Polarization of debates and campaigns of misinformation has become the new method of discussing important issues or high-profile projects that affect Canadians. For governments at all levels that have a societal duty to consult, public engagement is meant to be the antidote to the increasing division in our society. From local planning issues to the Yellow Vest protests in France to the concept of social license, engagement with the public, including Indigenous communities, has been used to bridge a divide between public expectations and the operational reality facing decision-makers. It some cases, the results of an engagement initiative seem to be effective, while in others, they have stoked the flames of negative public opinion.

The success of one consultation and the failure of another is often framed by public perception. Hosting an engagement process that is viewed as meaningless or insincere can inflict as much damage as not consulting at all. This fact, however, is not preventing the simple concept of “meaningful” from being overlooked and poorly understood in public engagement work.

Decision-makers are beginning to recognize the importance of meaningful engagement. As an example, Bill C-69, now before the Senate, emphasizes the role of public consultation in the impact assessment process and stresses that the new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada must provide “meaningful” ways for the public to provide input.

Defining meaningfulness

While ensuring that public engagement is meaningful can be difficult, objectively measuring how far one has succeeded in doing so in an engagement initiative is even harder. Who decides what is meaningful? How can we determine if a consultation is meaningful if we don’t know what its impact is going to be on the decision or issue?

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), the professional organization of public engagement practitioners, sets out seven core values that should “help make better decisions which reflect the interests and concerns of…affected people and entities.” These values include involving the public only when they will have a real, tangible influence on the ultimate decision, providing participants with sufficient information to participate, and informing participants about how their input affected the final decision or issue.

The Government of Canada’s Open Government initiative states, based on the Rethinking Citizen Engagement study, that public engagement is meaningful if people are aware of opportunities to participate in consultations, have information needed to contribute, and believe their input will be “used to shape government decisions.”

At its core, whether public engagement is meaningful depends on whether it provides people with useful information to understand what is being discussed, gives participants an opportunity to explore compromises, ensures that their input has a tangible impact on the issue or decision, and communicates to them precisely how their input was used.

The role of meaningful engagement

Meaningfulness is essential to the success of any public engagement initiative. In fact, a lack of meaning is the reason why some people are contemptuous of such initiatives. It is especially important that attempts to establish dialogue with Indigenous Canadians and First Nations communities be meaningful, along with the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and rights. The Crown has a legal duty to engage in meaningful consultation whenever it has reason to believe that its policies or actions, directly or indirectly, might infringe upon actual or claimed Indigenous interests, rights or title. To understand how essential it is for engagement with Indigenous communities to be meaningful, consider the example of Manitoba, where a proposed cross-border transmission line has been delayed so that the federal government can undertake more consultation with Indigenous communities.

In Ottawa, the expansion of the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa offers a similar lesson in the importance of meaningful engagement. After consulting with local residents on the preliminary design proposal, the developers witnessed a growing backlash over the proposed design of the expansion, forcing them back to the drawing board. The revised proposal seems destined for a similar fate in the face of the developers’ reluctance to re-engage with members of the public. Other examples that illuminate the importance of meaningful engagement are not hard to find ─ from urban tree removal to the protection of Caribou herds.

The concept of meaningfulness in public engagement is not new. As far back as the 1960s, Sherry Arnstein created the Arnstein Ladder of Citizen Participation. She acutely recognized the pitfalls of “tokenism,” where a citizen’s voice is heard but there is no guarantee of follow-through on the part of the organizer. Arnstein’s seminal work, which has been taken up by others in the field, laid the foundation for our understanding of effective engagement.

Many of Arnstein’s ideas resonate today, and the practice of public engagement has changed as a result, from the days when it was just a “check-box” exercise to fulfill legislative or community requirements, or a public relations exercise aimed at winning over detractors’ hearts and minds.

Now the public has greater expectations for an engagement process. Faced with more opportunities than ever to provide input ─ on everything from municipal participatory budgeting to federal policy issues ─ members of the public expect the process to be well-run and for it to involve a decent return on their investment of time. The range of consultations available to Canadians has expanded with the increasing popularity of online engagement platforms, which, when well-designed and run, can provide meaningful opportunities for participation at one’s discretion.

Decision-makers would be wise to heed the principles of meaningfulness in public engagement initiatives. In order to be successful, meaningful public engagement requires the deliberate weaving of careful thought, planning and a place on the agenda of senior leadership and decision-makers involved.

Ensuring that public engagement is meaningful pays dividends for public engagement organizers and for society. Ignoring the principles of successful engagement can leave projects at risk and can increase public distrust in our institutions. Participants give their time and input for a decision or issue that is important to them; organizers need to ensure this investment is treated with the respect it deserves.

Photo: Shutterstock by Rawpixel.com

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Peter Wilton
Peter Wilton is a senior consultant in the public participation and communications practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Ottawa.

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