A voice for all: engaging Canadians for change

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Notes for an Address by
Jocelyne Bourgon
Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet

Institute on Governance Conference
Aylmer, Quebec
October 27, 1998


Almost one year ago today, at a forum of senior government officials, I outlined my thoughts on how the current mandate of this government would differ from the previous mandate. At that time, I focussed in large part on the challenge of modernizing the relationship between governments and citizens, and I asked the question: "Are we willing and able to exercise power differently?"

This challenge flows from the Speech from the Throne of September 1997. In it, the government acknowledged that building the Canada of tomorrow will involve "collaboration, partnership, and the active engagement of Canadians in all walks of life . . . ." Some months later, in my annual report to the Prime Minister, I underscored the importance of citizen engagement by indicating that one of the challenges facing the public service is to explore new ways to engage citizens in policy development.

This conference illustrates that citizen engagement has now become an important topic for discussion and action by government officials and politicians, as well as by experts in public policy and administration, both inside and outside of government. I am pleased to have the opportunity today to expand on the topic of citizen engagement from a federal public service perspective.


First, let me begin with some background. Over the last decade, it has become clear that there is a growing risk of "disconnection" between government and citizens. Research tells us that citizens are increasingly concerned that their democratic institutions are out of sync with their values and interests. Moreover, citizens strongly believe that there is a growing gap between their actual and desired level of influence in government decision making. While they want government to consult them more, citizens do not feel engaged in some of the current forms of public consultation.

This situation is not unique to Canada. It is the case in all Western democracies and has been studied by many prominent researchers and writers, two of whom will be addressing this conference tomorrow. One of your guests will be Dr. Neil Nevitte, who, in his Decline of Deference, reflects on the changing values and views of citizens toward government. The other will be Dr. Benjamin Barber, who has written extensively on the subject of democracy and citizen engagement and has just released a new book on this subject.

Closer to home, many of these trends have been explored by Ekos Research, through an extensive national research project on citizen engagement. According to Ekos, citizens are clear in what they want in a new relationship with government: 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.

What does this mean for the public policy process? First, this is good news. It means that citizens are reclaiming their place in civil society. They want to work with their democratic institutions on those issues that will affect them most.

Second, citizens join the public policy process not as representatives of a sector or an organized group, but as civic-minded individuals. As engaged citizens, they have a responsibility to be informed about the issues under discussion, to represent their personal views, to learn from others and to work collectively to find common ground.

Third, it means that government decision makers — both elected officials and public servants — have a responsibility to effectively engage citizens, to listen, and to be accountable to citizens in explaining how their views have been considered in the decision-making process. In essence, citizen engagement is a two-way learning process between citizens and their democratically elected and public sector institutions in a search for common ground.

Within this particular context of citizen engagement, I would like to make three observations: 1) Canadians want meaningful participation; 2) citizen engagement builds on existing consultation practices; and 3) citizen engagement is not a replacement for existing democratic processes and institutions.

1.    Meaningful participation is the essence of citizen engagement.

Meaningful participation is the involvement of citizens in a serious, substantive and deliberative process that allows them to fully consider and debate the matters under consideration. The goal is not to have a snapshot of public opinion, such as a poll might produce. Nor is the goal to provide an opportunity for airing fixed views.

Rather, citizen engagement involves an in-depth discussion of choices and tradeoffs in a search for common ground. In this regard, citizen engagement can lead not only to developing specific policy proposals, but also to a better understanding of the underlying principles on which they are based.

Meaningful participation includes citizens at all stages of an issue: In defining a problem, in identifying and debating the merits of the possible options, and in selecting a course of action. It requires factual, balanced information written in plain language and provided in a transparent and timely way. It takes time and resources. For this reason, citizen engagement should be used selectively — for issues having a broad impact on the public or involving difficult choices about fundamental values.

And perhaps, most important, we have heard from Canadians that meaningful participation means a commitment to listening. Canadians are quite willing to take the time to participate in a serious deliberative process, but they want explicit assurances that what they say will be heard and considered when decisions are being made.

While there is not, and should not be, any single model for successful citizen engagement, the Government of Canada is exploring different approaches. The National Forum on Climate Change, conducted this past spring, is an example of a citizens’ jury model of engagement. This forum consisted of 25 individuals brought together to learn about climate change issues from people with a range of perspectives. The group then produced a declaration for future action by government and citizens. The Rural Dialogue process is an example of the small discussion group model. Through this process, citizens from across rural Canada were invited to help shape rural policies and programs. They recently completed their work with a national conference that attracted hundreds of interested citizens from across Canada.

2.    Citizen engagement complements and builds on our existing consultation practices.

Over the years, the Government of Canada has used various methods to involve citizens. The relationship between government and citizens can be viewed as a continuum, one which begins with transparency through information-sharing, to accountability in the reporting of results, and to our current forms of consultation. The more indepth and deliberative approaches associated with citizen engagement can be viewed as an extension of this continuum.

Canadians do not see citizen engagement as replacing the conventional forms of consultation which have evolved to date. In fact, the important strides that we have made in developing more effective consultation need to continue. Nor are Canadians seeking to exclude traditional stakeholders, such as institutional or professional bodies, industry and business organizations, and the voluntary sector or interest groups.

What Canadians are saying is that, civic-minded, informed citizens need a role too — one that is understood, accepted, and a normal part of the public policy process. Seen in this light, citizen engagement processes should complement and build on our current consultation experiences.

The National Forum on Health is an excellent example of how a conventional consultation with stakeholder groups was conducted in parallel with a citizen engagement process based on small public discussion groups across the country. At the end, citizens and stakeholder groups were brought together to reach a common understanding. The learning and exchange of views on both sides enriched the consultation experience and improved the recommendations to government.

The point I am making is that citizen engagement is not a substitute for consultation, which continues to have a valuable role. However, we need to build on our experience to date with consultation to develop new ways of bringing citizens into the public policy and decision-making process.

3.    Citizen engagement is not a replacement for our existing democratic processes and institutions.

While citizens want to be heard and they want their views considered, they recognize that their input is only one part of the decision-making process. They do not expect that their ideas will be automatically accepted or acted upon. In particular, they do not see citizen engagement as supplanting their political or parliamentary institutions. Quite the opposite. Canadians know that electoral and political action is the most important way to influence the political process.

Earlier today, conference participants heard Solicitor-General Andy Scott give some very practical examples of how this can be done. I would also like to draw your attention to some ways in which elected officials already play a central role in consulting Canadians: They do it as members of a standing committee (as in the case of the House of Commons Finance Committee’s annual budget consultation process); as participants on an intergovernmental panel (as with the Canada Pension Plan review process); in organizing town hall meetings with their constituents (as in the Social Security Reform process); and in seeking feedback from their constituents on important issues (through newsletters and websites).

Citizen engagement can and should complement the work of elected officials. Earlier this year, consultation reporting was included as a specific requirement of documents which go to Cabinet. This is the first time that consultation has been formally referenced in the Cabinet decision-making process and signals the importance of "assured listening."

My key points are these: First, Canadians want to participate in the public policy process as individual, informed citizens. Second, Canadians want meaningful participation in a process where informed parties learn from each other and find common ground. Third, citizen engagement is not inconsistent with our current forms of consultation, nor is it a replacement for our democratic institutions. In fact, it complements and enhances existing public policy processes.


Finally, let me conclude with a word about the role of the federal public service in actively supporting this new relationship between citizens and government. My message to the public service on citizen engagement is straight-forward: Citizen engagement is an important priority of the government; and it is everyone’s business in the public service.

For example, in policy development we need to ensure that citizens have a clearly defined role in the early stages of a process and that their expressed viewpoints will be openly acknowledged and seriously considered when decisions are made.

In communications, we need to redouble our efforts to encourage Canadians to participate in the consideration of issues that matter to them. We need to make sure that our information is accessible to all Canadians. And we need to show Canadians — whether or not they are direct participants in a consultation or engagement exercise — that the role of citizen is central to the public policy formulation process.

In program and service delivery, we need to involve citizens in the design of programs and services to ensure that they are responsive and accessible to all Canadians.

In human resource management, we need to build a culture of engagement and ensure that the public service has the necessary skills to effectively engage Canadians in decision making.

To conclude, I want to thank the organizers of this conference for bringing us together to share our ideas and our experience. And I want to offer my support and encouragement to everyone (in this room and elsewhere) who is working diligently and day-by-day to improve the access of citizens to the public policy process.

Your work is important, and I wish you great success.