Public consultation and advisory processes are regulatory tools employed to improve efficiency, transparency, and effectiveness of decision-making processes used by various governing bodies, organizations and businesses (OECD, n.d.). Furthermore, consulting the public on key issues increases the scope of information available to governments and policy makers to better inform decision making. Engaging with a wide and more diverse set of stakeholders and non-government actors could lead to more effective and legitimate policy outcomes (Fraussen et al., 2020). Moreover, specific stakeholders are likely to be involved in different ways and in different stages of the process. Meaningfully engaging citizens in decision making processes on key policy issues facilitates improvement in public trust of government departments and agencies, contributing to a more inclusive and democratic society (Chwalisz, 2021).
Types of Public Consultations
A vast array of public consultation methods exists depending on the purpose of the consultation and ranging in level of involvement of the participants. Fraussen et al. (2020) suggest that there are three key consultation approaches, namely, open, closed, and hybrid. Open approaches involve utilizing tools that promote unlimited “self-selected” involvement by all participants who wish to contribute, regardless of association, e.g., from private citizens to specific interest groups or public institutions. A closed consultation applies exclusively to targeted, well-defined stakeholder groups invited to participate, such as expert groups, whereas an open consultation approach’s purpose is essentially to gather feedback from as wide a range of stakeholders as possible (Fraussen et al., 2020). A hybrid consultation approach combines elements of both open and closed consultation tools, and typically attracts more stakeholders and thus implies a more rigorous consultation process in general. Examples of types of public consultation tools recognized by the European Commission include: conferences, public hearings, and events; surveys; expert groups; focus groups; interviews; public consultations; consultations targeting Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs); and workshops, meetings, and seminars (Fraussen et al., 2020).
Health Canada posits that public consultation operates on a continuum of public involvement, from the lowest level of involvement, such as advertising, to a high level of involvement, such as an organization partnering with the public to work collaboratively toward a solution (Health Canada, 2000). Examples of the highest level of involvement include community-based development projects, citizen juries, or think tanks, whereas examples of approaches characterized by low public involvement include advertising, mailouts, or information kits (Health Canada, 2000).
Factors to Consider in Conducting Public Consultations
A key consideration when planning to consult the public on a particular issue is the purpose and goal of consulting, which will help inform the level of involvement of the participants who are engaged. For example, considering whether the goal of the consultation is to: share information and educate, gather information and perspectives, discuss through bilateral dialogue, engage fully on complex issues, or partner in the implementation of solutions can aid in selecting the most appropriate way to involve the public in the decision-making process (Health Canada, 2000). For example, if the goal is to inform and educate the public on a particular issue, delivering a press release or distributing a factsheet on the subject could be appropriate methods to consider. On the other hand, if the goal is to engage fully on a complex issue, then perhaps the establishment of an advisory committee or the delivery of a workshop may be more appropriate.
The participants that attend public consultations will come from various backgrounds. These include stakeholders such as community members, individuals, interest groups, industry groups, rightsholders, and many more. While conducting public consultations, it is crucial to be aware of the equity of the said consultation. A high degree of importance should be placed on analyzing consultation outcomes during the design process. The analyzed outcomes of different participant groups will be used as an assessment on the equity and effectiveness of the consultation. An example of a participant group that often faces barriers to effective engagement are First Nations rightsholders and communities (Jollymore et al., 2018; Moreland et al., 2021). For a consultation process to be equitable and effective, there must be meaningful and accessible engagement. Studies have shown that statistical differences in policy preferences occur among industry and non-industry participant groups. Skewed influence on policymaking can be observed in patterns between policy outcomes aligning with specific participants’ policy preferences. To counter this inequity, component public consultations should consider all participant groups and their ability to engage in the consultation process accessibly and fairly (Jollymore et al., 2018).
As discussed above, the methods by which to engage the public on a particular issue may be considered based on the purpose and overarching goals of the consultation. Depending on the scope of the consultation, e.g., national or local, specific methods may be chosen over others depending on the number and background of participants invited to be involved. Multiple methods of consultation are likely to be selected if the issue is large in scope, such as a matter of national public policy. To facilitate inclusivity and high participation rates, organizers of the engagement effort may opt for a mixed-method consultation, which involves expert panels, town hall meetings, as well as an online survey by which participants can submit comments.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, consultations have shifted from face-to-face public engagement to employing virtual spaces with associated challenges and tradeoffs (Chwalisz, 2021). For example, to facilitate large-scale (e.g., national) public consultations in a virtual space, organizers may utilize voting tools to encourage higher levels of participant engagement. While well intended, such tools may lead to more linear and binary thinking by the participants as they fail to recognize nuances of the values and reasoning behind the questions and fellow participants (Chwalisz, 2021).
The method by which information is created and consumed has changed exponentially in recent decades. Never has society had the ability to seek, spread, and share information at the touch of one’s fingertips as is the case today. The same freedom that allows information to reach the masses is the same that allows misinformation to proliferate. Inevitably, partisan channels of information can emerge, influenced by trust (mistrust), individual beliefs, and shared histories (Moreland et al., 2021). The unfortunate consequence to the overexposure of both information and misinformation has led to issues of mistrust. The issues of trust, information sources, and misinformation presents challenges for any proponent planning to organize a public consultation. These factors influence the participants’ inherent biases and views entering the forum. A variety of strategies can be employed to combat aspects of mistrust, misinformation, and problematic information sources.
At a big picture level, misconceptions and misunderstandings can negatively affect and impede the effectiveness on the topic of a public consultation. On a local scale, misconceptions regarding the topic can impact livelihoods, polarize communities, and result in misguided concerns (Moreland et al., 2021). To mitigate mistrust, misguided use of information sources, and misinformation, emphasis can be placed on providing an effective and engaging public consolation. Allowing participants to voice their concerns and beliefs provides numerous benefits. Participants become more informed on the topic at hand while also being able to hear conflicting beliefs and ideas. Listening to opposing views provides the opportunity for participants to gain respect for differing perspectives. Additionally, allowing participants to voice their concerns enables them to develop more confidence in the consultation process as they can see their voice was heard (Moreland et al., 2021). This process empowers proponents of public consultations to expel concerns of misinformation and provide the participants and stakeholders with the facts of the matter. The factors that influence diverging information channels listed above may be hard to tackle. However, if addressed effectively, public consultation can function as an information channel itself. As for mistrust, the most successful method to keep or gain trust is through transparency. Contention arises when participants feel as if they are not being fully informed or if they feel they were not given a fair opportunity to be consulted. To curb the potential for conflict, transparency is the best tool a proponent of public consultation has in their toolbox (Moreland et al., 2021).
Public consultations are used extensively to obtain input from stakeholders, communities, and larger groups ranging all the way up to the level of countries (O’Grady, 2020). Over time, a wide variety of consultation methods have been developed and tested as the Health Canada toolkit outlines. For the data and information obtained in consultation processes to be used in policy decisions, attention needs to be given to selecting an appropriate process and steps should be taken to address challenges like misinformation and mistrust which can seriously disrupt consultation activities.
Chwalisz, C. (2021). The pandemic has pushed citizen panels online. Nature, 589(7841), 171-171. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-00046-7
Fraussen, B., Albareda, A., & Braun, C. (2020). Conceptualizing consultation approaches: Identifying combinations of consultation tools and analyzing their implications for stakeholder diversity. Policy Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-020-09382-3
Health Canada. (2000). Policy toolkit for public involvement in decision making. Health Canada. https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/hc-sc/migration/hc-sc/ahc-asc/alt_formats/pacrb-dgapcr/pdf/public-consult/2000decision-eng.pdf
Jollymore, A., McFarlane, K., & Harris, L. M. (2017). Whose input counts? Evaluating the process and outcomes of public consultation through the BC Water Act Modernization. Critical Policy Studies, 12(4), 381-405. https://doi.org/10.1080/19460171.2017.1282377
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, 1539-1569. https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2020-0109
O’Grady, C. (2020). Power to the people. Science, 370(6516), 518-521. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.370.6516.518
OECD. (n.d.). Background document on public consultation. https://www.oecd.org/mena/governance/36785341.pdf
Authors: Drew MacLean, Kelsea Deblois, and Lori Mombourquette
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.