Dinner with Trudeau and Ban Ki-Moon : Thoughts on Consulting with Canadians

Reflections from Michael Simpson, Executive Director, BC Council for International Cooperation

February 12, 2016 – I am decidedly more comfortable walking in the muddy creeks of the Niger Delta or travelling down the Amazon to tackle sustainability than dining at prestigious dinners with diplomats and heads of state.  So it was with a certain level of displacement that I found myself last night, dressed in a fancy suit, eating smoked salmon in our nation’s capital flanked by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Secretary to the Governor General.

Across from me sat the Minister of International Development who was chatting with the Ambassador of Zimbabwe.  All around were career diplomats, ambassadors, Ministers and very important people in the world of Global Affairs. Within arms reach was former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and at the table in front of me stood our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who was about to make a speech and toast the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, and his wife.

I am wise enough to know that an invitation to dinner at this level of diplomacy is no more a coincidence or mistake than the carefully arranged seating. So it was with a certain wonder that I mused “why am I here?”

The answer is very, very clear and echoed for me like thunder around the room.   This government is taking a very different approach.

When a new government is formed, incoming Ministers are given mandate letters that clearly, and usually privately, outline what is expected.  The government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for the first time made these letters public and they are worth careful scrutiny.  The incoming Minister of International Development and La Francophonie Madame Bibeau has clear instructions to “consult with Canadian stakeholders”.  Sitting next to her was my counterpart Executive Director Jennifer Sloot from the Atlantic Council for International Cooperation.

Like the grassroots approach that was taken during the election, the Prime Minister seems intent on maintaining a close connection with Canadian perspectives. What better way to do this than to mix up the dinner, rearrange traditional seating and invite a range of perspectives from across the country. The message was clear: “we want to talk and we are open to new ideas”.

Madame Bibeau is coming to Vancouver to do exactly that on Tuesday, in only a few days’ time.  She has asked our Provincial Council to convene a small, targeted roundtable to initiate discussions on key issues of concern to civil society.

What is becoming very clear is that we are entering a new era of consultation and a closer collaboration between sectors that at times have distanced each other… including the private sector.  The Deputy Minister of Defence and the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs were both at the same dinner table with the Minister of International Development. I am personally told these three departments are very, very closely aligned these days.

If we are to enter this new era it seems wise to review some of the many lessons learned on meaningful consultation so that all sides can understand each other in terms of explicit organizational structures and limitations, as well as informal cultures and practices.  Nothing is more exciting than wisely navigating this new relationship. Understanding some of the potential pitfalls before we engage seems circumspect.  As we move into this new relationship here are some personal thoughts for Minister Bibeau, for ourselves as a sector, and anyone who needs to steer the conversation with civil society over the coming months.

1. Consulting in good faith. This is a widely acknowledged principle which essentially points out that if you already know what you want to do, please do not bother consulting. Technically speaking, consultations should happen before a decision is made unless the nature of the consultation is an iterative review that is open to changing an existing decision or policy. In theory, the pathway to that decision should be clear, time bound, and the role or mandate of the consultative body clearly spelled out.  No one is usually under the illusion in civil society that we can or should have the power of governance. That is what elections are for, but it should be clear from the outset how the time and energy that goes into consultations could have a potential impact.  No one wants to consult for the sake of consulting alone.

2. The principle of self-selection. Civil society is very diverse. There is probably no such thing as an agreed upon view for any particular issue, given the diversity of civil society groups and perspectives.

Ideally, a consultation is completely open and accessible and the task becomes one of searching for underlying trends and patterns of opinion. In reality, however, this is very difficult and time consuming and has obvious limitations on the level of detail that can be extracted from the process.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the “targeted” consultation in which government identifies and pre-selects with whom it would like to speak. This obviously also has limitations as there is a tendency to seek out similar perspectives or known subject matter experts. Since the purpose of a consultation is ultimately to cast light on what we do not know, it can have limited value to talk to the usual suspects.

In the absence of a completely open consultation process, self-selection forces civil society to decide who will step forward and represent the sector. Self-selection, by its nature should be handled by the sector.  It may very well be that the usual suspects are best positioned to represent the views of the sector or it could be that new and fresh voices, perhaps even critical or outspoken voices, are the most pertinent at the time. Underlying the principle of self-selection is also a healthy respect for avoiding disruption or divisions in a sector. Access to consultations can be viewed as an expression of power or manipulation and this should be avoided at all costs if we are ultimately seeking collaboration both within a sector and between sectors.

3.Understanding hat wearing. The issue of representation is complex. At times it can be useful to consult with leaders from within a sector who may have very diverse and independent views. These views remain those of the individual or organization alone. When views are collectively held through consensus or as an outcome of a shared policy perspective (workshops, declarations, meetings, policy documents, etc.) or as a result of collective membership (associations, coalitions or councils) they have representational value and obviously should carry more weight. This representational value must pre-exist before the consultation unless there is a mechanism within the process to assign it. Often there is a lack of discipline on hat wearing and it can be tempting to assign weight or overstep one’s representation or even assume representation when it does not exist. A thoughtful consultation process takes this into account.

4.Understanding the impact of the consultation process itself. Like research, it has become clear that the process of consultation itself can have positive, negative or unexpected impacts on the participants. Much disappointment can be avoided by managing expectations from the outset and being very clear about the mandate and scope of the consultation. Many consultations raise expectations about pipelines for projects or changes in policy that may be many years in the future. Like participatory research, a thoughtful consultation will ask how the activities of consultation itself can have an impact: Will it strengthen ties in the community, build synergies or serve to divide people; does the timing coincide with tensions or complement communications. Certainly a healthy exchange of ideas can help evolve thinking in light of new contexts and issues.

5. Unlike the private sector or intra-governmental discussions, civil society is often reliant on the volunteer sector with associated constraints in terms of time, human resources or money that can inhibit participation. This is particularly true for the small and medium sized organizations who may not have dedicated staff for policy dialogue but who have very specific and often valuable contributions to make. Consultations that are announced well in advance, that provide reasonable amounts, yet not onerous amounts of background information and that create open, friendly and approachable dialogue will encourage participation. Considering the time of the week, the location of the consultation, the formality of the dialogue and taking measures to reduce the use of specific lexicons or acronyms can help to reduce inhibitions for youth, parents, or non professionals that make up the voluntary sector. Considering the accessibility of buildings, the language barriers participants may face, the challenges to cultural communities, gender identity and equity considerations, taking the time to explain processes and protocols or even providing pre-consultation orientations are all ways to reduce barriers to inclusion.  At its best no one should feel intimidated by the process of consultation in Canada.

6. For both open and targeted consultations there are also new mediums and modalities that can encourage a broader span of participation. This includes online polling, the use of webinars or web based interactive dialogue, video conferencing, conference calling, online surveys and crowd sourcing ideas as well as using social media to promote dialogue. These are particularly friendly for the many Canadians working outside of the Golden Horseshoe of Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal as well as those living in rural, Northern or smaller urban centers. They also have their drawbacks as these mediums can prohibit frank discussion on sensitive topics that are best addressed face to face using Chatham House Rules with smaller groups of trusted individuals or create age based barriers for elders who have plenty of wisdom to offer but are less familiar with new technologies.

7. Consultations can be categorized in three evolving tiers of interaction. The first is simply the dissemination of information by any party. These types of interactions tend to involve the announcement of positions or simply provide information. The tone of these kinds of interventions is often convincing in nature and highly positional. Participants promote their view and may have self interested motivations.

The second more complex form is similar to web 2.0 in that the information flows in both directions by all parties. In this more in depth form of consultation both government and other stakeholders exchange views, help to contextualize each other’s positions or views, and all parties both talk and listen. The tone is more of a negotiation and is marked by compromise.

The third level of yet more complex consultation, which usually only takes place after the previous two have evolved, involves a high level of trust and is a true dialectic. At this third level new and emergent ideas are being sought after and the tone is one of shared humility in the face of new and complex problems.  None of the participants can develop a full understanding of the issue without the willing participation of all involved.  These types of multi-stakeholder participatory consultations have a very humble feel to them yet have the greatest potential for “emergent” solutions. Both government and civil society must have a high degree of trust and discipline to look for emergent, new ways of thinking. The current problematique we face with climate change, globalization and the merging of security, development, environment and foreign affairs as well as the new agenda of universality within the rubric of the sustainable development goals should by its very nature, force us into this latter form of dialogue/dialectic.

Certainly the current government’s interest in Canada having a leading role in Global Affairs will require some creative and collective thinking in a friendly spirit of shared solidarity.  Having a mature solidarity in which a diversity of views and perspectives, sometimes in healthy opposition to each other, can generate new solutions.   All three levels of consultation have their valid time and place.

8. Consulting with First Nations or Indigenous peoples. With the introduction of the concept of universality within the Sustainable Development Goals and the pressing priority of indigenous rights it may seem appropriate to include First Nations or indigenous consultation as a component of civil society dialogue. However, it must be made very clear that this not the appropriate approach to consulting with First Nations or indigenous peoples. As the Prime Minister points out, First Nations and indigenous peoples are recognized actors and partners in their own right and should be consulted apart from the private sector and civil society on a nation-to-nation basis. The Prime Minister has pointed out these discussions should take place on equal terms. When and if indigenous peoples participate in multi-stakeholder dialogues or within civil society consultations, is a decision that remains entirely in their own hands.  At times there may even be a need for separate Memorandums of Understanding or particular attention to protocol to recognize the unique position they are in.  When and if civil society discusses indigenous issues, it is a matter of opinion only, not representation.  It is for this reason that consultations hosted by civil society will often recognize at the outset the location of the meeting in relation to First Nations land and title.  BCCIC follows this protocol.

9.Following up on a consultation is not just the responsibility of government but everyone involved. Keeping proper records, noting tasks or follow up activities, referencing materials or making presentations available and ensuring that communication is maintained after the meeting helps to underline that the meetings took place in good faith. At a minimum people should be given each other’s contact information. While the majority of the responsibility for follow up should be in the hands of the entity that hosted or called the consultation, there is definitely an onus on all parties to ensure that any momentum gained during discussions is maintained.

Clearly we are entering a new era of consultation and collaboration with Canadian stakeholders and international aid organizations. Behind this collaboration lies an interesting theory of change. Simply put, we live in a complex globalized world that requires a diverse range of cooperating actors to tackle the seventeen goals and 169 targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that point us toward a better world.  Not all Canadians understand global citizenship through the same lens and so the coming months and years will require a renewed commitment to public engagement on global affairs with innovative ideas. Few are better positioned than the Provincial and Regional Councils who have organized in this sector for more than four decades. Based on dinner invitations, the Prime Minister clearly agrees, and has innovative ideas of his own on how to go about this.  Our dining experience was evidence of this as ambassadors mixed with Ministers and Generals, media pundits and academic thought leaders while civil society and progressive private sector entrepreneurs exchanged business cards and ideas. I notice the Finance Minister has already posted an online consultation.

The Minister of International Development and La Francophonie will soon be here in British Columbia exchanging ideas through a targeted consultation. The Parliamentary Secretary has already had a lengthy face-to-face meeting with the Inter-Council Network of Provincial and Regional Councils. Clearly reaching out to a diverse set of Pan-Canadian actors in the Global Affairs Community is speaking to Canada’s strength.

On my part it was an honour to sit with such a distinguished role call of Canadian and international leaders in honor of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Indeed few could have exuded more enthusiasm for our new world centric identity as Canadians than the leader of the United Nations for whom the dinner was held in honor.  As for my own feelings of displacement, I can only say that after some fine wine, excellent food, exceptional company and gracious hosts it started to wear off. Perhaps it is a new era worth celebrating.

Michael Simpson
Executive Director

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