Meaningful engagement comes at a price
It is an interesting indicator of the changing state of our political culture that even the most secretive and centralizing of governments now feel obliged to insist they consult closely with the public on key issues. At the same time, stakeholders regularly complain about the lack of consultation. They say decision-making is too closed, top-down and unresponsive.
These views are not necessarily contradictory. While there’s been remarkable growth in consultation over the past quarter-century, government decision-making is also often more centralized and top-down than in the past. What is happening? The answer lies in the process. While there are endless forms of consultation, from large, national hearings to local town-halls, the basic model is the same.
A government committee of some sort presents itself to the public as an impartial tribunal. The public then lines up to present its views, one at a time. Once all the submissions have been made, the committee retreats to the antechamber, reviews the submissions, deliberates and makes recommendations to government, which then decides.
If the model has served us well enough over the years, it no longer meets our needs. At a time when businesses, civil society and citizens must learn to collaborate more effectively, it has just the opposite effect. It divides them.
Consider a consultation on tax reform. If I represent small business, my basic goal would be to convince the committee that my position (say, cuts to payroll taxes) would best serve the public interest and so it should act on my advice.
To convince the committee, it is in my interest to seek out shocking statistics or studies that support my position, sharply distinguish it from others, or bring competing claims into disrepute: the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
In this environment, other groups seeking to influence the committee become my competitors, such as the anti-poverty organization which fears that such cuts will weaken social programs. This, in turn, creates distrust, tensions and rivalries between us.
This situation is also bad for government. In effect, the committee ends up with a shopping list of recommendations and positions, many of which are incompatible. So when it sits down to make recommendations, some oxen will be gored. As a result, committees have become increasingly secretive about their rationale and defensive about their choices, which in turn only makes the participants cynical about the process. We have entered a downward spiral that works well neither for the public nor government.
As innovative approaches like the BC Citizens Assembly or policy organizations like the Canadian Policy Research Networks have shown, there is an alternative. Government does not have to present itself as the impartial listener. It could engage in the process more as a facilitator. As such, its primary task would be to get the various stakeholders to begin engaging one another, rather than competing for influence.
Such a process would give them a more substantive role. It would be designed to get them to listen to one another and learn about each others’ views, discuss their similarities and differences, weigh evidence and arguments for the various claims, and work together to find common goals, joint priorities, make choices and compromises together, and propose common measures.
In short, it would be designed to bring them together, rather than divide them. At the same time, it would result in a more coherent set of options for governments, instead of the usual shopping list.
There is a price governments must pay to make such a process work. If they really want citizens and stakeholders to sit down and try to overcome their differences on difficult issues, the participants must be convinced that these efforts will be rewarded.
In brief, they must believe that if they find common ground, their recommendations will have some meaningful and demonstrable influence over the final decisions. At one extreme, this would be a commitment from government that if the participants reach agreement on an issue, government will simply accept their conclusions.
But it need not go this far. Often it will be enough for government to promise that if its final decision departs from one reached by the stakeholders, it owes them a full, clear and written account of its reasons. Between these two extremes, there are other options.
In conclusion, while this kind of process is neither possible nor desirable in all cases, it could and should be far more widely used than it is now. It is high time governments abandoned their over-reliance on traditional consultation and adopted a more deliberative approach to public engagement.
Don Lenihan is provincial advisor on public engagement to the Government of New Brunswick. Engage with him directly at email@example.com
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