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Public Policy Consultations No Field of Dreams

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Monday September 15, 2008
Appeared in the Toronto Star on September 15, 2008 as Public Policy Consultations No Field of Dreams

Last week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission released the results of a public online consultation on new media that will feed into hearings on the issue early next year.  Given that it was a consultation on new media, the Commission established a special website last spring for the month-long consultation and commissioned noted pollster Nik Nanos to serve as moderator and report back on the results.

The Nanos report does not cast judgment on the success of the consultation - it merely reports the factual results - but there is no hiding the fact that by Internet standards the consultation failed to attract a large audience. Over the course of an entire month, the website generated just over 2,500 unique visitors with an average of 84 visitors per day.  Only 284 Canadians registered with site, posting a total of 278 comments.

While the Commission should be commended for trying, it is clear that public consultations are no field of dreams - it takes more than a "if you build it, they will come" approach. With the increasing desire of governments and businesses to use the Internet as a tool for public feedback, it is worth examining why the consultation failed to spark significant interest.

The most obvious explanations are that Canadians either were not interested in the issue, unaware of the consultation’s existence, or unwilling to invest the time needed to understand the issue and participate in a meaningful way.  

There is likely an element of truth to each of these answers, yet the low level of participation may also have much to do with the failure to adapt conventional consultation methods to the Internet.  Indeed, if consultation 1.0 involves little more than an official notice in the Canada Gazette, what might consultation 2.0 look like?

First, government consultations should resist the temptation to centralize the discussion within a single online forum.  New media issues - including Internet regulation, ISP fees, net neutrality, and Canadian content requirement - generate heated discussion on dozens of Canadian blogs, social networks, chat forums, and mainstream media websites.  Rather than treating those discussions as extraneous to the "official" consultation, efforts could be made to incorporate third party website discussions into the mix.  

This involves more than promoting the existence of the government consultation on these sites.  Instead, it could include an offer to cede control by distributing the consultation across multiple sites with each using their community of readers to pose questions and host responses.  The consultation summary would include analysis of the discussion from a diverse set of sites that better reflect public opinion.  

Second, an online public consultation needs more than a briefing document and a place to discuss.  YouTube videos, podcasts, and other mechanisms that both educate and entice participation should be part of the consultation strategy.

Third, officials should engage in the consultation by participating in the resulting discussion.  It is not enough to simply throw out a few questions and wait for the responses.  Instead, an online consultation offers the possibility of real-time question and answer sessions of the sort regularly hosted on mainstream media sites.  

Fourth, government must improve its response to public feedback.  The lack of participation may also stem from mounting cynicism of Canadians who have taken the time to crafty lengthy letters to elected officials only to receive non-responsive form letters purportedly from the same official months later.  

While it is obviously impractical to expect personal responses to every letter or email, fostering a participative policy consultation process requires that Canadians intuitively sense that their views matter.  In this particular case, an inclusive electronic town hall could have been used to launch the consultation with the possibility of revisiting the same approach in reporting back on the results.

The Internet offers a chance to step away from the conventional approaches to policy consultations, but it will take far more than just creating an online forum for discussion.  A more fundamental re-thinking of how government interacts with the public is needed.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

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