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Public Engagement – What does the future hold?

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I recently attended a presentation on a research report about public consultation completed by the Canada School of Public Service: http://www.gcpedia.gc.ca/wiki/Participation_Publique_/_Public_Engagement (internal to GOC). The results of the research project are very interesting and I would be happy to share the results with anyone who is interested. I don’t have the answers to where public consultation is going nor where it should be. However, I know the people who can modernize public consultation are out there and need to start speaking up. I’m hoping this post encourages you to let your voice be heard.

The United States Government is one of the leading governments when it comes to citizen and public engagement. For example, http://challenge.gov presents challenges for citizens to solve and the citizen with the best solution is the winner of a modest prize. There is no doubt the movement in the field is towards more open and collaborative ways of engaging with citizens on policy issues and solving problems. Here’s what I think is missing: public consultation needs a disruptive innovation or it will continue to fall behind the expectations of the public.


Public consultation is evolving in small part due to social media and the flattening of traditional hierarchies of power. Government is holding less power and less information than ever before. Public consultation is evolving in response to more complex issues and the need to outsource as internal capacity is reduced in response to “belt tightening”. Additionally, other societal pressures including urbanization, competing generational demands on government and a more diverse population are placing pressure on the public consultation field to find new ways of doing business.

However, is the public service ready for this change in public consultation? Are we prepared to handle the new risks and new pressures of an expanded, open and more social public consultation process? One thing I can say for certain is that the bureaucracy has recognized that change is happening and that we need to change in order to stay relevant and effective at public consultation. For example, we know that regulations surrounding consultation need modernization, that communication rules need to be more flexible and that privacy guidelines need to reflect the new digital reality we face everyday. We also know that we need different public engagement models in order to reach different groups of citizens who connect to the world in different ways, we know that the typical “black box” of policy cannot exist in a social world. For those who have never heard of the black box of policy; in traditional policy making input from citizens was gathered and put into a policy making process that was largely not open or transparent to citizens. The final policy incorporated input from citizens but how input was translated into policy was often difficult to figure out. The new model of public consultation demands a “white box” approach where citizen engagement feeds into an open and transparent policy process so that citizens can see how their input shaped the final policy.

How can we modernize the public consultation system? How can we respond to the different societal factors putting pressure on us? We need to drop the traditional “incremental” system of innovation that is typical of the public service. We need to abadon “small steps” of innovation and start thinking outside the box. We need to disrupt the very foundation of public consultation and find a new and cheaper way of reaching out to the public. I would argue that http://challenge.gov is disruptive innovation in flesh and blood. While Canada has individual examples of citizen engagement outside traditional methods (i.e. Tony Clement’s Twitter Chat on Open Government and Royal Canadian Mint’s Digitial Currency Contest)but Canada does not have a united and coordinated citizen engagement platform.

We need to stop looking at the tool and start focusing on the outcomes. It’s not necessarily about the tool we use to engage in public consultation but more about what outcome we want to achieve through using public consultation. Once we figure out what we want to achieve, we can pick out what parts of the system (i.e. communications, privacy, security, social media etc.) that need to change. More than that, we need to drop

So the challenge I lay to public servants everywhere is to challenge the norms in your organization regarding public consultation. Go beyond saying “things are changing” and start creating projects that leverage new technology, make use of social media and always aim for disruptive innovation. Enact change as best as you can. Together we can disrupt the existing processes and create a more efficient and effective public consultation process.

Scott McNaughton, thenewbureaucracy.ca and govstories.tumblr.com

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