“A lot of public consultation is useless,” said Peter MacLeod, co-founder and principal of MASS LBP, during a presentation last Thursday afternoon at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. He spoke on the five-year anniversary of MASS LBP. The firm has now tackled more than 70 different policy projects, including 18 citizen panels.
McLeod argues that when it comes to typical exercises of public engagement: “We waste our time. We waste the public’s time. We go through the motions.”
According to MacLeod, there are serious design problems in the way governments and corporations engage the public on matters of public interest. Today, the typical public consultation process is often seen as an after-thought, rather than a sustained conversation between government and its people. As a result, traditional public engagement strategies fail to be democratic.
Let me give you an example.
Imagine you are a public servant and you are asked to organize a public consultation meeting. You’ll probably start by searching for a town hall with the largest room available to accommodate the largest possible crowd of people. Maybe you will post bulletins with the headline “Tell us what you think?” around a neighbourhood. After that, you may feel ambitious and use social media or create an online forum to make it more convenient for people to leave their comments.
Is this really the best way to include the public in decision-making? MacLeod asks us to consider the effectiveness of these traditional public consultation mechanisms.
He asserts that while traditional methods of public engagement are well intentioned, they are poorly designed and inadvertently reinforce a hostile environment. The public often becomes frustrated when they feel their opinions are not taken into account in the decision-making process.
This type of public engagement typically uses individualistic language, which MacLeod identifies as problematic. He argues that we appeal to people’s sense of self-interest and forget to appeal to their sense of public interest, which is where we need to put our focus.
Generally, traditional approaches to public engagement assume that the public is polarized, volatile, emotional and uninformed. Governments and corporations then respond by viewing the public as a risk that needs to be managed.
MacLeod urges us to abandon this line of thinking and take a leap of faith—to start seeing the public as a resource; people who are caring, reasonable, purposeful and curious. He believes that people want to have their say and are willing to serve their communities.
Public engagement should be seen as an issue of governance and “democratic fitness”, a term that he uses to describe the “capacity in people to play an active role in the governance and life of their community.”
By framing it through this lens, MASS LBP offers up two new ways to engage the public in a democratic process that builds awareness, insight and agreement. The first is the creation of a Civic Lottery, which randomly selects representatives of the public to participate in civic initiatives. The second is the creation of a Citizens’ Reference Panel, which requires more time commitment from the public.
The objective of a Citizens’ Reference Panel is to provide an informed public perspective on complex issues; obtain a high degree of consensus through an iterative process; and assist decision-makers to make tough choices. It also seeks to capture the real essence of democracy because it asks the public to learn from each other, understand shared challenges, and recommend shared solutions.
To make public engagement a successful process, governments and corporations need to be accountable to the outcomes of the public engagement process. This is what MacLeod refers to as “The Dual Contract”, where governments and corporations acknowledge and respond to the efforts of the public, and act on the recommendations that make sense.
As per McLeod: “The problem isn’t that we ask too much of people, but too little. We need to have courage to ask more in a different way. If we do, we will be pleasantly surprised”.
Learn more about MASS LBP and their projects here: http://www.masslbp.com/journal.php
Carolyn Kim is a 2014 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She also received a Bachelor of Urban and Regional Planning from Ryerson University. She previously worked in the fields of land use development and transportation planning.