In October 2008, New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham announced his government’s Poverty Reduction Initiative. The goal, he said, was to transform how the province deals with poverty. Graham went on to explain that poverty is a “complex” issue: that is, it can’t be solved by government alone. Everyone has a role to play. In keeping with this, the task he set himself was to develop an anti-poverty strategy that was jointly owned by government, stakeholders and the general public.

Most political strategists would recoil from such an undertaking. They seem to have four basic objections to this kind of collaboration. First, many doubt the public will actually take any real responsibility for solving an issue like poverty. Second, an effort to get them to do so will require lots of talk. But talk-fests can make the leader a sitting duck for opponents, who will blast him or her as weak, adrift or lacking in ideas. Third, there is a concern that such a process might saddle the government with bad policies. Fourth, and lastly, issues like poverty are potentially wedge issues, so opponents can use the dialogue process to polarize public opinion. If this works, it can quickly turn a well-intentioned dialogue into an ugly shouting match, as we saw last year with US town halls on health care.

Let’s call these the four pitfalls of collaboration. None of them proved true in New Brunswick. On the contrary, the process produced a collaborative strategy that makes real progress on changing how the province deals with poverty. Moreover, the debate remained civil — even thoughtful — throughout, as the following points attest:

  • David Alward, Leader of the Official Opposition in the legislature, gave his full support to the process. Alward participated in the Final Forum where the solutions were adopted and, in a press interview, described the experience as “incredibly emotional and moving.” He also promised that, should he become premier, his government would build on the initiative, rather than undoing it.
  • When legislation to implement the action plan was introduced in the legislature, the opposition Conservative Party greeted it with a standing ovation.
  • Going into the process, New Brunswick had the lowest minimum wage in the Atlantic region. Yet business leaders from across the province agreed to a proposal to allow it to rise quickly to the Atlantic average.
  • In over 50 press clippings from major dailies in the province that were reviewed for this article, assessments ranged from cautious optimism to glowing praise for the process, the solutions and the leaders.

In the acrimonious world of partisan politics, this kind of cooperation and agreement is rare. So what happened here? Was Graham just lucky?

If so, that is bad news for all of us, for Graham’s point about poverty being complex is equally true of education, the environment, public safety and health. Indeed, it is now widely agreed that all major policy fields are complex. The reason is that, as society has become more complex and interdependent, so have issues. As a result, many issues now require more than a government strategy; they require collaborative action. But if collaboration requires dialogue, and dialogue processes really are politically perilous, street-smart political leaders will work hard to avoid them. Unfortunately, this also means they will be unable to deal effectively with the issues.

So what, if anything, can we learn from New Brunswick’s experience? In fact, it offers a very timely lesson. The project’s success was based on more than luck. It rests on the “bottom-up” nature of the engagement process, which not only succeeded in transferring some ownership and responsibility to the public, but also changed the normal rules of political debate. As we shall see, the welcome news here is that the right kind of process can allow a government to avoid, or perhaps even overcome, all four pitfalls.

The poverty reduction process had three stages, each of which involved a different subset of “the public.” Each stage also included individuals who have experienced poverty, to ensure the voices and perspectives of the poor and working poor were present throughout.

Stage I: The Dialogue Sessions: Between January and March 2009, 16 dialogue sessions were held around the province. All New Brunswickers were invited to attend and share their views on the best ways to reduce poverty. They could also participate on-line or by letter, fax or brief. Twenty-five hundred people responded. The findings were then assembled in a report, titled A Choir of Voices, which provided the basis for the discussions in Stage II.

Stage II: The Round Table Sessions: Stage II was launched in the spring/fall of 2009. The plan was to assemble a cross-section of 30 experts from the public domain, ask them to meet at a series of round tables, review the findings from Stage I and propose a menu of options to implement the findings. The experts were there not to debate and advance their own views, but to build on the work begun by citizens.

What, if anything, can we learn from New Brunswick’s experience? In fact, it offers a very timely lesson. The project’s success was based on more than luck. It rests on the “bottomup” nature of the engagement process, which not only succeeded in transferring some ownership and responsibility to the public, but also changed the normal rules of political debate.

Stage III: The Final Forum: The Final Forum was held on November 12 and 13, 2009, and was facilitated personally by Premier Graham. Fifty participants came together to debate the options from Stage II, including senior leaders from government, business and the voluntary sector. Together they adopted the first-ever poverty reduction plan for the province, which commits all the participants to work together to reduce income poverty in the province by 25 percent and deep income poverty by 50 percent by 2015, through a list of “priority actions”:

  • raise the minimum wage to the Atlantic average
  • restructure and increase welfare rates by up to 80 percent
  • raise allowable asset exemption by redefining the “economic unit” that determines household income for persons in poverty
  • launch a new drug plan for people living in poverty
  • provide stable funding for homeless shelters
  • provide funding for five integrated early learning sites
  • move from a rules-based to an outcome-based system, and from passive assistance to employment orientation, within five years
  • introduce an early learning and child care act
  • create a new Crown corporation to oversee implementation of the action plan and to lead further iterations of the poverty reduction process
  • commit the three sectors to work together to develop “social inclusion networks” across the province to provide new forms of support and opportunities for the poor and working poor

If there were doubts whether this process would yield a significant collaborative action plan, this should lay them to rest. The plan is forward-looking, comprehensive, ambitious and collaborative.

Consider the move from a rules-based to an outcome-based system. This amounts to a sea change in how officials implement welfare policies. The system had been criticized for being too tightly tied to compliance with rules. For example, when welfare recipients found a job, most automatically lost their medical and/or dental benefits, potentially leaving these people worse off than before. This was a huge disincentive to finding work. By focusing more on the goal of getting people back to work, and less on the rules of qualifying for benefits, officials will gain some flexibility in how they deal with individual cases. Thus in future it should be possible to let someone keep their medical benefits for a time after they find a job if, say, that encourages the person to accept a minimum-wage job.

Or consider such actions as the creation of five new integrated early learning sites, which will be the responsibility of the McCain Foundation; or raising the minimum wage, the cost of which will be borne by businesses — especially small businesses. Actions like these clearly show that nongovernmental actors are willing to take on some responsibility.

The proposed community economic and social inclusion networks will take collaboration another big step forward. If these networks are to be built, government, nonprofits and business will need to make real changes in how they conduct their day-to-day business. The plan commits them to working together to do this by better aligning their activities and resources at the community level, and working to mobilize citizens.

Finally, the project as a whole will be led and coordinated by a new Crown corporation, called the Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation. It will have four vice-chairpersons, one each from government, the nonprofit sector, business and people who have experienced poverty. The corporation will be overseen by a 22-member board of directors representing the same four groups.

In sum, the action plan is genuinely collaborative and, as such, clearly shows that the public is willing to take some ownership and responsibility for solving issues. The key to having achieved this lies in the three-stage process. Rather than treating the public as a passive observer of government activities, it was designed to challenge people and organizations to see themselves as full partners in both the decisions and the responsibilities around reducing poverty — and the public rose to the occasion.

Moreover, neither the dialogue nor the work is finished. The new Crown corporation will lead and coordinate an ongoing cycle of dialogue and action, slowly building a new kind of social partnership around the goal of eliminating poverty.

As for our third pitfall — concerns over bad policies — we can now see that this is a red herring. In the Final Forum, no one had the power to compel government to choose one option over another, any more than government had the power to compel, say, the private sector to do so. Premier Graham reports that, as options were being discussed in Stage II, cabinet spent many hours discussing the emerging options. This allowed ministers to prepare various scenarios, unite around key options and make sure they weren’t taking anything for granted. According to the Premier, the process in no way compromised government decision making. On the contrary, it legitimated the final choices.

So how did the process deal with the other two pitfalls — the weak leader and wedge arguments? Let’s start with the former.

Most political leaders know all too well that issues like poverty are complex, and that governments lack the resources and authorities to make more than a small dent in them. But the normal rules of political debate leave little room to acknowledge this, let alone call on the public to help solve the problem. Such talk leaves a political leader open to the charge that he or she is weak or stalling or lacks a plan. By comparison, an opponent who claims to have such a plan looks decisive and competent, and therefore attractive to voters.

Unfortunately, such plans are usually formed without the full participation of stakeholders and communities. As a result, they can’t assign the public any real tasks. Instead, they focus on things under government’s control, such as its spending priorities. While this can be helpful, it all but assures the plan will be too narrow to make real progress on an issue like poverty. More worryingly, such plans are often no more than a shuffling of government programs and services — reorganization for reorganization’s sake.

In short, complexity poses a dilemma for political leaders. On one hand, if they propose a major process to engage the public on issues like poverty, they run the risk of looking weak, indecisive and “caught up in process.” On the other hand, they can’t propose a plan that assigns real responsibilities to the public without such a process.

The way through this dilemma is to ensure the process gives the public a clear, authoritative voice with which to defend the process against partisan attacks. The New Brunswick process provides an interesting illustration of what can happen when the public finds it has such a voice.

At the outset, the Premier named three co-chairs to lead the process: Kelly Lamrock, Minister of Social Development; Leo-Paul Pinet, a well-known leader in the voluntary sector; and Gerry Pond, a highly respected leader in the business community.

At one point, Opposition Leader David Alward, who had also agreed to participate in the process, published a surprise statement alleging that the existing rules around welfare focused the public service on ensuring that “no one gets one more cent than the rules say they are entitled to,” rather than helping them improve their lot in life. If elected, he said, his government “would change this, empowering civil servants in the department to stop working against people and start working for them.” In effect, Alward was advocating the same shift from a rules-based to an outcome-based system that, in the end, was included in the action plan, but he was demanding that the government move on it now.

Alward apparently thought he could put Lamrock on the defensive by suggesting he was hiding behind the process and then challenging him to show “real” leadership. In normal circumstances, this tactic likely would have worked, so Alward must have been startled to find a rapid reply in the Letters to the Editor section of a major daily, not from the minister, but from the other two co-chairs, who wrote:

The Opposition participation has been very constructive up to now. Both parties agreed to respect the engagement process and avoid taking final positions until the final forum. If government hasn’t made final decisions, it’s because of an agreement the Opposition party also agreed to respect…The non-partisanship that has characterized the process shall continue when it is time to agree to the terms of an effective, coherent plan that’s shared by all sectors of society. Otherwise, those who felt heard in this process will not feel fully included.

In effect, the co-chairs were telling Alward to cease and desist. They were declaring that these were not normal circumstances. The process did not belong solely to the government, but to the public as a whole. The co-chairs therefore felt authorized — obliged — to speak out on behalf of the citizens and stakeholders they represented.

Their message to Alward was clear. Lamrock had made a commitment to respect the process, and the process was not over. It was therefore wrong for Alward to call on him to take action at this time. Furthermore, having also signed onto the process, Alward himself was obliged to let the process run its course.

In political terms, this was an extraordinary turn of events. The cochairs were declaring not only that the public was a real partner in the process, but that, as its leaders, they were willing and able to exercise some control over the political debate around it. In normal circumstances, political opponents won’t hesitate to lock horns with a minister over the issues, even as public consultation proceeds. Here the normal rules of public debate had changed. The warning to politicians on all sides was clear: narrow partisan politics would not be tolerated.

Much to Alward’s credit, he not only heard the message, but took it to heart. He abruptly abandoned his challenge to the minister and resumed the nonpartisan stance he had taken until then. He has since emerged as a committed champion of public engagement.

On reflection, perhaps none of this should be too surprising. After all, in a democracy, when citizens “speak,” politicians, public servants and even the media are supposed to listen. A public engagement process like this one puts that principle into practice in a new way by providing a platform from which the public can speak more authoritatively and clearly about an issue than usually. A politician who tries to undermine such a process through partisan tactics does so at his or her peril. By the same token, once politicians recognize that such a process gives the public a new voice in the policy process, the dynamics and rules of normal political debate will change. Indeed, as the remarkably positive coverage in the media suggests, even journalists — who normally pull no punches when it comes to big government processes — seemed to understand that the New Brunswick process had somehow shifted the terrain and, as a result, they treated it with an uncharacteristic amount of respect. It is worth adding here that the media and politicians in British Columbia showed similar deference to, and respect for, the province’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in 2004.

Our final pitfall concerns the threat of wedge arguments. To say that an issue like poverty is complex is to say that it can have a wide variety of causes, such as cultural practices, economic status, gender differences, education levels and so on. In debate, leaders, commentators and advocates respond to this kind of complexity by trying to “frame the issue”; that is, they try to establish how it will be positioned and understood in public debate.

Framing is a critical step in determining solutions. For example, if poverty gets framed as an educational issue, resources are more likely to flow in that direction. On the other hand, if it gets framed as the product of laziness, public attitudes toward people in poverty may become impatient, resentful and even punitive. So the stakes here are high and the effort to “win” the framing debate often creates a highly charged, partisan environment.

This environment may also be the perfect opportunity for wedge arguments. The strategy is simple, but potentially devastating. Someone with media influence — often a politician — seeks to polarize public opinion by framing the debate around a highly emotional, black-and-white view of the issue. This is then backed up by simplistic, partisan slogans. Thus someone might argue that the only real solution to poverty is “tough love,” and that spending programs that support the poor simply reward laziness. If this succeeds, it will divide the public and likely derail any dialogue process that aims at collaboration.

The New Brunswick process minimizes the risk of wedge politics. In Stage I ordinary New Brunswickers were invited to express their views, simply and directly. Because the exchange was between citizens, politicians were expected to listen, not speak, so there was no real opportunity for them to drive a wedge into the dialogue. Of course, participants didn’t always agree among themselves, but they tended to listen to one another and to be respectful of their differences.

Contrary to what some might think, this is not unusual. Although citizens, notoriously, can and do become enraged and unruly at town hall meetings, most often such anger is directed at politicians, not each other; and it is usually based on a belief — too often justified — that government is not really listening. The key to getting citizens to behave as responsible adults is to treat them as such. In practice, this means assuring them that the next stage of the process will build on what they say, rather than ignore it. If they are convinced, they are far more likely to act reasonably.

Stage II was designed to achieve this by instructing the experts to work together to find fair and reasonable ways to assess and implement what citizens had to say in Stage I. This did not mean that every utterance by a citizen had to be turned into an option. Choices had to be made, but this was supposed to happen in a way that was transparent and fair. How far the process achieved this is open to debate, but the basic principle is sound: most citizens do not expect government to do everything they say. They simply want to know that they have a say. The New Brunswick process did a good enough job on this that, by the time stages I and II were completed, the dialogue had essentially been framed in an orderly, disciplined and democratic way.

Premier Graham’s experiment with public engagement was innovative, instructive and energizing. The Public Policy Forum’s Public Engagement Project (PEP) was launched two years ago to help explore, promote and test the general approach behind it. The PEP brings together some 500 public servants from nine governments across the country, and the Government of Australia. Although political leaders in both countries still rely heavily on conventional policy processes, there are encouraging signs that something big is stirring out there. In bringing this article to a close, let us point to some of the signs by taking a quick look at three projects the PEP is involved in.

The key to getting citizens to behave as responsible adults is to treat them as such. In practice, this means assuring them that the next stage of the process will build on what they say, rather than ignore it. If they are convinced, they are far more likely to act reasonably.

Poverty reduction in Nunavut: The Government of Nunavut has plans to launch its own poverty reduction process and will adapt the New Brunswick model to suit its people and circumstances. Premier Eva Aariak agrees with Premier Graham’s view of complexity. Overcoming poverty must be a community effort. Government can’t do it alone. Thus, she concludes, some kind of public engagement approach is the only real option for Nunavummiut. Moreover, article 32 of Nunavut’s founding agreement declares that Inuit must be involved in decision-making that affects their communities and culture. A recent study launched by Aariak found that Nunavummiut believe this commitment has not been met. They feel disconnected from their political institutions and resentful of the sometimes high-handed way that government policy is made and implemented. Aariak insists she is personally committed to changing this. To this end, her government’s Tamapta Action Plan sets out a vision for the future and defines the values by which the government will be guided. In particular, it emphasizes that traditional Inuit decision-making proceeded by discussion and consensus, and reaffirms the traditional Inuit value of self-reliance, which, Aariak is quick to note, includes less dependence on government. Aariak thus not only sees public engagement as a response to the 21st-century problem of complexity; she also sees it as comfortingly reminiscent of traditional Inuit values and practices. In many ways, this symmetry between the old and the new makes Nunavut the ideal place to develop and test public engagement.

A pan-Canadian sport policy: The Canadian Sport Policy was developed between 2000 and 2002, and then endorsed for a 10-year term by federal, provincial and territorial ministers in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in April 2002. With that term nearing its end, officials have begun working on the renewal of the policy. Now, the existing policy already includes a commitment to promote traditional sport-related goals like interaction and excellence, so in this round the discussion is shifting. A key question now is whether or how the policy should recognize that sport also contributes to broader societal goals, such as education, social cohesion or community economic development. Sport, it turns out, is remarkably multifaceted and has an impact on almost every other policy field. So far, governments have done little to tap into this. A new policy could try to leverage sport by casting it as a tool to help promote these other societal goals. But, if so, this “leveraging” could not be done by government alone. It would need the help of the more than 35,000 sports organizations across the country, which would be the primary agents for mobilizing communities and their members around a goal like social cohesion, say, by asking members to recruit new Canadians into their community sports leagues. However, if governments are to turn to stakeholders for help, these stakeholders will need to feel more than the traditional “buy-in” around the policy. They will need to feel a real sense of ownership of it and responsibility for making it work. This, in turn, means they must have a real and meaningful voice in developing it. The complexity argument thus surfaces here in full force and, in consequence, this time around, the 14 federal, provincial and territorial governments have taken more of a public engagement approach, bringing stakeholders into the discussion right from the start as full-fledged partners in the exercise.

A new service vision for Australia?: The Australian government is planning a major initiative to upgrade its aging service delivery infrastructure. In part, this involves embracing the new and emerging idea that “co-design” will define the next stage of the service delivery revolution. The government defines codesign as “the active engagement of users in the design of products and services that affect them.” The challenge is thus to make the public fullfledged partners in the service delivery process. Or, to put it differently, codesign calls on governments to move beyond simply delivering services and start using them to genuinely engage the public. This is potentially a game changer for government. In effect, it takes collaboration and public engagement out of the realm of high-level, strategic policy and sets them down in the middle of day-to-day program management. In practice, this means a wide range of programs and services, from health care to training, would need to be reconceived along the lines of something we can call “service partnerships.” The UK is experimenting with a similar idea. It is too early to say for sure how this will play out but, to the extent that Australia succeeds, co-design thus appears poised to bring public engagement into the mainstream of government operations. This would be the policy equivalent of achieving critical mass. We will be watching with interest.

This article is based on a longer study commissioned by the Canada School of Public Service for the Canadian Roundtable of the New Synthesis 6 Project, which was held in Ottawa in May 2010. 

Photo: Shutterstock

Don Lenihan
Don Lenihan is a senior associate with Canada 2020.

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