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A tale of two cities: Public participation processes in Banff and Calgary

  • Bruce, C. J.

As the education and income levels of Canadians have risen, and as access to electronic media have made citizens better-informed about the political system, pressure has been placed on governments to provide their electorates with greater involvement in the public policy process. Initially, governments responded to this pressure by inviting the public to attend forums at which they could express their opinions about major policy issues. Gradually, as citizens became aware that their views would have greater weight if they were more knowledgeable about the alternatives, forums were supplemented with technical materials presented in brochures and at information meetings. For example, when designing major roadways, it has become common for governments to have their engineers present alternative routes and configurations to the public. These developments have made government decision-making much more open and transparent, and have given citizens greater control over the policies that affect them. Nevertheless, there has been a growing interest recently in an even more direct form of public participation, usually referred to as ?consensus-building.? In this process, citizens do not just stand up in public meetings and voice their opinions, leaving the ultimate decisions to government officials. Rather, representatives of interested groups are brought together and invited to design the government policy themselves. Proponents of this model argue that it is particularly promising in situations in which there are strong conflicting opinions among members of the public ? for example, when commercial developers and environmental advocates differ over the use of public lands. It is argued that if all of the interested parties are required to reach a consensus, the policies they devise will be more representative of the broad views of citizens as a whole than will the decisions reached by civil servants. Despite a considerable amount of theoretical interest in consensus-building, primarily from academics and government administrators, there has only been a relatively small number of instances in which this process has been implemented formally. Accordingly, it has been difficult to test many of the predictions that have been made about the nature of the bargaining process. This has led researchers to investigate policymaking processes that are similar to consensus-building, to see whether lessons can be learned from them. That is the purpose of this policy brief. Specifically, this paper will analyse two public involvement processes that have been conducted in southern Alberta in the last decade: imagineCalgary, completed in 2006, and the Banff Bow Valley Study, completed in 1996. Although neither of these processes was designed explicitly for consensus building, both provided a much greater level of public involvement than has been common in government policy-making. As a result, lessons can be learned from both about how a formal consensus-building process might work, and about what the difficulties might be in implementing such a process. In this paper, the Banff and Calgary studies will be contrasted on the basis of six characteristics: ? the factors that instigated the studies; ? the government?s degree of commitment to implement the study?s recommendations; ? the nature of the public opinion surveys conducted in conjunction with the studies; ? the structure of the direct participation processes; ? the depth of research available to participants; ? the breadth of the issues that were to be considered by the process; and ? the value of the studies? recommendations for policy formation. In each case, I will ask whether the public participation process chosen allowed broadly representative groups of citizens to become directly involved in the development of public policy (rather than simply in the expression of their opinions). I will not, however, consider the much broader question of whether direct forms of public participation are desirable. First, however, I provide brief descriptions of the two processes.

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    Policy Brief No. 07001, March 2007, Institute for Advanced Policy Research, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada (http://www.iapr.ca)