Consulting on consultations

Back before the internet, there was a Dilbert cartoon where Ratbert the Consultant tells the people he is consulting that “Your input is so important that I’ll have it put in a big binder and stored in the same building that your president works (in)!”

I recalled the cartoon as I hit “submit” on a recent Yukon government online consultation.

Was my input so important that it will be read by an automated sentiment analysis robot based in the same server farm the minister uses?

Yukon cynics enjoy mocking government consultations. The territorial government and the City of Whitehorse provoked a new round of wry jokes around town recently when they launched consultations about how they consult. After reading the “Talking Together Survey,” one wag asked me why he hadn’t been consulted about the idea of consulting on consultation.

While good fun, this is unfair. Government is so big and complex now, that bringing more rigour and discipline to public consultation is a good idea. We’ve seen a lot of consultation exercises go awry over the years, resulting in wasted time, bad feelings and poor decisions. The government’s idea to use more online consultation tools isn’t necessarily terrible.

The bigger problem is that the Talking Together Survey doesn’t include what should be the biggest player in consultation: the Yukon legislature.

Our elected representatives play a surprisingly small part in most consultation exercises. They don’t feature in online consultations, and most in-person sessions are either MLA-free or our politicians play a small observational role. It sometimes seems like officials to go extreme lengths to avoid anything resembling a real town hall, where politicians stand up and put their plans to citizens and get direct feedback.

In our neighbouring capital, Juneau, citizens regularly have opportunities to give their views directly to lawmakers. On a recent week, there were public committee meetings on oil spill prevention, workers compensation, education tax credits, raw milk sales and more exciting public policy topics.

You can also get on the agenda at Whitehorse city council and talk directly to issues on the agenda before they vote.

Yukon MLAs should have committees with more public meetings with citizens.

The consulting on consultation exercise misses the moose in the room. We won’t fix decision-making in the Yukon without focusing on the legislature.

A wise process engineer once told me that if a process is broken, you should fix the process not design a new process to go around the problem.

In a sense, improved online consultation is a tool trying to address a widespread feeling that the views and interests of Yukoners are not being well represented in government decision-making. It’s good that there’s now a website so you can see all the surveys various departments are running and the questions they are asking — or not asking. But webpages won’t fix the main problem, which is the drift away from the centre of our democracy.

It’s a bedrock principle that we have representatives in the legislature who are supposed to consult us before they vote. We spend millions on this institution every year.

This suggests job one should be fixing public committee meetings at the legislature, rather than making up for the lack of direct interaction between MLAs and citizens by building elaborate online consultation platforms.

Many legislatures have regular committee meetings on their government’s major departments plus special ones on important new laws. In just the last few months, for example, such exercises would have been useful on things like Yukon government’s long-term finances, new recycling strategies for tires and electronics and the new airport law.

Having standard committee meetings be part of the political landscape has many advantages.

For citizens, they can be reassured they will have their say. They won’t fall victim to government choosing the timing and format of consultations that is most convenient to it.

I was at one consultation where departmental communications staff were overheard chortling about how they had organized the room in a series of booths so that there would never be a big gathering of citizens asking tough questions directly to the minister in front of everyone.

Politicians will benefit too if they play it right. Quite a few ministers over the years have inadvertently taken a painful public thrashing after rolling out a half-baked policy or relying on assurances from officials that citizens had been fully consulted. Having a public committee meeting scheduled for next Wednesday night concentrates the minds of officials and ministers.

The scheme also has the benefit of forcing our politicians to work together, or at least pretend to. Today almost no one watches Question Period, which enables the kinds of antics the Hansard staff have to endure.

You tend to behave more cooperatively as an MLA when you are at a public meeting and your uncle’s friend and Grade 1 teacher are in the front row staring at you skeptically.

In-person committee meetings also provide rich, direct interaction between decision makers and affected people. The biggest issues are usually complex, with lots of details, trade-offs and potential unintended consequences. Online surveys can be too high-level for such issues. They can even lead to cynicism that the survey was designed to just be a sop to the public, since no one can tell if decision makers really reviewed the findings and used them to make the decision.

Most importantly, committee meetings improve decision-making and accountability to voters. Instead of vague questions about vision and aspirations, there is a specific report or bill with real-world details to talk about on the agenda. Voters get to make their point, see what their representatives do next, and remember it during the subsequent election campaign.

The purpose of consultations should include surfacing the information decision-makers need to make the best decision. Online survey tools are useful because they cheaply allow government to consult widely on more topics than they could in the old days. There is a place for well-designed online exercises with factbases, clear options to discuss and careful analysis of possibly unrepresentative results.

But wise politicians always supplement them with lots of face-to-face time with those involved. And for unwise politicians, we should schedule regular committee meetings at the Legislature.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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