Public Policy Consultations No Field of Dreams

My weekly technology law column  (Toronto Star version, homepage version) focuses on the release last week of the results of a CRTC 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.

I argue that 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


  1. CLF is de Debil
    “A more fundamental re-thinking of how government interacts with the public is needed”

    Bang on Michael, however, you need some to understand how federal employees go about producing websites under the government’s mandate.

    First off federal employees are ham-strung by a policy called CLF, Common Look and Feel, now in version 2.0. CLF seeks to define and constrain website UI design and interaction into one homogenized experience.

    Links to non-governmental sources are strictly monitored and restricted, including social networks, forums, etc. The federal government does not wish to expose itself to unnecessary scrutiny or legal action by giving the impression of favouritism to third party providers of information.

    Couple with this the “behind the times” technical abilities of many federally employed web developers and IT managers. Federal websites are generally two to four or even more years behind the bleeding edge of design concepts and implementation seen in the private sector (no surprise here).

    The Nanos Report website you linked is the perfect example of CLF in action. Usability is muted, overly simplified and quite frankly unattractive. The size of the page you linked is excessively large and makes no attempts at breaking up the report into easier to handle chunks. This website is indicative of the failures of CLF and is all too common across all branches of the Canadian federal government. While CLF achieves the “common” portion of its mandate it fails miserably when it comes to the “look and feel” initiatives.

    So while I agree with you that a “more fundamental re-thinking of how government interacts with the public” is required, I hold out little hope that an initiative of that magnitude would take place for many, many years to come, if at all.

    I must emphasize that I am not a Federal employee but I have worked almost exclusively as a contractor on federal contracts for most of my 15 year career in IT here in Ottawa.

  2. yah
    what do you expect from a plutocracy

  3. Promotion
    It should also be noted that ANY webs site or endeavour needs to be publicized or promoted – it’s not enough to simply throw something up on online and hope everyone will find it. Limited promotion through a smal collection of interested sites (like this one) end up mostly preaching to the converted and not drawing the larger mass of opinion that was obviously hoped for in this case. Perhaps this falls under the same set of problems mentioned in the earlier comment where government pages are promoted in a consistent (ie. non-existent) manner. Having read the report – and noticing the small survey sample numbers – it’s also hard not to expect the results to be skewed in favour of any group with a decided opinion and inclination to ‘flood’ the site with responses. While this report has been based on a trickle and not a flood it in no ways guarantees any sense of ‘reality’ of what Canadians want and need.


  4. Advertizing
    There’s also the issue of “if you build it, they will come” only can occur if “they” know you “built it”. I have no idea how the 2,500 unique visitors found the site, but it is a miracle of random luck I would guess. There was nothing in way of marketing or advertising to let people know it was there. No banners on blog sites, no links from common lurking locations, no ads on TV or in paper. No ads of any kind, I am guessing the only way to find it would be to monitor the one government website responsible for putting the project together as I guess that was where the visitors came from.
    Another fine showing of Canadian government’s “efficiency” at work. Maybe next time they’ll actually consult the public PRIOR to trying to consult the public. Most of us could tell them what they could do to bring such initiatives to the masses.

  5. whoami
    las tsite i built from scratch in 98
    got 8 million uniques in just two months

    Side note, what new media
    HD content?

    Because Xvids and mp3s have been aorund for almost a decade or more now

  6. Feds use of “new” media
    Michael – Your post offers a terrific example of a) your knack for digging out important issues that have been otherwise buried, and b) just how badly out of touch Ottawa is with the real world. I teach new media in conjunction with regulatory affairs (your blog is required reading for my 4th-yr seminar), and I’ve seen these problems up close as a consultant as well. Your suggestions for change are well taken. Unfortunately, the inability of our federal politicians and regulators to understand how people communicate today is deeply rooted, and pervades everything government does, even when well intentioned.

    Culturally speaking, the Commission and its political masters have little hope of grasping how new media operate because they frame all such discussions in terms of *old* media. The proceeding you refer to isn’t about the emerging digital frontier; it’s about the moribund medium of television and how to keep it alive. Federal funding priorities reflect this as well. Look at Telefilm. TV and the movies have always eclipsed new media. When I conducted a study of the Canada New Media Fund a few years back, everyone I spoke to made the same point: the guys running this show in Ottawa are 2 or 3 business cycles behind the entire industry. IMHO it’s a good* thing they just killed the Fund. The paltry sums allocated to it and the ludicrous rules attached to it did more harm than good.

    The CLF issue cited in that earlier post reflects a whole other set of issues around the prospects for e-government – which in Canada are grim to non-existent. If a citizen wants to get help online from Service Canada, she must (in most cases as far as I know) obtain an e-pass before anything transpires. If you happen to use a Mac, you quickly discover the disadvantages of being a citizen who keeps current with technology. The feds support only the previous* Mac OS – now almost a year old. And if you want to use Firefox – forget it. They support Netscape (market share 0.5%), but not FF for the Mac (market share 20%).

    These issues may seem off-topic in the context of online consultation. But I would argue that all of it is symptomatic of a media worldview in Ottawa that seems less and less likely to improve any time soon. Add to all this the role played by the Commission in promoting the role of “market forces” and the drift to deregulation. As you’ve noted before, this toxic brew has earned Canadians one of the most dismal broadband infrastructures in the developed world. Bell is about to raise its rates, again, for “unlimited” DSL – while they try to convince the Commission why throttling is just good network management. When CAIP v. Bell comes down next month, and a new government is formed, we’ll see if the usual suspects in Ottawa have begun to learn anything about the broader significance of digital media – in government as well as in the lives of millions of our citizens.

  7. Response to public feedback
    I don’t know if I agree with all of your points on this issue, but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the fourth one: even if I’m interested in a subject, I have to commit the time to prepare a response for the void (or the form letter, which feels the same to me). Even if the consultation was centralized (not a big deal, in my opinion, and maybe even better than your distributed, and possibly difficult to digest, suggestion), as long as there was active participation on behalf of the government, suddenly the range of issues I’d be interested in would explode. There’s this threshold now re the time investment and how incensed I am. To see the government’s point of view, and possibly open their eyes to new ways of thinking… would be great. I mean, they’d actually have to substantiate their arguments then; it wouldn’t be as much of a proclamation then, or if it was, there’d be no hiding it.

  8. The public consultation failed, in part, because nobody knew that it was there! Was the average Canadian expected to enter some magic words in Google, when looking for something completely different, and this consultation would pop up? I would say I’m fairly well-informed about copyright and on-line rights in Canada, and this never crossed my computer screen.