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Memo to Cabinet: Steal This Idea!

By Scott Proudfoot & Michael Teeter, Princiapls
April  2001  

Some public consultations are exceptionally well done – open, inclusive, & transparent. But lets face it – the way that federal departments and agencies and Parliamentary Committees consult with the public often leaves a lot to be desired. Here are some chronic problems that we see time and time again:

  • Rounding Up the Usual Suspects – Departments get in the habit of dealing with a small number of regular stakeholders and give insufficient thought to who else may be affected by their actions
  • Inadequate Public Notice - Some only learn about a public consultation process affecting their interests after it has come and gone.
  • Last Minute Rush - Internal processes bog down, decisions are delayed, deadlines are missed, and then there is a rush to act.  Consultations seem to be an afterthought.  They get rushed. Participants have inadequate time to prepare and feel bulldozed.

As it turns out, Tony Blair’s Labour Government is using the Internet to address some of these problems. We think the Canadian Government could ‘borrow’ Mr. Blair’s idea and improve on it.

On the UK Government’s citizen portal, UK Online an area called Citizen Space has been created to encourage greater participation in public policy discussions. In this area, the Cabinet Office runs a central public registry of on-going government consultations:

  • Current consultations topics are listed.
  • Links to background information on the issue are provided.
  • The date when consultations start and end is indicated.
  • You are told how to prepare a submission and where to send it. You can e-mail it directly from the site if you wish.

The central registry actually links to departmental consultation registries. There you can find out which consultations are ‘live’, which have recently closed, and obtain a copy of the government’s formal response to past consultations, which includes summaries of views expressed, and reasons for the final decisions taken.

Since all the UK departments have a ‘Consultations’ button easily displayed on the front page of their individual websites, you don’t need to go to the central site to find out what departments are doing.

To make the process more uniform and transparent, Prime Minister Blair and the Cabinet Office have established a formal Consultation Code of Practice.  It lays out the ground rules to deal with issues such as transparency, openness, and accountability. Officials who don’t follow the rules will have their knuckles rapped.

The UK Government’s program is a solid digital democracy initiative and they deserve credit for opening up the doors. 

To be fair, there are examples of good digital consultations within the Canadian federal system. Some examples are Industry Canada's spectrum consultations and the recent GATS consultation conducted by DFAIT.

And, the Department of Finance seems to have made a cyber visit to the UK. It just put up a Consultation Registry on its web site, which seems directly modeled on a similar registry established by the UK Inland Revenue Department.  Now, if only the other departments could jump on board and the center could link the pieces in a central registry, we would be on our way.

However, to make the process of public policy decision-making even more open, transparent and inclusive, a few improvements could be added to the UK approach.

Why can’t anyone be informed of an upcoming consultation by e-mail? 

As part of any Consultation Registry why not provide a generic but detailed list of topics. Allow people to check the boxes of the topics that interest them and have a list server automatically send an e-mail notification of an upcoming consultation. The technology for providing this functionality is now run-of-the-mill and cheap.

Why can’t submissions to public consultations be easily accessible?

If some group made a submission to a public consultation, why can’t you or I read it?  In the departmental registry, each consultation topics could have a ‘Submission’ button.  Submission could be listed chronologically with the name of the group and the title of their submission with a link to the actual submission. The low cost and most logical option is for the link to go to the group’s own web site where the submission can be viewed. The more costly option is for the government to host the submissions that would then have to be provided in a standardized digital format.

The business of public representation to consultative bodies at the national and provincial level is mostly carried on by groups (NGOs, Associations, Corporations, Universities, Labour Unions, etc.) who represent their members’ interests. Most of these groups now have web sites. Even groups representing individuals least connected to the Internet (seniors, aboriginals, the poor, etc.) usually have web sites and often use the Internet in sophisticated way to advocate their positions. In fact, any individual who wants to put a position up on the Internet and provide a link to it can do so at little or no cost using their ISP or numerous free resources available on the Internet.

The key caveat here is that not all consultation should be open and no individual or group should be forced to make their submission public if they do not want to.  Most groups will be quite happy to put their views on the record but this should not be a requirement.  Government bodies need affected parties to be frank with them and sometimes the assurance of confidentiality is a legitimate and necessary pre-condition for this to happen.

Why shouldn’t elected representatives be in the loop?

As government puts more information, transactions, & consultations on-line, there is a real danger of our elected representatives being bypassed. Canadians will start talking back to web sites. Government sites, in turn, will use increasingly sophisticated feedback and public input mechanisms to capture and register our point of view. The executive already has most of the power.  Electronic government has the capacity to shift more power in their direction.  Elected members of Parliament have to be built into the electronic loop at different levels to preserve some balance and democratic accountability.

Any central or departmental registry of consultations should have a ‘Contact Your MP” button prominently displayed. When individuals use these sites to send their submission, they should be asked whether they want to send a copy to their MP and then shown how to do it then and there.

In its most recent campaign Red Book, the Government stated:

“We believe the Internet can be about more than doing business and delivering services to Canadians.  Broad access to the Internet will enable Canadian citizens to engage in the democratic process by having an electronic pipeline to government and their representatives in Parliament.”

Stealing Mr. Blair’s ideas, along with our suggested modifications, would seem to be a step in that direction.

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