Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Calling All Citizens: The Challenges of Public Consultation

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Calling All Citizens: The Challenges of Public Consultation

Article excerpt

Sommaire : L'une des manieres dont les gouvernements ont reagi au mecontentement democratique exacerbe qui s'est manifeste ces dernieres annees a ete d'accroitre la participation des citoyens au processus d'elaboration de politiques en organisant des consultations publiques a grande echelle. Le present article est une etude de cas portant sur une de ces consultations. A l'automne de 2002, la ville de Saint-John, faisant face a un gros deficit budgetaire, a cherche a obtenir l'avis du public sur d'importantes decisions financieres qui devaient etre prises avant la fin de l'annee. Les citoyens avaient la possibilite de faire connaitre leur opinion d'une facon traditionnelle en renvoyant un questionnaire par la poste a l'Hotel de Ville, ou bien its pouvaient soumettre leurs commentaires par vole electronique par l'intermediaire du site Web de la Ville de Saint-John. A partir d'une grande variete de sources de donnees, y compris des entrevues avec des responsables municipaux et un sondage de suivi aupres des participants a la consultation, l'etude de cas evalue le succes de cet exercice particulier a atteindre plusieurs objectifs interdependants : faciliter la participation des citoyens aux affaires publiques, ameliorer le sentiment d'efficacite politique chez les citoyens, permettre aux fonctionnaires de se faire une meilleure idee de l'opinion publique et faconner la politique publique. En tenant compte a la fois des resultats des consultations et des attentes des citoyens et des fonctionnaires, nous identifions les principales lacunes de la consultation de Saint-John ainsi que les moyens d'apporter des changements constructifs aux exercices futurs.

One way governments have responded to the heightened democratic discontent of recent years is to seek greater input from citizens in the policymaking process. Often this means organizing large-scale public consultations that move beyond the normal range of stakeholders to invite the citizenry at large to voice their views on important policy issues. (1)

Citizen consultation is motivated by several objectives: to facilitate citizen participation in public affairs; to enhance citizens' sense of their political efficacy; to provide public officials with greater insight into the contours of public opinion; and to help shape public policy. (2) But a number of practical shortcomings often undermine their effectiveness: the limited number of citizens who come forward to express their views; the limited policy knowledge of those who do participate; questions about whether the viewpoints of participants are representative of the population at large; and attendant scepticism on the part of policy-makers about the value of the information generated. There are, then, important questions about how and when--and indeed whether--public consultations can be used to positive effect. (3)

To shed light on the matter, this research note provides a case study of one recent public consultation. In the fall of 2002, the City of Saint John, New Brunswick, faced with a sizeable budget deficit, (4) sought public input on important fiscal decisions that had to be made before year's end. Citizens could provide their views in a traditional way--by mailing in a questionnaire to city hall--or they could submit their views electronically via the City of Saint John web site. On the same site, provision was made for discussion groups where citizens could exchange views on issues related to the budget dilemma. The hope was that adding "e-consultation" to the mix might enhance useful aspects of existing consultation practices and overcome some present shortcomings (5)--by, for example, allowing citizens to participate in the consultation at the time and place of their choosing and thereby facilitating participation. At the same time, sensitive to potential inequalities in computer access and the broader implications for democratic equality, it was deemed critical to make provision for traditional forms of participation. …

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