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Leah Levac: Equitable Participation in Policy-Making

Many of the growing social and economic inequalities visible in Canada today are rooted in, or enabled by, inequitable public policies. The impacts of policies on diverse groups of people are not adequately considered, and the result is often unequal access to programs and services. This inequality creates a problem of fairness (inequity). For example, in my city of Fredericton, NB, if you live in an apartment, you probably don’t have your recycling picked up. If you live in a house, your recycling is picked up every week. Your experience differs depending on whether you’re a renter or a homeowner. In our country, you may not have access to clean drinking water if you reside in a rural area where logging is a major industry. If you live in an urban area in Canada, you almost certainly have clean drinking water. You have a different experience depending on whether you have access to a good water treatment system, and whether you reside close to a natural resource extraction industry. In my city, my province, and our country, you cannot vote until you’re 18 years old. Access to an important piece of our democracy depends on your age.  

Societies that strive for fairness are prepared to accept that policies can create unequal outcomes as long as the resulting inequalities make life fairer (more equitable) for everyone. Progressive taxation is a good example. People who earn more pay a higher proportion of their income to taxes, but this tax inequality creates greater income equity, and helps to provide a social safety net that makes access to health care, for example, more fair. However, the examples above create outcomes that are both unequal and unfair (inequitable) because they burden people who already tend to experience disadvantage or inequality in our society – such as renters, who usually have less wealth than homeowners, people living next to resource extractive industries, and young people. 

If we want our policies to create more equitable outcomes, the voices of diverse people have to be included in the policy-making process – at all stages. This means that the process needs to be more equitable for diverse participants. Public participation in all stages of the policy-making process is gaining the attention of researchers and practitioners around the world. From provincial government initiatives to small companies such as MassLBP that are working to re-design pubic consultations, there is growing attention to the role that members of the public should play in the policy-making process. Fundamentally, this shift is about bringing more equity to various stages of the policy-making process.  

While it is a bit artificial to think about the policy-making process as a series of distinct steps, it is helpful to do so for thinking about the problem of how a process can both be inequitable and create inequality and inequities. The policy-making process generally includes: (1) identifying the problem; (2) setting priorities about which problems will be addressed; (3) identifying policy goals and options; (4) deciding on policy instruments such as laws, rules, and funding needed to implement the policy option(s); (5) implementing the policy by delivering the program, service, etc.; and (6) evaluating the policy for its effectiveness (Phillips & Orsini, 2002). 

First, diverse members of the public should be involved in deciding what policy questions need to be asked. For example, many women’s organizations help to identify policy questions that are important to diverse groups of women. The elimination of many Federal programs specifically targeted at addressing gender inequalities means that policy questions that are important to women are now more easily ignored. One of the ways that this problem can be addressed is by learning from the research community. A similar problem occurs in research, when communities are not involved in deciding what kind of research is important for them. The research response has been the development of participatory orientations to research that aim to make research more democratic by acknowledging peoples’ experiences (Reid & Frisby, 2008), and by including diverse people in designing research questions (Israel, Eng, Schulz, & Parker, 2005). The policy-making response could be similar; “A change in culture within government is…vital to ensure that citizen involvement comes to be seen as an integral part of policy processes” (Phillips & Orsini, 2002, p. iii). 

Second, the policy-making process must challenge negative social labels, which contribute to the continued exclusion of certain members of the public. “Public officials have always had considerable power to constitute the public(s) they wish to engage” (Phillips, 2006, p. 16), and have not done a very good job of considering how diverse groups of people can bring different and relevant perspectives to policy problems. For example, Melanie is a woman I know who has an important perspective on child protection policies, but who continues to be treated as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, because she is labelled as a ‘young single mother’. Public policy dictates that Melanie has to send her 2-year old daughter Maya away with Maya’s abusive father. Melanie’s experience, and her ideas about how her experience could be improved, should be included in discussions about child protection policies. Instead, negative social labels undermine Melanie’s credibility and discount her ideas. 

Third, the policy-making process can be improved by using tools and procedures that give people equitable opportunities to participate. Public meetings are a good place to start (the common form of “public engagement” right now), but if you cannot read, you cannot learn about a public meeting through a written notice. If you can read, but you are a single mother working for minimum wage, you cannot afford childcare while you attend the public meeting. Online technologies bring the possibility of more diverse public involvement (Harris, 2008; Gordon, 2008), but how technology takes away from, or expands opportunities for engagement is still a topic of great debate, so the solution needs to include, but extend beyond, simply adding a virtual component. 

Fourth, meaningful public participation requires that the public have access to all of the relevant information. Documents filled with technical jargon or dense information that doesn’t include the relevant context and implications, or that are difficult to locate, are only two of the many ways information barriers prevent diverse people from participating in policy development.  

Fifth, the policy-making process must make fostering mutual trust and respect a priority because these are critical components of meaningful public participation (Abelson and Gauvin, 2006). When diverse members of the public are invited to participate in the policy-making process, there is a lot of (appropriate) skepticism about whether or not decision-makers are actually listening. One of the reasons that this remains such a problem is that members of the public are often asked for their thoughts about a policy issue, but are not told how their thoughts are being used, and are not included in transforming ideas into policies. Another reason this problem persists is that the public is often told how they are allowed to engage (“come to this meeting”, “answer these questions”), instead of being responded to when they engage (for example, by inviting protesters to discuss the policy areas of concern to them).  

Creating a more equitable and engaging decision-making process is a complex but necessary component of addressing inequality and inequity in Canadian society. Public engagement initiatives have to respond to the diverse and unequal “publics” in our communities, provinces, and country. I mentioned “fostering mutual trust and respect” last, but it is probably the most difficult component to achieve. It is likely that our collective efforts in moving towards greater equity in access to, and participation in, policy-making, will succeed or fail based on our ability to build equitable relationships between diverse groups of people as part of the process. In this way, the process is both a mirror and a motor for social change.

Dr. Leah Levac is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Manitoba.