B.C.’s Public Consultation Process

Public consultations: meaningful dialogue or empty theatre?

When the B.C. government has to consult the public on projects such as the Site C dam, they call Judy Kirk.

Public consultations: meaningful dialogue or empty theatre?

Metro Vancouver staff who are hosting tonight’s consultation at Port Moody’s Inlet Theatre have put together a fine-looking production. They’re here to present a new waste plan, which includes a controversial incineration system, and hear feedback from the 60-odd locals who have shown up. Everything is well lit, well miked and professional. A staffer helps one critic from the public put her own PowerPoint slides up on the projector screen, while a team of busy note takers at the back make sure every complaint makes it into the records. Outside in the lobby are tables loaded with doughnuts, coffee and pop, surrounded by posters showing waste statistics in colourful charts and diagrams.

Jo-Anne Parneta isn’t impressed. The retired 62-year-old former Port Moody city councillor doesn’t believe in incinerating garbage, and she’s here to make sure the Metro Vancouver planners know it. But what galls her about this whole proceeding is what she describes as an underlying dishonesty. “This is communicated as, ‘We haven’t made a decision, and we want your input,’” Parneta says. “But if you look at the way the material is presented, it’s, ‘We’ve made a decision, and this is wallpaper so we can say to the provincial government that we’ve consulted.’”

Whether it’s for new park benches or new mines, public consultation has become an indispensable part of B.C. public process. But like all sub-systems in a democracy, it relies on trust. And trust, as Port Moody’s Parneta shows, can be tenuous. Governments and corporations hire private public-relations firms to conduct their consultations, and some fear that as the tactics these pros bring to the room get more sophisticated, the process is becoming less about consultation and more about promotion.

Joe Foy, the national campaign director for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, has been to about a hundred public consultations, and he says the quality of public discourse is falling. The government is releasing less and less information to the public about major projects, he says, and too many projects are being excused from public consultations and other oversight altogether.

Consultations are also moving away from traditional town-hall-style meetings, where a crowd gathers to hear questions and answers. Organizers try to avoid these setups because they give critics too much of an audience, he says. “I love British Columbians,” Foy says with a laugh. “They are a grumpy lot, and if you invite them into a meeting, they’re pretty hard to control.” Instead, organizers often prefer open-house-style meetings, where the public is kept moving through a room in smaller groups, he says. “You never hear the angry guy. You never hear what your neighbours have to say.”

But Foy’s main complaint echoes that of Parneta: he feels that people are led to believe they’re part of the decision-making process when in fact nothing they say or do will make a difference. “The result is, citizens begin to lose faith in public process,” Foy says. “And what is the alternative to public process? Well, the alternative is public protest.”

One of B.C.’s most prolific consultation organizers says there’s a fine line between educating and gathering input – one that can easily be fudged. Judy Kirk, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the business, is the president of Kirk & Co. Consulting Ltd., which has organized consultations for projects such as the Canada Line and is currently working on one for the Site C dam. The fact is, consultations aren’t all the same, she says: sometimes leaders really do want the public’s advice to help them make decisions, whereas other times the process is simply meant to educate people about done deals. Kirk says it’s critical that the public knows its role. “What divides those who are professionals in this area and those who are not,” she says, “is whether they’re clear about how they use the input.”

As to the question of whether consultation professionals have become too promotional, she is emphatic that it is not her job to sell the public on one argument or another, and that’s something she regularly has to remind clients who want to hire her company. “This firm will not do it,” she says vehemently. “But there are others who will.”

Public consultation is a developing field, Kirk says, and it’s improving rapidly. In the last 15 years, a range of best practices have been established for consultants, she says, which will continue to help make consultations more honest, transparent, accountable and ultimately more useful.

Joe Foy is not so optimistic. He fears that leaders in B.C. are becoming less interested in real discourse with the public. “Here in British Columbia, it sounds like we’re a bunch of bitchers, crabbers and whiners, and that we’re never happy. But if we just step back, all this whining, complaining, thinking, arguing has generally created a pretty good society,” Foy says. “We shouldn’t be afraid of the to-ing and fro-ing, because it’s had a pretty good result.”