Eight Reasons Why Public Consultations are Overrated

Across Canada, public consultations are in style at City Hall. Such consultations are meant to build a greater sense of community and provide city planners with valuable insight into citizens’ thinking. They are seen to enhance the democratic process; some people love to share their opinions and want more of a say over what goes on in their city.

It is hard to be against public consultations. But just as fast-food burgers rarely measure up to the pictures in commercials, cities exaggerate the value of public consultations. Here are eight reasons why they are overrated.

First, the vast majority of people cannot or do not participate in such engagements. Calgary boasts that its imagineCALGARY project, launched in 2005, involved more than 18,000 participants and represented “the largest community visioning and consultation process of its kind anywhere in the world.” In a city of one million people, this means not even 2 per cent of Calgarians participated, and yet the project drives the development plans and regulations that affect the other 98 per cent.

This leads us to the second problem: Consultation-based decision-making favours special interest groups or activists. Whether it is bike-lane advocates or the taxi lobby, nothing beats the disorganized majority like an organized minority. Political economist Mancur Olson uses the analogy of a disciplined, coordinated army versus an undisciplined, leaderless mob to make this point.

Even if the majority of the population would actually oppose a policy suggested in a consultation, the public is often unaware of the policy or too disorganized to mobilize against it. Citizens typically self-select for consultations; participation is not compulsory. A passive recruitment method usually produces a snowball sample; interested individuals recruit from their social networks, and these individuals recruit from their social networks, and so on, until the group is composed. Cities rarely receive feedback from representative samples.

Third, few people have expertise in city planning, but consultations are not meritocracies. Rational people do not put more into a task than they will benefit from doing so. When all opinions are regarded as equal, there is no extra incentive to be educated before providing advice. Anthony Downs calls it “rational ignorance.” Alternatively, people may believe they are informed, but they are actually acting according to group affiliation, personal ideology, the media or a host of other information shortcuts.

Former B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Gibson once remarked, “I would never ride in an airplane designed by a citizens’ assembly. They are not qualified to do that kind of thing.”

If people were held personally accountable for the decisions they make on behalf of the city, they would be unlikely to participate, and this is a sign that they may be in over their heads.

Knowledge aside, language is a restriction. That some values and preferences cannot be articulated is the fourth difficulty.

Consider the statement “I love you.” Anyone who replies, “How much do you love me?” is usually teasing, because one cannot provide a sufficient answer. In a marketplace, people may choose products and places for reasons they cannot articulate, while consultations can only deliver the describable.

Even if people can describe what they want or how much they want it, they are not paying a direct cost for the decisions they make during consultations, and this is the fifth problem.

Consultations typically ask hypothetical questions such as “What would you like to have?” People will say they prefer a bigger, higher-quality TV, but they still buy smaller, lower-quality TVs, due to price. A person who buys a cheaper TV will have money left over to spend on something else. Consultations lack the ability to convey people’s desires relative to other desires or needs.

It is easy to understand why citizens would simultaneously advocate for cheaper transit and buses that are more frequent, as they did in one Calgary consultation, but there is an obvious conflict. For a given ridership, hiring more bus drivers and purchasing more buses requires more revenue per ride. Consultations struggle to simulate trade-offs.

The sixth problem: Consultations seek to narrow the range of options in the marketplace by establishing the preferred city services and urban forms, but what constitutes an improvement in the quality of life is subjective. Some people prefer a single-family home in the suburbs, others, an inner-city apartment.

Using public consultations to achieve consensus is futile, because there is no consensus. There is no optimal urban form, and when consultations are concerned with private property, participants are merely imposing their tastes on others.
A seventh problem is that all consultations necessarily take place within constraints and carry underlying assumptions. Not everyone will see development through the same lens as the consultation organizers. For example, consultations may be based entirely on the principles of Smart Growth, but people argue that the Smart Growth doctrine artificially pushes up the price of housing. Cities should not assume everyone is an advocate of Smart Growth policies.

Cities may present citizens with different options for the implementation of a new program, but in doing so, the consultation is biased against the option of not starting the program at all. People who want to see government intervention seek participation in public consultations, and those who desire government to stay out of their neighborhood or activities, ironically, must get involved in politics to avoid political intervention.

Deliberative democracy theorists Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson declare, “[F]or most people, the freedom not to spend a major part of one’s time deliberating about politics is part of what it means to live the life of a free citizen.”

Finally, consultations and visioning exercises are limited to working with currently known possibilities and do not provide an incentive for innovation. People re-evaluate their preferences when new options become available. Consumers were not demanding iPhones prior to their invention, but now practically every phone on the market carries the same then-revolutionary features.

The Saskatoon Speaks vision document declares, “The most successful cities…envision their future city and what will make it great. They plan ahead and then act on their plans.”

Once again, it is hard to be against planning for the future. But imagine if 100 years ago consumers planned and regulated the development of the telecommunications industry. Let us hope that 100 years from now, cities planned by consultations are not the equivalent of the rotary phone.

Public consultations are not worth the hype. They are great public relations tools for municipal governments, but inadequate tools for city planning.


Brianna Heinrichs is a research assistant at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a research contractor at the Manning Foundation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Calgary. Her thesis, The Law and Politics of Provincial Drinking and Driving Offences, focused on the constitutionality of provincial laws which encroach on the federal criminal code. In fall 2013, she will continue her research at the University of Calgary as a Masters student. Brianna has received several academic scholarships and served on the executive board of two student clubs: Women in Leadership and the Association for Ordered Liberty. She enjoys volunteering weekly at a mobile drop-in center in downtown Calgary.

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