It seems the term public consultation has become very fashionable. Citizens are asking for them, authorities must hold them, but not all public consultations are created equal. There are several types, depending on projects, legal frameworks and the level of advancement of each process.

In Quebec, the Loi sur l’aménagement et l’urbanisme (LAU) governing urban planning forces municipalities to consult their citizens about any decision that affects their general city plan, specific urban planning projects or the municipal vision statement. That said, the LAU more often than not only refers to the simple obligation to “hold at least one public meeting” on the proposed changes and announce it within a reasonable time in a local newspaper.

Continental trends point in another direction as citizens become more involved in urban planning initiatives. In the US, polls show large majorities of the public are demanding that government be more responsive to the will of the people. This is prompted by the widespread perception that government leaders pay little attention to the voice of the people and prioritize special interests over common good. This has led to disturbingly low levels of trust in government and has undermined the public’s readiness to make short term sacrifices to achieve long term common goals. Hello NIMBY.

A similar reaction is seen in Quebec. A growing number of cities are therefore deciding to go beyond the very light requirements of the Québec LAU to actually engage in a deeper dialogue with their constituents, instead of simply keeping them informed. Laval and Granby have recently held multi-step consultation programs that are considered best practices in the field.

Because it must be said: not all public consultations are created equal. Public participation should adapt itself based on the role that is actually expected of the public according to the advancement of the process.

What is expected of the public?

At COLOKIA, we believe that there are at least four levels of public participation and that as facilitators, we must state our purpose very clearly at the onset. These levels can be put on top of each other as in a pyramid. The first levels attract more volunteers at the very beginning of the process and require less effort on their part, while once in the higher levels of the “commitment pyramid”, participants keep on contributing to the decision-making process, as the project develops. In short, the public can (and should) remain involved throughout a project, because not everything can be understood or handled in a single 90-minute session.

A few different types of consultations

Information Session. The public receives full information, in plain language. It is not yet a question of public participation strictly speaking, but the step is fundamental because the content is schematized for an audience of non-specialists. This is the basis of any public participation program. It’s usually an opportunity to answer questions through expert presentations. For the process to be fair, citizens must have access to factual information in advance.

Discussion Period. In this type of public participation activity, public input is sought. For real. We listen to favorable and unfavorable points of view and we equip ourselves with tools to mobilize the population and collect points of view. This is an opportunity to sub-question and fully grasp the deep nature of public opinion.

Deeper Consultation. At this stage, interaction goes both ways between public and decision-makers. These can be group workshops to properly grasp the proposed technical content, to allow professionals to clearly identify needs or to document “customer cases” typical of the current area or future project.

Co-creation Session. At this phase, the public plays an important role in the design of the solution or the development plan. Advanced design sprint techniques can be used to create models, to determine what gains are achievable in the short term or in the overall design of the plan.

How about pre-consultations?

There is another form of consultation usually initiated by private developers or community groups in the initial stages of projects, to involve stakeholders from the outset or to ensure that community groups come up with documented points of view.

Real estate developers organize such pre-consultations to understand the communities they are settling in and to anticipate the impact that their project will have on the community. They can then modify certain elements to take the community’s needs into account and thus reassure the city’s urban planning department as to the social acceptability of their requests. Ultimately, this avoids the unnecessary costs of a denial or major change requests from the municipality later in the process.

It is important to note that pre-consultations do not replace the formal municipal consultation process but that they are indeed a bonus, very profitable, to be started upstream of the development project.

A FEW OTHER PUBLIC ORGANIZATIONS 

OCPM

The Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) was established in 2002 with the aim of ensuring a credible and transparent public consultation process. Its members are neither elected nor municipal employees. Its public consultation mandates are entrusted by City council or the Executive committee. These mandates relate mainly to projects that fall under municipal jurisdiction in urban planning and land use planning, but they can also extend to any project submitted by the Executive committee or the City council.

BAPE

The Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) is an impartial government agency reporting to the Quebec Minister of the Environment. It allows citizens to obtain information and exercise their right to speak on projects and on any issue relating to the environment that could have repercussions on their environment or on their quality of life.

MERN

According to the Quebec Mining Act, the proponent of a metal mine project must hold a public consultation before submitting its application for a mining permit to the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (MERN). It must therefore take place at the start of the process, before the operating permit is granted by the government.