Public consultation is a necessary part of the process of project development in Canada and elsewhere in the world.
In most cases consultation with stakeholders is legally mandated, but there are many more reasons to engage the public than simply fulfilling regulatory requirements.
In Canada and most other jurisdictions, consultation is regulated in order to ensure the voice of the public is brought to bear on projects that could affect them. It has special meaning when it refers to First Nations in this country, as the Crown has the specific duty to consult with those that have not settled indigenous rights and title.
While the process can appear to be onerous for companies developing projects, public consultation, if undertaken with the right mindset, can offer much to inform a proposal.
The prospect may seem daunting; companies can’t choose their stakeholders, and there is certainly no “one size fits all” approach to consultation.
The Sales Approach to Stakeholder Engagement
Unfortunately, some organizations take the approach of presenting projects in a pre-packaged form, almost as a fait accompli. While they might go through the motions of consultation, the idea is to “sell” the project to the public. Companies that are wary of consultation and engagement often turn to specific breeds of public relations firms to help with their sales pitch. The job of these types of PR firms is to “spin” or sell the project to the public with the notion that this approach can save a great deal of money in the long run if delays are encountered.
Unfortunately this approach leaves little room for meaningful discussion and input, and takes the condescending “we know what’s best for you and your region” attitude.
The drawbacks of “selling” a project
This method of selling rather than presenting a project or proposal to the public for input and refinement has many drawbacks, such as:
- When citizens don’t feel engaged in the process, they lack understanding and ownership of a project.
- When companies don’t adequately take feedback into consideration, they don’t fully understand a region and can’t tailor their project to suit its unique needs.
- The long-term success of a project can be undermined without a solid base of public understanding and/or support.
The benefits of public consultation
In Canada, as in other areas, it’s the proponent’s responsibility to educate stakeholders – to make them feel they have enough information to make a well-informed decision about a project.
Stakeholder engagement and consultation typically follows three recognized steps: notification, consultation, and participation. The public has the right to be concerned about your project, to ask questions about it, and even to oppose it. But every person should have the correct information in other to form her or his opinion.
Meaningful consultation that involves ongoing two-way communication with a project representative or team increases understanding, clarifies the community’s preferences and values, and allows the proponent to understand how the public’s views can and should lead policy decisions.
For the company in question, a detailed consultation will identify a community’s views on your project and how this perception changes over time. It will allow you to anticipate issues and develop ways of addressing them, which could include inviting the public to have input into solutions. Ultimately, it will help develop the public’s trust in your process by involving the community in project planning.
The result is more meaningful process that incorporates the views and input of those who know an area best – its residents.
SustaiNet provides stakeholder management software for seeking the public’s input from the early stages of a project through to its approval. Manage public input and stakeholder consultation online with software designed for those who value the input of the communities in which they operate.
Image Credit: F. Delventhal