Consulting Stakeholders and Engaging Citizens

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below) describes the challenges associated with consulting stakeholders and engaging citizens.

Pal acknowledges (p. 248) that government undertakings in consultation and citizen engagement can be viewed cynically:

“Consultations and citizen engagement can be seen as empty theatrics where interest groups rant predictably while decisionmakers watch the clock, waiting for it all to be over so that they can then go and make the decisions they were going to make anyway. Both also keep everyone busy in a ritualistic way, ultimately validating what decisionmakers wanted to do in the first place (Cooke & Kothari, 2001).”

But Pal notes (p. 248) that, although there is a strong element of truth in such critiques:

“… policymakers also genuinely believe that consultation in policy design and partnership in policy delivery are important aspects of their jobs. They may not always like it, but they will undertake it, often willingly but also because some form of consultation with the public is increasingly mandated as an aspect of public policy development.

“There are real puzzles in this engagement, however – challenges that have to be recognized and addressed if governance is to evolve in the next decade. With consultations, the challenge is balancing public demands with the realities of hard decisions. …

“The dictionary definition of consultation is simply to ask for advice or opinion, or a type of communication between two or more parties. Any government that purports to be democratic, one would think, is intrinsically a government that consults. … Almost any form of communication can be seen as a consultation, if by that term we mean only the exchange of information or views. Government polling, for example, might be seen as a form of consultation since it probes for the views of citizens on a wide variety of subjects. The same might be true of task forces, royal commissions, parliamentary committees, referenda, and even elections, all of which are often described as consultations with the public.

Consultation with stakeholders

Pal writes (p. 249)

“Consultation is different. First, it is usually focused on the operational and programmatic level, as opposed to broad values or directions for policy development. One can still consult about broad values, but these should be clearly connected to specific issues and programs. The interlocutors, therefore, are the agencies responsible for program design and delivery, and the direct clients or stakeholders in the relevant policy community or network. This characteristic distinguishes consultation as a policy management activity from broader forms of political representation, such as parliamentary committee hearings on a piece of legislation, for example. The objective is ongoing development and management of the policy or program in question, not the establishment of  parameters for political discussion and debate.

“The emphasis on consultation with stakeholders at the federal level goes back to the early 1990s, for example, with the report of the PS2000 Task Force on Service to the Public, which argued that consultation should become a routine aspect of public policymaking (Privy Council Office, 1993). Consultation practices vary quite widely across departments, depending on the issues and the preferences of ministers and senior officials. Ever since 1992, federal departments and agencies have been formally urged to consider public consultation a key part of the development of policy. The 2003 federal Guide to Making Federal Acts and Regulations noted that consultation in instrument choice is “essential” to making good choices and includes public consultation under the rubric of “good governance guidelines” (Privy Council Office, 2003). The 2010 federal guide to drafting a Memorandum to Cabinet, the policy document outlining the rationale for any proposed bill, requires a statement of a consultation strategy (Privy Council Office, 2010). The rules of strict confidentiality of draft legislation have also been relaxed somewhat, so that consultations can now be undertaken around proposed legislation. The only federal policy area in which consultations are mandated is in the creation of new regulations. The Cabinet Directive on Streamlining Regulation states, “Departments and agencies are responsible for identifying interested and affected parties, and for providing them with opportunities to take part in open, meaningful, and balanced consultations at all stages of the regulatory process (Government of Canada, 2007).”

Engagement with citizens

Pal notes (p. 250):

The shift to “engagement” from “consultation” seems to have occurred, in part, because of the continued lack of trust that citizens have toward government and dissatisfaction with the connotations of consultation – a process that suggests a fairly passive communication of views from stakeholders to government officials who will ultimately make the key decisions. With a decline in trust has come a decline in citizen participation in politics and public deliberation. … There has been much discussion in recent years of declining public trust in the public service and the public sector, fed by sensationalism around reputed scandals and ongoing exposures such as the Gomery Inquiry. Rebuilding that trust requires better engagement between the public sector and the public (Green & Côté, 2007). …

“The concern to engage citizens is also, in part, a reflection of a deeper concern about the eroding democratic foundation of contemporary politics and policymaking, particularly in an era of financial crisis. Citizen engagement thus has both an instrumental dimension – trying to tap into the knowledge and perspectives of citizens, unfiltered by media or interest groups – and a legitimating dimension – trying to shore up the public’s support for policy initiatives – often unpleasant ones – by bringing the public more actively into the process.

But, after reviewing experience in a variety of countries, Pal concludes (p. 252):

“It is easier to list principles and techniques than to put them into practice, particularly by governments; most of the techniques cited above were pioneered and are used by nonprofit organizations. Whereas consultation and engagement at all levels of government have become a sort of rhetorical policy mantra, the realities and challenges are more complex. … To the extent that governments at all levels feel the need to introduce unpopular policies, particularly cuts to services and social protection, they will avoid “citizen engagement” since they know perfectly well what the outcome will be – howls of pain and outrage.”

See also: The Crucial Role of Communication; Pal’s Comparison of Academic and Policy Research.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Consulting and Communicating on Policy (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

Cooke, B., & Kothari, U. (Eds.), (2001) Participation: The new tyranny. London, UK: Zed Books.

Government of Canada. (2007). Cabinet directive on streamlining regulation.

Green, I., & Côté, A. (2007). Leading by example. Ottawa, ON: Public Policy Forum.

Privy Council Office (Canada). (2003). Guide to making federal acts and regulations (2nd Edition)

Privy Council Office (Canada). (2010). Memorandum to Cabinet.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 12 April 2017.

Image: Site C Clean Energy Project, at, accessed 7 April 2017.