In any subject of endeavour the basics are always the same: you get the best output from the best input. In literature you start with the original texts; science has the controlled experiment; in engineering you work with the best materials you can get your hands on. In public policy the highest quality raw material is that most elusive of political realities: the voiced opinion of an engaged and informed group. Some days you might be convinced that there’s a lack of anything like a reasonable apparatus for citizen contact: that either the patrician class uses public consultation for cynical manipulation, to cloak their already-made-up minds in a fake legitimacy; or that citizens sometimes don’t rise above apathy. So as public policy practitioners, who do we turn to to provide us with this critical service?
Mass LBP is a small shop of a half-dozen people working out of a King Street storefront. Their purpose is to popularize new models of public consultation that give accurate information to administrative bodies, and serve to engage the public. “Evidence across the western world shows that there’s declining trust and declining legitimacy of our public institutions, particularly our decision-making institutions, politicians and government,” said Alex Way, the director of strategy at MASS LBP. “I think that, if done well, [public consultation] is a way to buttress against some of the deep challenges to the public legitimacy of these institutions.”
To swing it back to first principles, a public consultation is any structured opportunity for public feedback about an assertion. As Way pointed out “That could be most generally… to run a town hall or do a phone poll. For public servants, that’s the way it’s most often done”. These types of public consultation are the humdrum things that we’re used to: the “town hall” meetings that start at 5:30, when most working citizens are travelling. Or the phone polls where “you’re called up and interrupted during your dinner hour, and you’re not really sure what they’re talking about or have only a modest understanding of the issue.” The feedback that the decision-maker gets is “this very fragmented set of concerns that people have expressed, that are often easily refuted by policy analysis.”
The kind of public consultation that MASS LBP decided to champion is what’s known as a “citizens’ reference panel,” where a randomly-selected group of interested citizens engage in an extended period of learning about an issue before they give input or provide feedback. Over the past six years MASS LBP has been improving and refining this approach to public consultation popularizing the model by “figuring out how to make citizen reference panel’s affordable for governments to undertake, and not as logistically complicated as one might expect.” Beginning with the involvement of MASS LBP’s co-founder, Peter MacLeod, in the work surrounding the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform , MASS LBP has settled into this niche, running eighteen citizens’ reference panels and completing over a hundred other projects for public and non-profit clients across the country, all while figuring out how to make reference panels more affordable, reliable, and constructive for decision makers and the public at large.
One successful project concerned the strategic direction of a community hospital in Cobourg. Suffering from consistent operating deficits, the hospital needed to develop a strategy for balancing their budget. The hospital executive was forced to cut some services and they risked making a decision that was out of line with the values of the community they were meant to serve. According to Way, “We sent out 10,000 letters from the CEO,” appealing for members to join a panel for four weekends. Out of the volunteers, MASS randomly selected 36 volunteers stratified for age, gender, and geography. Selecting on these bases has so far ensured that the selection process creates a panel that is demographically similar to the community that the consultation seeks to represent. The panel put forward final recommendations to cut services and afterwards the hospital saw no protests, or any drop in volunteer rates. It remained a strong and vital community institution because it entrusted its fate to the members of the community that it served, and engaged them in the process of decision-making.
There’s a buzz surrounding the advent of digital media tools, and the ‘gamification’ of democratic engagement–but Way is fairly cool to the idea, noting that although online tools are useful in certain areas, they have “limited application when it comes to tough issues that have considerable amounts of learning required,” and that the truncated form of deliberation you find online just isn’t sufficient to a robust sampling of public opinion. Gamification of democratic challenges has as much impact as ‘liking’ a charity on Facebook. That is to say: virtually none.
“People certainly want the option [to be involved], and want other people like them to be involved,” said Way. “Evidence across the western world shows that there’s declining trust and declining legitimacy of our public institutions, particularly our decision-making institutions, politicians, and government. I think that if done well, this is a way to buttress against some of the deep challenges to the public legitimacy of these institutions.”
However, we should remember that citizens’ panels aren’t necessarily a panacea for democracy and certainly aren’t going to replace any governance structures. The idea of establishing continuous or long-running panels to deal with pressing issues risks devolving into something that resembles the structure that it was created to help support. A recent example of participatory budgeting (where a panel of citizens are engaged in allocating money) in Hamilton illustrated the problem perfectly: citizens were able to put forward detailed examples of spending allocations, but in the end ran into technical problems in implementation, and eventual disagreements with city staff. In essence, they became members of the city staff, with the correlated problems and limitations. We need government systems to provide expertise in implementation, with the kind of engaged citizen conversation that these panels provide giving stakeholders not just expert polling, but insight and engagement.
Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston is a Master’s of Public Policy candidate for 2014 and the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Public Policy & Governance Review. He has been published in the Ottawa XPress, Ottawa Citizen, and Globe and Mail newspapers, and The Awl website. He previously achieved a Bachelor of Humanities and M.A. in Literature from Carleton University.