Consultation enhances service by involving members of the public in program and policy matters that affect them directly or indirectly. Public consultation benefits both those in government and those served by government, by:
- creating a climate in which the government and the public can exchange views, ideas, and information that result in policies and programs responsive to public priorities, needs, and concerns
- broadening the decision-making sphere by engaging all interested members of the public in seeking consensus on policy and program objectives
- providing the public with a better understanding of policy and program options, and government responsibilities and constraints, and,
- promoting a more favourable environment for decisions, thus maximising the potential for concurrence and minimising the potential for conflict.
Consultation takes many forms, both formal and informal. Informal consultation occurs regularly and routinely, involving public servants in a variety of settings and circumstances. Whether the activity is a telephone call, a ‘coffee shop’ encounter, an over-the-counter discussion, or a personal letter, public servants should take advantage of all situations to assure clients and stakeholders that their ideas are important and their views are valued. Informal consultation should be a regular part of any organisation's consultation activities. It is an important and personal means of relating to and serving members of the public.
There are many more formal and structured means of public consultation. These include departmental advisory bodies, public discussion papers, open houses, focus group meetings, multi-stakeholder negotiations, ‘armchair’ discussions, targeted briefings, workshops, questionnaires, toll-free telephone lines, and town hall meetings. Agencies themselves are best positioned to identify who their consultation partners are and how they can be consulted.
While the types of formal and informal consultation activities are various, there are attributes that apply to all. Below is a set of principles that should be considered in the context of an agency's consultation activities. The important thing is for each agency to know its stakeholders and to have a consultation strategy established that appropriately encourages and provides for input from the public.
Consultation is not synonymous with consensus. It is, however, a process that permits and promotes the two-way flow of ideas and information among all sectors of society and between them and the government. The process ensures that the public are aware of and consulted about options that ultimately will become decisions affecting their lives. Effective consultation is based on principles of openness, transparency, integrity, and mutual respect.
As with the communications function, consultation is a shared management responsibility, that is, one that is the responsibility of every manager in the public service. As with all management responsibilities, satisfactory consultation requires good planning, research, analysis, advice and feedback.
Canada's Principles of Consultation
1. Consultation with Canadians is intrinsic to effective public policy development and service to the public. It should be the first thought, not an afterthought.
2. To be effective, consultation must be based on openness, trust, integrity, mutual respect for the legitimacy and point of view of all participants.
3. The outcome of consultation should not be predetermined. Consultation should not be used to communicate decisions already taken.
4. The initiative to consult may come from inside government or outside - each should respond as constructively as it can.
5. Whenever possible, consultation should involve all parties who can contribute to or who are affected by the outcome of legislation.
6. Participants in consultation should have clear mandates. Participants should have influence over the outcome and a stake in implementing any action agreed upon.
7. Some participants may not have the resources or expertise required to participate. Thus, financial assistance or other support may be needed for their representation to be assured.
8. Effective consultation is about partnership. It implies shared responsibility and commitment: a clear, mutual understanding of the issues, objectives, purpose, and expectations of all parties is essential; the agenda and process should be negotiable; any constraints should be considered from the outset.
9. Participants should have a realistic idea of how much time a consultation is likely to take and plan for this in designing a process.
10. All participants must have timely access to relevant and easily understandable information and commit themselves to sharing information.
11. Effective consultation will not always lead to agreement; however, it should lead to a better understanding of each other's positions.
12. Where consultation does lead to agreement, whenever possible participants should hold themselves accountable for implementing the resulting recommendations.
13. Effective consultation requires follow-through. Participants are entitled to know what use is made of the views and information they provide; they should also be made aware of the impact their ideas and involvement ultimately have on government decision-making.
14. The skills required for effective communication are: listening, communicating, negotiating and consensus building. Participants should be trained in these skills.