A Study on Citizen Engagement

May 14, 2018

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This blog is the second in a series that starts with “Canada participates in peer knowledge exchange,” explaining how Canada is working with international partners to explore possible links between citizen engagement and trust in government.

In a healthy democracy, Canadians have trust in their democratic processes, and are engaged in how government works. The data, however, shows trust in government is on a downward trend globally. How might we avoid this? We wanted to test one idea, which is whether increased engagement leads to increased trust.

To get a better understanding of Canadians’ perspectives, we bought a syndicated study from Ekos called Rethinking Citizen Engagement. Despite an overall downward trend, data from 2015 and 2016 studies showed an uptick in trust in the federal government in Canada. We have no data showing that there is a causal effect between opening up government and increased trust. We only know that trust is up at the same time that the government has held an unprecedented number of consultations on a broad range of topics of importance to Canadians. Satisfaction in government consultations was 37% in 2017, up from 18% in 2007.

In comparing options for improving democratic health in Canada, the top answer was “regular government consultation with Canadian citizens that is informed, reflected and representative”. This question points to what would need to be true to meaningfully engage citizens. Firstly, opinions would need to be “informed”, citizens would need to be “average”, and consultation would need to be “regular”. We wanted to drill into that more; if you do too, read the full report.

The Case for Public Engagement

A strong case is emerging from the data that Canadians agree that government should consult regularly. In this statistically representative sample, 84% agreed with “I would personally feel better about government decision-making if I knew that governments sought informed input from average citizens on a regular basis.” This number has barely changed since 2004 when the question was first asked.

From the study, we also learned about the different ways that people think about feeding into decision-making - from surveys to actively partnering with public servants to solve complex issues. Canadians likewise had a very broad interpretation of what it meant to engage with their government, which could be contacting a Member of Parliament or posting views on social media. When it came to government-led consultations, less than 35% of Canadians have participated.

When asked what would increase their likelihood to participate, Canadians’ top choice was that the engagement would shape decisions. They preferred that consultations be conducted with groups of Canadians who represented diversity in their views. Canadians also think that providing information is critically important since 75% believe that citizens lack the information necessary to make meaningful contribution to public policy issues.

Aligning expectations between citizens and government

To align citizens’ expectations with government consultations, we developed principles for public engagement. These principles should be considered by public servants when defining the ways in which the public will be engaged. We would also like to measure consultations and uncover which (if any) of these principles are drivers towards increased trust in government. It is our intention to continue monitoring some of these questions as we build a set of data to examine the relationships between providing information, increasing awareness, and making it easier to participate in government activities.

These are just some of the efforts underway, which we briefly touch on in our self-assessment and public reporting against commitment 20: Enable Open Dialogue and Open Policy Making.

Have you read the report Rethinking Citizen Engagement or others? Do you think we are missing something in the principles or indicators? Let us know if you think we are on the right track in the comments below.


Laura Wesley

Laura Wesley

Executive Director, Consultations and Public Engagement, Privy Council Office, Government of Canada

Laura has a track record of disrupting the status quo to bring about results. Her knowledge of, and interest in, systems change, service design, and human motivation form a lens through which to consider new ways of working together. After more than a decade working in the federal public service, she’s come to believe that working across boundaries – sectors, disciplines and organizations – results in better outcomes for everyone. In guiding individuals and teams, Laura shows an unwavering commitment to supporting people through change.

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