Where’s the Meaning in All This Consultation?

Have you checked out the Government of Canada’s consultations website lately? By our count, as of today (Sept. 2) there are 58 active consultations – and that’s not even including a long list of additional “ongoing consultations” at the bottom of the page.

At first blush, this might be seen as a good and positive thing – the country’s leaders are asking Canadians for input, and that (hopefully) means they’re using engagement to inform important decisions.

Well… yes and no.

Yes, it’s great that the Liberals seem motivated to ask for input on all kinds of topics – from the recovery strategy for the Northern Leopard Frog, to ideas for electoral reform, and everything in between. However, the phenomenon of “engagement fatigue” is real, and this sheer volume of national consultations makes us want to lie down and take a nap. Where is the engaged citizen to start?

There are some other challenges to effective and meaningful engagement that we’ve noticed with this recent federal consultation frenzy. CBC reported last week that a “quiet” consultation on how federal judges are disciplined was due to close (on Aug. 31 – sorry, folks), after only a solitary tweet from Justice Canada, during prime summer holiday season, asking people to participate.

Part of authentic engagement is effective communication – and that includes actively letting stakeholders know you’re seeking input, as well as telling them why the decision might impact them.

Why should they care? It’s also important to clearly communicate the decision, and what you’re asking stakeholders to weigh in on.

Perhaps even more egregious than the lack of promotion for this judge discipline engagement was the lack of readily-accessible information about the decision, and what they were seeking input on. The consultation webpage simply had two paragraphs of text, a link to the discussion paper, and a single open-text field for comments.

justice consultation screenshot


Even super motivated, highly-impacted stakeholders would be hard pressed to read through and digest the 53-page paper, and then respond coherently in that single text box to the more than 40 questions outlined in the paper. Our view, and the view of professional associations that foster and oversee engagement protocol, would suggest a more accessible approach is warranted.

Further troubling is what might happen to all that open text input received after those dedicated people have worked hard to overcome multiple barriers and have actually submitted their comments. Any engagement practitioner who has nearly drowned in a sea of lengthy open-text survey responses – and then had to figure out how to sort, categorize and code all that input – will tell you that format also creates all kinds of barriers for actually using the input in the decision. Not to mention all the taxpayer dollars paying for staff time to do all that coding.

Unfortunately, this engagement is not the only one we’ve seen with such challenges. This frank and funny Vice article about the recent consultation on legalization of marijuana outlines barriers such as too much “boring” text, and ineffective communication on how people might be impacted / why they should care.

The electoral reform survey is estimated to take 30 minutes and also includes a decent amount of text-based background information for review. Once you actually get to the questions, providing your name, email, postal code, age, and gender is mandatory in order to continue. In our 20-year history of engagement work, we have found that all of these parameters are barriers to participation.

We absolutely don’t want to discourage our federal government from engaging Canadians – in fact, that’s the opposite of what we’d like to see. However, international engagement best practices and values strongly encourage feedback to stakeholders on if and how their input was used, and also ongoing evaluation of engagement activities.

The evidence of sincerity is in the result. Let’s keep watching.