What to Expect When Designing Public Consultations: Lessons from the Literature

Public involvement is key for policy development and revision. Governments undertake public consultation exercises to fulfil policy objectives ranging from information-sharing and increasing public acceptance to engaging in bi-lateral partnerships and power-sharing agreements (Doberstein, 2022; Health Canada, 2001).  

Public consultations can increase the perceived legitimacy of public decisions, build trust in institutions, and ensure that a diverse range of opinions are considered in policy development (Ballesteros & Dickey-Collas, 2023). However, poorly planned consultations run the risk of being ineffective and damaging relationships between governments and stakeholders (Moreland et al., 2021). Intentionally considering the approach to consultation, the context in which consultation will take place, and the relationships between the parties is essential for fulfilling the proposed policy objectives of the consultation. In this blog post, we look to established resources and research literature as a guide for creating effective consultation practices. 

Know the Context  

Context can have a strong influence on the consultation process, and consultants must have a strong knowledge of the context of a particular place or community to design successful engagement strategies. Multiple contextual circumstances may affect the public’s capacity to participate. Understanding these potential points of friction is key in deciding how to move forward, as stakeholders will have their own interests and motivations (Fraussen et al., 2020). It is essential to consider context when planning a consultation process to ensure that there is equitable and meaningful involvement for all stakeholders (Health Canada 2002, Moreland et al., 2021). 

One important contextual factor to consider is history. The history of a community can affect people’s perceptions of an issue or party, and may cause conflict (Moreland et al., 2021). This became apparent in the case of a public consultation gone awry between the Government of Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the members of a coastal Nova Scotian community. DFO had been planning on establishing a coastal marine protected area in the Eastern Shore Islands area, which was identified as an official Area of Interest. When interviewed in a study on the case, participants stated that many people were apprehensive about consulting with a federal government organization, based on the community’s previous negative experiences involving land jurisdiction and government (Moreland et al., 2021).  

Another important contextual factor to consider is timing. Poor planning was a major barrier to effective consultation in the case of the Eastern Shore Islands Area of Interest. For example, DFO scheduled one of its consultation meetings during the middle of lobster fishing season, which resulted in criticism for unintentionally excluding fisherman from the discussion and led to the lobster fishers gathering outside the meeting place to protest (Moreland et al., 2021). 

When deciding how to proceed with a consultation process, contextual factors can always shape the method of consultation and influence the success of participation and co-operation. 

Be Aware of Trade-offs  

Choosing an appropriate approach is crucial for effective consultation and can vary widely depending on the philosophical approach of the consultant (Doberstein, 2022). Public servants must balance competing considerations including the purpose of the consultation, resource constraints, stakeholder expectations, and public opinion (Health Canada, 2002). The approach can impact stakeholder diversity, participation, and the ultimate result of consultation (Chwalisz, 2021; Fraussen et al., 2020). Thus, public servants may wish to tailor their approach to address resource constraints, to achieve particular aims, or to overcome contextual barriers to effective consultation (Doberstein, 2022; Fraussen et al., 2020).  

While aligning consultation approaches with available resources is important, public officials should also consider the impact of their design on stakeholder attendance and participation. Different approaches will implicitly and explicitly impact the types of stakeholders engaged and the quality of participation available to stakeholders (Ballesteros & Dickey-Collas, 2023; Fraussen et al., 2020). For example, consultations may be open to the public, or they may be held on an invite-only basis. Invite-only consultations may increase stakeholder diversity and address dominance by powerful stakeholder groups by giving the public officials control over the process, but there is also a risk that this approach will perpetuate institutional blind spots (Fraussen et al., 2020). Public officials must be intentional to ensure that consultation meaningfully explores tensions among stakeholders (Doberstein, 2022). However, some research has found that making consultation highly accessible to a wide range of stakeholder groups, such as open online consultations, often requires a trade-off when it comes to fostering trusting relationships (Chwalisz, 2021). It is crucial for public officials to consider how to effectively balance competing interests in the design of their consultation. 

It is also important to determine the desired level of public influence over the final decision when choosing an approach. Where stakeholders have little influence over the decision, sharing information through a fact sheet may be sufficient (Health Canada, 2002). If decision-making power has been delegated to stakeholders, however, more intensive approaches such as citizens’ panels and study circles should be used (Health Canada, 2002). In the context of more intensive consultations, constraints on when and how stakeholders can participate may be employed to shape perceptions of credibility, transparency, and neutrality of the input (Ballesteros & Dickey-Collas, 2023). Consultation approaches should be intentionally chosen to ensure that the appropriate stakeholders are engaged and that the operating rules are aligned with the main purpose of the public involvement exercise (Health Canada, 2002).  

Despite the impact of the chosen approach on a consultation’s effectiveness, this decision may be guided by institutional norms or overarching policy objectives that are not tailored to the specific consultation (Fraussen et al., 2020). Public officials need to be informed about the trade-offs associated with available consultation approaches to ensure that their discretion is effectively utilized.  

Build Strong Relationships  

Engagement is a form of relationship building between governments and communities, and the way this relationship develops can affect final outcomes of policy development and implementation. The DFO consultation regarding the Eastern Shore Islands area demonstrates the importance of ongoing communication between organisations and the public to build trust, especially when the goal of a consultation is to gain public support. It takes time to establish strong relationships between participants and facilitators (Moreland et al., 2021). Rushing the consultation process can hinder its success. As stated by participants from the DFO consultation, they felt the impact of a tight timeline and wished they had more time for opportunities to connect more with their fellow stakeholders (Moreland et al., 2021).  

Opposition and timing are conflicts that can be common in consultation relationships. Factors like these should be acknowledged, and the method with which planners respond to these forces must be chosen carefully, with an understanding that the strategy they choose may present different outcomes on the relationship (Doberstein, 2022).  

Relationships also can be impacted by external forces, such as misinformation (Moreland et al., 2021), or previous sociopolitical unease (Doberstein, 2022; Editors, 2022). These factors can test the trust that is being built in the consultation relationship. In interviews with original participants in the DFO consultation, stakeholder participants stated that the trust they were building with the DFO in the consultation process helped to mitigate how misinformation and other opinions they would encounter outside of meetings affected their views (Moreland et al., 2021). 

Established relationships can also mitigate the impact of pressures that are not related to the consultation’s subject matter. Developing personal relationships between stakeholder representatives can be especially important in contexts that are vulnerable to tensions, such as international cooperation efforts (Editors, 2022). Representatives with a history of effective collaboration may be able to continue to work together successfully despite differences between their respective organizations. Domestic and international issues require increasing cooperation among governments and stakeholders with competing interests. Building relationships between representatives for and through consultation is increasingly recognized for its importance for effective policymaking. 


Stakeholder consultation is crucial to ensure sensitive, effective, and appropriate policy outcomes can be achieved. Thus, approaches to consultation must be continually evaluated to reflect changing norms (Chwalisz, 2021), cultural sensitivities (Fraussen et al., 2020) and values (Chwalisz, 2021). Policy makers and consultation planners should be prepared to keep up to date with current research on the standards for design, as well as the specific contexts where consultation takes place. Policy makers must gather evidence-based tools to put their knowledge into practice in communities and with stakeholders. These are essential steps to take towards creating policy that achieves its purpose and meet the needs of the people it serves. 



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: Riel Bjerke-Clark, Julia Crowell, and Christie Hagerman 

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. 

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