The volume of consultations and the absence of a public interest voice often leads to problematic outcomes: either the responses are entirely one-sided since only corporate interests can meaningfully participate or the consultation itself attracts few responses and is of limited value to policy development.
For example, the government emphasized the importance of its IP strategy in the 2017 budget and ISED Minister Navdeep Bains proceeded to launch a public consultation on the issue. The consultation closed with just 18 responses (I provided one of the submissions). Given months of public discussion on the importance of IP, garnering a dozen and a half responses can only be viewed as a consultation failure that does little to advance the policy agenda.
Second, many of the public interest organizations that participate in hearings and consultations are now stretched to the financial breaking point. The government provides limited, if any, support for public interest advocacy, meaning these groups must self-fund participation. Unlike the United States, which has developed a reasonably resourced civil society, Canadian groups are struggling badly under the weight of increased policy demands with no accompanying fiscal support.
In fact, even when there are programs that provide compensation for expenditures related public participation, processing delays can still leave groups in limbo. For example, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has policies that allow public interest groups and individuals to receive compensation for their participation costs. Yet groups report that CRTC decisions on cost awards can drag on for years, forcing them to carry hundreds of thousands of dollars of financial obligations arising from hearings that have long since concluded.
Third, the volume of consultations run the real risk of turning into “consultation theatre”, where the government or agencies seek out public participation not as a mechanism to generate ideas or gauge public opinion, but rather as a validation exercise at best or as theatre with no intent to act on submissions at worst. This may alienate Canadians who seek to participate in policy processes in good faith only to be left with the inescapable sense that their opinions mean little to policy outcomes.
The fears of consultation theatre were on display this summer with the government’s heated consultation on small business tax reforms. While the consultation was still ongoing, Canadian media reports indicated that the Department of Finance was nearing conclusion on changes to the initial proposal. The changes might be welcomed by many participants, but finalizing policy reforms before the consultation ends sends a message that the submission process is little more than a theatrical exercise — Too much of a good thing: What lies behind Canada’s emerging consultation crisis, Michael Geist blog