This Web page has been archived on the Web.

1999 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Main Points

2.1 Overall, among both participants and departments, we found a high level of satisfaction with the consultations conducted by departments in preparing their first sustainable development strategies. Most participants felt that departments were listening to them and that their comments would be taken into account in the final strategy. Departments believed that the consultations broadened their own perspective on the issues they faced, and increased the awareness of those issues among clients, partners and employees. The result, from the departments' point of view, was better strategies and more "buy-in" for them.

2.2 However, a number of opportunities for improvement were identified that should be reflected in the consultations leading to the sustainable development strategy revisions due in December 2000. The three most significant weaknesses were the following:

  • Limited feedback. Participants were given uneven feedback on what had been heard and how their views were reflected in the strategy. While most participants believed they were listened to, they were not sure to what extent they influenced the result. Following the consultations, many departments did not provide participants with sufficient information to make that judgment.
  • Limited co-ordination among departments. Both departments and participants noted that many sustainable development issues, such as sustainable transportation, involve a number of departments, and that there is a need for joint consultations on those issues to complement department-specific consultations.
  • Limited involvement of senior management. The choice of who represents the department in the consultation process sends an important signal about the priority the department attaches to consultation and to the subject. Some departments involved department representatives who were senior enough to have some authority in conveying participants' comments and in integrating them into the strategy; other departments delegated representation significantly downward. Participants noticed the difference.

Background and other observations

2.3 Over the last decade, the need for more and better citizen involvement in government decision making has been a recurring theme. The public - both as individuals and as members or representatives of particular groups - want to influence decisions that interest and affect them. Governments are looking for ways to make decisions that are well informed and widely accepted.

2.4 This chapter presents our assessment of one major exercise - the consultations conducted by 28 federal government departments and agencies when preparing their first sustainable development strategies. Across Canada, more than 1,600 organizations and Aboriginal communities were consulted on departmental sustainable development issues, objectives and priorities and on the action plans and strategies to achieve them.

2.5 We also noted that most of the guidance provided to departments on the conduct and evaluation of consultations was developed in the early 1990s, and much of it exists only in draft form. Given the federal government's re-emerging interest in public involvement, we believe these consultation "building blocks" need to be updated.

Introduction

Citizens want a direct, substantive and influential role in shaping policies and decisions that affect them. They want to be heard. And they want a commitment that leaders will take citizens' views into account when making decisions.
Jocelyne Bourgon,
then Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet,
A Voice for All: Engaging Canadians for Change ,
October 1998
2.6 Over the last decade, the need for more and better citizen involvement in government decision making has been a recurring public policy theme. Governments are looking for ways to make decisions that are well informed and widely accepted. Groups and individuals are seeking to influence decisions that interest and affect them. The shared interest is in better decisions; consultation is a means toward that end.

What Is Consultation?

A two-way communication, linked to decision making
2.7 Taken narrowly, to consult means to seek information, advice or opinion from someone. More broadly, it means to exchange ideas and to talk things over in order to make a better decision. It is this latter meaning, with its emphasis on two-way communication and its link to decision making, that captures more fully what consultation is about.

2.8 In a public policy context, the word "consultation" is sometimes used to describe processes with quite different objectives and implications for public involvement and influence. Citizen involvement can range from participating in national debates aimed at achieving consensus on complex public policy issues to exchanging information at the local level. Exhibit 2.1 illustrates some of the distinctions among informing, consulting and consensus building.

2.9 Information is a central element of any consultation process. Participants cannot provide informed comments without adequate information on the issues, options and alternatives. Proponents make use of what they have heard in order to make better decisions. A consultation process, therefore, both informs the public and solicits response.

2.10 Involving multiple "publics". There is a range of "publics" that could be represented in a consultation process on the sustainable development strategies. Outside the federal government, they include experts, stakeholders - those who represent a particular interest or group likely to be affected by a decision - other levels of government, Aboriginal people and the public at large. Internally, they include departmental employees, who will be called upon to implement the strategy, and other departments.

2.11 Newer terms like "citizen engagement" focus on citizens as civic-minded individuals rather than as experts or stakeholders. When choosing who should be "at the table", departments need to balance issues of representation, time and resources. To date, most of the federal consultation processes have not been aimed at the general public, although there are some notable exceptions.

Building Blocks for a "Consultative Culture"

2.12 Consulting people is not a new idea. As one group of authors wrote in a 1992 report for the Canadian Centre for Management Development, "What is new is the growing prominence and frequency of consultation activities, particularly those that involve large numbers of participants. People are being consulted more often, in more ways and on more subjects than ever before."

2.13 Some federal departments have a long history of consulting with the public on policy development. Environment Canada, for example, was one of the first federal government departments to make public consultation a routine part of its approach to doing business. Traditionally, the government's policy-making process has been largely an internal one. During the 1980s, however, there was a trend toward opening up the process in response to a better-educated public, a wider dissemination of information and a greater emphasis on partnerships for problem resolution.

2.14 In 1990, the Service to the Public Task Force (Public Service 2000) identified improved consultation as essential for providing policy advice to ministers, for regulatory processes, for program development and for service delivery. The Task Force concluded that "a shift toward a substantially more active and open consultative relationship with the public is singularly important for the future effectiveness of the public service." It made a series of recommendations aimed at developing a "consultative culture" within the public service (see Appendix A) .

2.15 The Task Force was the catalyst for a series of actions during the early 1990s that together provided a framework for planning, conducting and assessing consultation processes. Those actions included guidelines on consultations prepared by the Privy Council Office, training and development in public consultation provided by the Canadian Centre for Management Development and Training and Development Canada, and a discussion paper exploring some aspects of the evaluation of consultation activities by the Office of the Comptroller General. Appendix B presents roles and responsibilities for consultation in the federal government as they were defined in 1992.

2.16 The Privy Council Office provides advice and support to departments in the development of their consultation strategies and policies. It established an Interdepartmental Co-ordinating Committee on Consultation (now called the Federal Consultation Network) to exchange information among departments on consultation policies, activities and good practices. In November 1997, it issued a directive to departments regarding a new "Consultations and Perspectives" section in memoranda to Cabinet, with a view to fostering a more collaborative approach to policy making. In addition, 8 departments, of the 28 that tabled a sustainable development strategy, now have their own internal consultation groups providing advice and support for consultations.

2.17 At the time of our audit, the Privy Council Office estimated that there were more than 300 public consultation exercises under way across the Public Service of Canada. They included such diverse initiatives as Canada's national climate change process, which currently involves stakeholders in 16 issue roundtables, and a dialogue with rural Canadians on the priorities and challenges that they face in order to shape future federal programs and services around their needs. Some of these consultation processes are short-term and focussed on a single issue, while others are of a more ongoing, advisory nature.

The sustainable development strategy consultations
2.18 When designing the sustainable development strategy process, the Government of Canada highlighted the importance of public involvement in strategy preparation. Consultation was intended to assist departments in identifying their sustainable development issues, goals and targets, and the actions required to meet them (see Exhibit 2.2) .

2.19 Our first review of the sustainable development strategies in May 1998 concluded that most departments were conscientious in their consultation efforts. They used a variety of consultation techniques, including focus groups, personal interviews, Internet sites, internal newsletters and mail solicitations to selected groups. Most departments concluded that consultation resulted in a better sustainable development strategy; however, some of the departments that attempted to consult widely were disappointed by the limited response they received.

What Constitutes Good Consultation Practice?

2.20 A recurrent theme from our discussions with practitioners was that there was no single recipe for successful consultation. A consultation process needs to be tailored to different publics, and to meet departmental objectives within the time and resources available.

2.21 Nevertheless, there are some key ingredients. Our reviews of a number of consultation guides prepared within the federal government and externally suggest that there are certain characteristics or principles underpinning a good consultation process. Appendix C provides an example. The characteristics are grouped into five areas:

  • planning the consultation process;
  • managing the process;
  • using the results to improve the strategies;
  • providing feedback to participants; and
  • learning and improving.

Focus of the Audit

2.22 The focus of our audit was on the consultations conducted by departments in preparing their first sustainable development strategies. The chapter builds upon our first review of the sustainable development strategies reported in May 1998, and provides a more detailed assessment of the consultations relative to standards for good consultation practice and to the expectations of both departments and participants.

2.23 During the audit, we addressed six main questions:

  • What is consultation?
  • What constitutes good consultation practice?
  • What were the expectations of departments and participants regarding consultations?
  • Were departments' and participants' expectations met?
  • How did departmental consultations compare with good practices, departmental expectations and participant expectations?
  • What lessons were learned from the consultations?
2.24 The audit focussed on consultation with stakeholders, clients and partners outside the federal government. We reviewed the consultations conducted by the 28 departments and agencies (hereinafter referred to as departments) that prepared a sustainable development strategy, and did a more in-depth assessment of six of them. We also completed a survey and interviews with participants. We did not attempt to evaluate the quality of the documentation that was circulated to participants by departments or to verify to what extent the strategies had been modified by the integration of stakeholder input. More details on our audit scope and approach are included at the end of the chapter in About the Audit .

Observations and Recommendations

Who Did Departments Consult?

2.25 We first asked departments which groups they considered to be most important to consult. Overwhelmingly, they viewed internal audiences - departmental employees and other federal departments - as the primary ones (see Exhibit 2.3) . This does not mean that consultation with external stakeholders was considered unimportant; indeed, all but eight departments consulted both internally and externally. Rather, departments recognized the importance of internal discussion and "buy-in", particularly for their first sustainable development strategy.

2.26 We then asked departments who they actually did consult. Overall, more than 1,600 organizations and Aboriginal communities participated in the consultations (see Exhibit 2.4) . Organizations representing business interests were the largest single category, followed by Aboriginal communities, experts, other federal departments and levels of government, social groups and environmental groups. Departments also made an effort to involve people from across the country. A description of the consultations conducted by the six departments for which we did a more in-depth review is provided in Appendix D .

What Did Departments and Participants Expect From the Consultations?

2.27 Exhibit 2.5 summarizes departments' and participants' expectations for the consultations. Most participants understood the resource and time constraints that departments were facing, and welcomed the opportunity to contribute to a broad planning exercise such as the sustainable development strategies. But the conditions for their participation were the expectation that they would be listened to, that they could influence the strategies and that strategy development would lead to action.

2.28 Departments viewed the consultation as two-way communication. They had information to present and wanted to hear the views of participants. They viewed the consultation as a means of raising awareness of sustainable development and the department's approach to it, both within and outside the department. They were also looking for "buy-in" for their strategies. Departments' and participants' expectations were relatively compatible. Participants, however, put more emphasis than departments on the need for a "firm commitment to action" and showed more interest in "working as partners".

Were Participants' and Departments' Expectations Met?

2.29 Most participants and departments were satisfied with the consultation process. Overall, among both participants and departments, we found a high level of satisfaction with the way departments conducted consultations. As shown in Exhibit 2.6, 81 percent of participants sampled said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the consultation process.

2.30 Most participants felt departments were listening. The majority of participants (70 percent) felt that departments were listening to what they had to say, and were willing to make changes to their strategies. This is directly related to the percentage of participants who were satisfied or very satisfied with the way departments considered their comments (71 percent). Exhibit 2.7 highlights the main factors that explain why participants felt they could - or could not - influence the strategies.

2.31 The lack of feedback made some participants unsure of their influence on the strategy. Because a number of participants did not get a revised version of the document on which they had made comments, they could not judge whether their comments had been considered. Depending on the level of trust between the participants and the department, this lack of feedback was interpreted differently by participants. When the relationship with the department was good, and when the participants felt that the department representatives had really been listening, they often gave the department the benefit of the doubt and assumed that their comments had been considered. When this was not the case, the absence of evidence was usually construed as proof that their comments had not been taken into account.

2.32 Departments felt that consultations led to better strategies. For departments, one of the main benefits of the consultations was that they enabled them to get meaningful input from stakeholders, partners and clients, to learn from them and to better understand their different perspectives and concerns. This, in turn, gave a broader perspective to the strategies and helped confirm whether the departments were heading in the right direction and whether they could get support for the proposed priorities. All this contributed to making better departmental strategies, tuned to the realities of the people whose lives could be impacted, positively or negatively, by the departments' activities.

2.33 Consultations helped departments get "buy-in" for their strategies. The consultations increased support for the strategies internally and externally, and helped departments to build relationships with stakeholders. For participants, consultations were also viewed as a way to establish or maintain contact with important partners, the departments. Some departments and participants mentioned that consultations raised the departments' profile and credibility and enabled departments to better understand their leadership role in promoting sustainable development.

2.34 The lack of information on the implementation of the strategies left participants questioning whether action was being taken. When they engage in a consultation activity, participants not only expect to influence the immediate output of the consultation, in this case the sustainable development strategies, but also want to see departments do what they said they would do. Less than one fifth of participants said that they received some kind of update on the implementation of the strategies within the first year of strategy implementation. This lack of information left many participants questioning whether action was being taken. Departments that did provide some information to participants, using whatever means was available - newsletters, letters, phone calls, e-mail, presentations to standing committees - showed that action was being taken and gained credibility with participants.

How Did the Consultation Process Compare With Good Practices?

2.35 While overall there was a high level of satisfaction with the processes that departments used, we also identified a number of opportunities for improvement. These need to be dealt with in the consultations leading to the sustainable development strategy revisions due in December 2000.

2.36 There are a number of guides for public consultation prepared within the federal government and externally, with many common features. For our purposes, we drew on the main characteristics of a consultation process identified by the Canadian Standards Association. These characteristics, as well as the criteria we used to evaluate the consultation processes of the departments, are presented in Appendix C . We have grouped the characteristics according to the consultation process phase.

2.37 Based on these criteria, we concluded that seven departments had particularly good consultation processes for the preparation of their sustainable development strategies. Exhibit 2.8 highlights what distinguishes their consultation processes from those of other departments.

Planning the consultation process
2.38 Most departments prepared a consultation plan. Three quarters of the departments (21 of 28) prepared a plan to guide their consultation; however, the quality and comprehensiveness of those plans varied greatly. About half the departments (15) had plans covering the main elements: the objectives of the consultation, the people who will be consulted, the consultation techniques that will be used, and the schedule for consultation. The most complete consultation plans also discussed costs, how the information collected would be analyzed and how feedback would be provided to participants. Very few departments mentioned that they intended to conduct an evaluation at the end of the consultation process.

2.39 The consultation plans were used mainly as internal documents by a small group of people directly involved in the consultations. In most cases, neither the plans nor the schedule of consultation activities were made available to participants in advance so that they could better understand the whole consultation process and how their own participation fit into it.

2.40 Fewer than half of the departments (12 of 28) have internal policies or guidelines for departmental consultation. Of those, only five produced what we considered to be reasonably complete plans for their sustainable development strategy consultations. Four did not prepare a consultation plan at all. Similarly, departments with an existing consultation policy or guideline did not fare any better with their consultation process than departments without these guiding documents.

2.41 Only five departments involved stakeholders in the design of the strategy consultation process. Pre-consultations usually involved a small group of stakeholders (for example, an existing advisory group) chosen for their representativeness. Discussions focussed on the validity and practicality of the proposed consultation process - the main issues to be discussed, and whether the objectives were clear, the right people were invited, the mode of consulting was appropriate, and the schedule was realistic. Exhibit 2.9 presents an example of one department's approach to pre-consultation.

2.42 The objectives of the consultation were usually clearly stated. The majority of participants (76 percent) said that departments clearly defined the purpose of the consultation - what was open for discussion and what was not. Departments were very careful not to raise expectations that they could not meet. For some participants, however, the scope of the sustainable development strategy was not always clear. For example, was Transport Canada's strategy a strategy for the Department or for a national sustainable transportation system?

2.43 Participants were provided sufficient information. Most of the participants (86 percent) indicated that they were provided sufficient information to participate effectively in the consultation. The nine departments that had a two-phase consultation process first provided participants with a discussion paper on sustainable development issues, dimensions and departmental priorities. For the second phase, they circulated their draft strategy, which is also what departments with a one-phase consultation process did. Some departments included questionnaires with their discussion papers. By focussing on the main issues, these questionnaires probably helped participants better understand how they could contribute to the process.

2.44 Many departments consulted too late. Twelve of the twenty-eight departments had not completed their consultation process two months before tabling their strategies in the House of Commons. The Canadian International Development Agency, for example, organized one workshop with stakeholders on 10 November 1997. The Treasury Board Secretariat sent its draft strategy to other federal departments on 27 November, asking for comments by 5 December 1997 (tabling was on 10 December 1997). Participants questioned whether comments received at those late dates could realistically be incorporated into the strategy document in other than a cosmetic fashion.

2.45 It is important for participants to be consulted early enough in the preparation of the strategy so they can influence its orientation. Seventy-five percent of the participants who were consulted by departments early in the process said that they were satisfied with the way their comments had been considered. This satisfaction rate fell to 63 percent for participants who were consulted late in the process.

2.46 A good cross-section of participants. All participants interviewed said that departments consulted a broad cross-section of clients, stakeholders and partners. Departments reached outside their group of traditional clients and partners and opened up to new categories of stakeholders. They also consulted Canada-wide and quite extensively with their provincial counterparts. Seventy-two percent of the organizations consulted were based outside the National Capital Region, and had provincial or regional mandates.

2.47 Some participants and department representatives mentioned that some groups might be under-represented, particularly youth, "grass roots" stakeholders and Aboriginal people. Other than Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the five departments that participated in the joint consultations with Northerners (north of the 60th parallel), most departments did not consult native people. As well, except for use of the Internet, there was no consultation with the public at large.

2.48 Ten of the fifteen departments that organized workshops with clients and stakeholders provided financial assistance to participants who needed it, mostly by reimbursing travel expenses.

2.49 A good mix of consultation techniques. Departments used a range of consultation techniques, including workshops, mail-outs, one-on-one meetings, phone calls, advisory committees and the Internet. Workshops and mail responses were the primary means of participation, involving 56 percent and 44 percent respectively of the organizations consulted. Workshops were used with Aboriginal communities.

2.50 The participation rate was higher for those who were invited to participate in a workshop (one of four invited did participate) than for those who were invited to provide comments by mail. The participation rate for mail-outs was one in eight on average, excluding one very large mail-out with a much lower response rate. The satisfaction rate was also higher for participants in workshops than for participants in mail-outs, especially regarding the way their comments had been considered. A number of participants who provided comments by mail mentioned that they would have preferred a more personal approach, in the form of a workshop or a follow-up phone call.

2.51 Departments attempted to tailor their consultation to their client and stakeholder needs and available resources. For example, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada engaged in extensive dialogue with Aboriginal people and Northern communities. Canadian Heritage used a targeted mail-out given its limited resources and the diversified profiles and geographic origins of its clients and stakeholders.

2.52 The Internet is a relatively new tool that was used by almost all departments, but usually in a passive way. Most departments put their draft strategies on their Internet sites, soliciting comments, but did not actively promote the Internet as a consultation vehicle and few comments were received.

2.53 One exception is Foreign Affairs and International Trade. It sent 600 postcards to its clients and stakeholders informing them that the draft strategy was on its Internet site and that hard copies were available upon request. An informal phone survey showed that 70 percent of the people who received the postcard had looked at the Internet site, 14 percent requested a printed copy of the strategy and less than 2 percent made comments. All departments put their final strategies on their Internet sites and many mentioned this in the letters they sent to stakeholders.

Managing the process
2.54 Limited co-ordination among departments. Over an 18-month period, 28 departments attempted to consult on their sustainable development strategies, quite often consulting the same people on the same issues. Thirty-eight percent of the participants in the process received invitations from more than one department. With one notable exception - consultations on sustainable development with the communities north of the 60th parallel (see Exhibit 2.10) - departments did not co-ordinate their consultation activities with other federal departments.

2.55 The Interdepartmental Network on Sustainable Development Strategies - a group that includes representatives from each of the departments - discussed the possibility of co-ordinating consultations early in the process. Departments decided, however, that they would work in accordance with their own strategy agendas and schedules. Many department representatives we interviewed acknowledged the need for and interest in some form of joint consultation on common issues. Participants in the consultations shared that perspective.

2.56 Limited involvement of senior management. The decision on who represents the department in the consultation process sends an important signal about the priority the department attaches to consultation and to the subject. Some departments involved their senior officials directly in the consultation process. Other departments delegated representation significantly downward.

2.57 Participants do not expect to have ministers attend all consultation activities. However, they do expect to see department representatives who are senior enough to have some authority in conveying participants' comments and in integrating them into the strategy. Departmental contact persons also need to have a good knowledge of the department's core business, including policy aspects.

2.58 Participants expect continuity in departmental representation, from consultation through implementation. A high turnover of contact persons is detrimental to building mutual trust and to efficient implementation. Of the six departments for which we did a more in-depth review, three had changed their strategy and consultation co-ordinators just prior to or right after tabling the strategy.

2.59 A number of departments lost control over all or part of their schedules. Consultation schedules need to be flexible to accommodate stakeholders or to take into account some important aspects that were overlooked when the process was designed. However, there are numerous and important minimum and maximum time frames that need to be respected throughout the consultation process.

2.60 One of the most important examples is the time given to participants to prepare for consultation activities or to send comments. Seventy-eight percent of participants sampled said they had enough time. However, time requirements differ among participants. For example, co-ordinators of associations need time to circulate the information to their members and receive their input. They need to receive discussion papers well in advance of a workshop - at least three weeks before. We found many examples where participants received the information for the consultation just a few days before the meeting or at the meeting itself. In almost all cases, the department had initially planned to send the documentation much earlier but was unable to keep to its schedule.

2.61 Some departments also saw their overall consultation schedule slip dangerously. Departments that had planned a two-phase process, with four or five months between the two phases, ended up with a gap of eight months or one year between the two phases. This long delay made it very difficult for participants to see the consultations as a continuous process, with the second phase of consultations building on the first. Other departments started their consultations later than planned - so late that the time to incorporate comments was extremely limited.

2.62 Although some departments did very well in providing feedback to participants, most departments found it difficult to provide feedback quickly and systematically after workshops, after receiving mailed comments or after the strategy was tabled. Participants want to receive some kind of feedback soon after the consultation, whether in the form of minutes, a summary of comments or a follow-up phone call. If they receive this feedback much later, it is of less interest to them.

Using the results to improve the strategies
2.63 Departments summarized the comments received. Twenty departments made summaries of comments received during consultations. These included minutes of workshops, detailed logs of comments received by mail or e-mail, and summaries of comments. Those participants who read them generally considered the minutes or summaries to be a good record of the discussions.

2.64 Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is one of the departments that prepared an extensive summary of comments made by participants. In an annex to its sustainable development strategy, the Department provided a report on the consultations conducted with Northern communities. It included a description of the consultation process, the main messages that the Department heard and an overview of suggestions that were not explicitly written into the strategy and the reasons for not including them. In a separate volume, the Department summarized the results of discussions with First Nations communities south of the 60th parallel.

Providing feedback to participants
2.65 Uneven feedback to participants on how their comments were considered. One of the key weaknesses of the sustainable development strategy consultations was the uneven feedback provided to participants. Most departments did provide some feedback to participants but few were able to do it systematically throughout the consultation process and with all participants. As a consequence, while most participants believed they were listened to, they were not sure to what extent they influenced the result because they did not always have enough information to make that judgment. A review of the different steps in the consultation process where some form of feedback is required found the following deficiencies:

  • Uneven feedback following workshops. Most departments did not systematically send out minutes of workshops or revised versions of the strategies.
  • Uneven feedback following individual comments. Departments were not always able to reply to individual comments sent by mail or e-mail. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, for example, prepared very detailed logs summarizing the comments received during the first phase and showing that a reply had been sent. For the second phase of the consultations, however, records are incomplete and do not document whether replies were sent.
  • Uneven feedback on the consultation results. Many of the departments that prepared summaries of comments made during consultations did not provide these summaries to all participants. Only 38 percent of participants said that they received some feedback on what the department heard during the consultation process.
  • The final strategy reports were not sent to all participants. The Canadian International Development Agency, for example, had planned to send the final strategy to all the participants consulted, right after tabling (December 1997). The Agency began to send out strategies in April 1998; by September 1998, the mailing had not been completed. Exhibit 2.11 shows a similar case with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and highlights the damage that incomplete feedback can cause.
  • Almost no feedback on how the comments were integrated into the strategies. Only 14 percent of participants said that departments provided them with feedback on how the information from the consultations had been used. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (see paragraph 2.64) was the only department that included in its strategy an annex showing specifically which comments from their consultations with Northern communities had not been addressed in the strategy and why. No other department produced a document clearly specifying what was said throughout the consultations and what was done with the comments.
2.66 Limited information on how departments are implementing their strategies. Participants are also unaware of how departments are implementing their sustainable development strategies. While most departments told us they would provide this type of information in the future, only 19 percent of participants had received it at the time of our survey (one year after tabling). Although participants want to be kept informed, most do not want extensive reports on implementation. The words of one participant summarized the point of view of many participants interviewed: "What we'd like to have is a one-page fact sheet that says what the departments have done and what didn't work, and that keeps things alive. It doesn't have to be fancy."

Learning and improving
2.67 Few departments have evaluated their consultation process. Only four of the departments conducted an assessment of their consultation process ( Exhibit 2.12 summarizes Health Canada's assessment). None have done a formal cost-benefit evaluation of consultations. Nevertheless, all the department representatives we interviewed were able to highlight the lessons learned from the exercise - what worked well and what they would do differently next time. The failure to document this information, however, places the learning at risk.

Lessons Learned

2.68 The majority of participants that we interviewed expressed a willingness to participate in the next round of sustainable development strategy consultations. However, they expect departments to have learned from the first round and not to repeat their mistakes.

2.69 Both participants and departments have views on what should be done differently next time around. Those views are summarized in Exhibit 2.13 and presented in more depth in the next few paragraphs.

The need for a client-based approach in designing the consultation process
2.70 Adopting a client-based approach in designing the consultation process means taking into account the participants' needs and constraints as well as those of the department. Some form of pre-consultation with selected participants is a practical way to discuss and, if necessary, revise the preliminary consultation plan. Adopting a client-based approach also means making available to participants, as soon as possible, the proposed schedule of consultation activities. This would enable participants to better understand the consultation process and to plan their involvement accordingly. Ideally, the information on the consultation schedules of all departments should be available on a central government Internet site.

Asking more from participants
2.71 The sustainable development strategy consultations engaged a large and diverse group of Canadians. However, departments do not always make the best use of their expertise and talents. As one participant said, "Most consultation processes require too little from the participants rather than too much. I would have liked to see the department set out the main problems it faced and the main decisions it needed to make in order to make sustainable development operational, and to have challenged participants to develop solutions." Departments need to be more selective and specific in identifying areas or issues where they want input, taking into account what is of interest to their different clients, partners or stakeholders. By being more specific, they could ask more from participants and expect to get better input.

Co-ordination on cross-cutting issues
2.72 Both departments and participants noted that many sustainable development issues involve a number of departments, and that there is a need for joint consultations on those issues to complement department-specific consultations. Many participants would also like this co-ordination effort to involve provincial departments that are primary players in many of these issues. A two-phase model was suggested during our interviews. The first phase could involve cross-cutting issues, and involve those departments most directly concerned. The results of those consultations would feed into the draft departmental strategies that could be discussed separately in the second phase of the consultations.

Clear commitment from senior management
2.73 The choice of who represents the department in the consultation process sends an important signal to others about the priority the department attaches to consultation and to the subject. Clear commitment from senior management is as essential to fruitful consultation as it is to the development of a meaningful strategy. Indeed, participants often see it as the best indicator of the credibility of a consultation exercise.

Consulting early in the process
2.74 Exhibit 2.14 provides an example of a consultation process and highlights the main hurdles, such as the important time frames that need to be respected. These include consulting early enough in the process of preparing the strategy, providing sufficient time for participant preparation and for departments to integrate comments into their strategies, providing quick feedback to participants throughout the process, and avoiding lengthy delays between process phases.

The importance of a continuous, iterative consultation process
2.75 Many participants saw consultations as "a staged-step iterative process, not as a one-shot deal." Two-phase consultations, moving from broad issues to more specific ones, best convey the notion of a continuous and iterative process and ensure that consultations are initiated early in the process. Departments need to link their different consultation, information and feedback activities, during the preparation as well as the implementation of their strategies. Departments also need to try to link their consultations on sustainable development strategies with their other consultations.

Closing the "feedback loop"
2.76 The limited feedback provided to participants - what the department heard and how participants' comments influenced the strategy - was one of the main failings of the first round of sustainable development strategies consultations. While participants believed they were listened to and influenced the result, they were not sure. Following the consultations, many departments did not provide participants with sufficient information to make that judgment. Feedback is critical for maintaining the confidence and good will of participants. Keeping them informed on strategy implementation is a good place to start.

The importance of evaluation
2.77 A Guide to Green Government characterizes sustainable development as a continuous improvement process. Most departments did not do an assessment of their strategy consultation process. As a result, there is a danger of losing the lessons learned and repeating the mistakes of the first round.

Strengthening consultation
2.78 Application of the lessons learned from this audit would go a long way toward strengthening the sustainable development strategy consultation process.

2.79 For the next round of strategy consultations, departments should pay particular attention to the issues of participant feedback, interdepartmental co-ordination and involvement of senior management.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian Heritage, Canadian International Development Agency, Human Resources Development Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Transport Canada and Environment Canada's response: The Commissioner's recommendations respecting the processes used by departments in developing their first sustainable development strategies (SDS) are sound and the chapter includes many helpful observations and suggestions for improving consultations in the future.

It is essential that citizens, clients, stakeholders and Aboriginal peoples have real opportunities to shape the many decisions that will impact on their health and well-being, environment and prosperity. In this vein, departments remain committed to effective consultation and engagement of these partners in the development of major policy initiatives, programs and services.

Departments intend to use the lessons learned from the first round of consultations on SDSs to improve their consultation processes when updating their SDSs. In particular, departments will be examining, in the coming months, options available for better co-ordinating their respective consultation efforts and will explore new and innovative means of engaging partners through, for example, new information technology.

It is important for senior departmental managers to be informed at all stages of the consultation process and departments are committed to senior management participation, where appropriate, in consultations to renew their SDSs. In addition, departments concur with the Commissioner's view that providing feedback to participants on how their comments are taken into account in the SDS renewal process is a beneficial undertaking and will help to strengthen relations.

Sustainable development is everyone's business. This makes it all the more important to effectively involve citizens, clients, stakeholders and Aboriginal peoples in shaping their future so that it is an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable one.

2.80 We also found that most of the guidance provided to departments on the conduct and evaluation of consultations was developed in the early 1990s, and much of it exists only in draft form.

2.81 Given the federal government's re-emerging interest in public involvement, we believe that the Privy Council Office should take the lead in updating the guidelines provided to departments on the conduct and evaluation of consultations.

Privy Council Office's response: The Government of Canada is committed to involving Canadians in the development of policies, programs and services that have an impact on their lives. While considerable progress has been made in this area since the 1990 Task Force on Service to the Public report, significant changes in the past decade - both in and outside of government - call for new ways of thinking and new approaches to engaging Canadians in public decision making.

A solid foundation of "building blocks" - i.e. strong policy guidance, effective co-ordination mechanisms, a range of training and developmental opportunities, and a framework for assessing our performance in this area - is essential to establishing a strong consultative culture in the federal public service. As the lead central agency responsible for public consultation in the federal public service, the Privy Council Office (PCO) will continue to work closely with other central agencies to this end.

In this regard, the Privy Council Office, in collaboration with federal departments and agencies, is updating the 1992 federal consultation guidelines. The PCO continues to provide strategic advice to departments in the development of their consultation strategies and support to horizontal co-ordination of federal consultation processes. The Treasury Board Secretariat is establishing an interdepartmental working group to develop practical guidelines for the evaluation of federal consultation activities. The Public Service Commission (PSC) and the Canadian Centre for Management Development (CCMD) continue to address public consultation in their training and development programs. To respond to the renewed interest in public consultation across the government, the PSC has updated its existing public consultation course and will continue to ensure the relevancy of this program. The CCMD is including public consultation as part of a current review of management training needs and priorities.

These initiatives reflect a collaborative effort on the part of central agencies to support public servants with the necessary "building blocks" for effectively planning, implementing and assessing federal consultation processes.

Conclusion

2.82 By December 1997, 28 federal departments had tabled their first sustainable development strategies in the House of Commons. When designing the sustainable development strategy process, the Government of Canada highlighted the importance of public involvement in strategy preparation. Consultation was intended to assist departments to identify their sustainable development issues, goals and targets, and the actions required to meet them.

2.83 Our audit examined the consultations conducted by departments in the light of established practices, departmental expectations and the expectations of participants. Overall, we found a high level of satisfaction with the consultations, both among participants and among departments.

2.84 However, we also identified a number of opportunities for improvement that should be applied to the consultations for the next round of strategies due in December 2000. The majority of participants that we interviewed expressed a willingness to participate in further consultations. But they also expect departments to have learned from the first round and to not repeat their mistakes. Furthermore, they expect the strategies to lead to action.

About the Audit

Objective

Our audit objective was to assess departmental strategy consultations against standards for good consultation practice and against departmental and participant expectations, and to document lessons learned.

Scope

To provide a government-wide perspective on the consultations used in the first round of sustainable development strategy preparation, we reviewed the consultations of all 28 federal government organizations. That review was supplemented by a more in-depth assessment of the consultations conducted by six departments: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian Heritage, Canadian International Development Agency, Human Resources Development Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and Transport Canada.

Approach

The audit approach consisted of:

  • a review of the literature to establish criteria for good consultation practice (see Appendix C) ;
  • a survey of all 28 departments and a review of documents to identify departmental expectations and approaches. A database of all organizations and Aboriginal communities consulted was built using the lists provided by 27 departments;
  • a sample survey of 276 participants in the consultations to obtain a participant perspective on expectations and approaches. The response rate to our survey was 53% or 146 participants. The profile of the participants who answered our questionnaire was very similar to the profile of the 1,300 organizations consulted by departments. This survey did not include Aboriginal communities;
  • interviews with 15 officials in six departments, in Ottawa, British Columbia and Quebec, to gather more in-depth information on expectations, approaches and lessons learned; and
  • interviews with 36 participants in the consultations of the same six departments, in Ottawa, British Columbia (including two workshops with native people) and Quebec, to obtain a more in-depth participant perspective on expectations, approaches and lessons learned.

Audit Team

Principal: Richard Smith
Director: Gisèle Grandbois

Rob Anderson
Diamond Lalani
Louise Grandmaison
Julie Pelletier
Yvon Roy
Jean-François Tremblay
Erin Windatt

For information, please contact Richard Smith.