides a number of questions that should be asked: “what is the main purpose of the public involvement exercise?” and “is it to inform/educate, gather information/views, discuss through a two-way dialogue; fully engage on complex issues; or partner in the implementation of solutions?” (Health Canada, 2000, p. 13). These questions get to the essence of what a government is trying to do and therefore allow the government to select the most appropriate engagement technique. This step is especially important because if the wrong technique is selected, the expected benefits of public involvement likely will not materialize. For example, if a government initiates a partnership with a citizens group to develop a new health care model and then only provides the citizens with information and does not listen to any of their views, the citizens could quickly become angry, and their trust in government decrease. For these reasons, selecting the correct technique for public involvement is crucial to the success of public consultations.
The literature identifies limitations of public consultations. For example, despite efforts to provide detailed guidelines, significant ambiguity and subjectivity in the process of deciding when and to what extent the public should be consulted still exist. Most government departments, such as Health Canada, have developed guidelines about how to select which public involvement technique to use and how to conduct effective public consultations, but ultimately the success of the public consultation depends on the competence and good judgement of the public servant(s) making the decisions. This problem may be unavoidable, but it draws attention to the fact that the success or failure of public involvement will largely hinge on the competence of those conducting the consultations. One way to minimize this risk is to make the process of public involvement more rigid or ensure all public consultations flow through an office dedicated to conducting consultations. By following this practice, people who are educated and experienced in conducting public consultations will lead consultations and the likelihood a consultation being successful will be strengthened.
A second limitation arising from the four publications is the assumption, accepted by all four, that the public should be consulted. An argument can be made that we elect representatives to legislatures to make decisions on our behalf and therefore public consultations are redundant. A related issue occurs when deciding which members of the public should be consulted. The process of deciding who should be involved could be seen as undemocratic because the opinions of those consulted will likely significantly influence a policy and the opinions of those left out of the process will not be represented. If public consultation was not used, and instead elected officials made decisions, there would at least be a democratic basis for the opinions applied in decisions. Both of the limitations are significant and should be addressed at the outset of every public consultation to ensure the negative effects can be minimized.
The four publications identify several best practices for public consultations. Ensuring the process and timelines for the public consultation are well defined and clear is the first (Health Canada, 2000, p. 17; OECD, 2001, p. 5; Pal, 2010, p. 282). This practice ensures that all stakeholders understand what is expected of them throughout the consultation process. Ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are invited to participate in the public consultation process is a second (Health Canada, 2000, p.18). Often, a tendency to only engage stakeholders who share similar opinions to that of government may occur, instead of engaging a diverse range of stakeholders. In order for a public consultation to be effective, a government needs to gain an understanding of the range of opinions on a topic, not just the opinions in agreement with the government. Engaging a diverse group of stakeholders so as to avoid “consultation fatigue” is a third best practice (Health Canada, 2000, p. 22). Consultation fatigue can occur when the same groups are asked their opinion or thoughts by government on a continuing basis. A fourth best practice is for government to ensure it provides feedback from public consultations to stakeholders about how their input was used and what impact the consultation had on the policy or process (Pal, 2010, p. 282). By providing feedback to stakeholders they can be assured their input was considered and used. When each of these best practices is implemented, the likelihood occurs that significant benefits will arise from public consultation.
The four publications also identified a number of key benefits that can be separated into benefits internal to the policy or consultation process and external societal benefits. The internal benefits include improved design, quality, implementation, and results of a policy (Health Canada, 2000, p. 11; OECD, 2001, p. 2). The external benefits include improved public trust, strong communities, a more responsive government, improved transparency and accountability and a stronger representative democracy (Health Canada, 2000, p. 11; OECD, 2001, p. 1). Public consultations planned and executed to the highest standard will likely provide all of these key benefits. Public consultations deficient in some way can further contribute to poor public trust of government and other negative effects. For these reasons, it is especially important to execute high quality public consultations.
The publications by Pal, Health Canada, the OECD, and Doubleday and Wilson drew attention to important features of public consultations, as well as ways that consultations can be conducted poorly. In the contemporary context of low public trust in government, public consultations take on greater importance than previously. New information technologies have begun to change the format and methods of public consultation. If governments can find ways to leverage this technology to increase engagement in policy development by young people and underrepresented groups, the process of public consultation and policy design will be significantly improved.
Doubleday, R. & Wilson, J. (Eds.). (2013). Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall. Section 4, Networks, publics and policy (pp. 86-120). [London]: A collaborative initiative of the University of Cambridge; University of Sussex, Alliance for Useful Evidence; Institute for Government; and Sciencewise. Retrieved from http://www.alliance4usefulevidence.org/ publication/future-directions-for-scientific-advice-in-whitehall/
Health Canada. (2000). Health Canada policy toolkit for public involvement in decision making. Ottawa: Health Policy and Communications Branch.
Pal, L. A. (2010). Chapter 6. Policy communities and networks. In Beyond policy analysis: Public issue management in turbulent times, 4th ed. (pp. 237-283). Toronto: Thomson-Nelson.
OECD. (2001). Engaging citizens in policy-making: Information, consultation and public consultation. PUMA Policy Brief, 10. Paris: OECD.
Authors: Ya Gao, Andrew Harding, and Alison Sproat
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.