Public Consultations in Canada

This Month’s Podcast. Also Available on Spreaker

Today on Mean, Median, and Moose we’re talking about public consultations! Keep reading for some data on those. Take a listen to the podcast for a great interview with Nader Shureih of Environics Analytics. Also, if you want to know how we build some of our maps, you can watch a tutorial on DeckGL here or, if you prefer text, read this tutorial.

City Data on Consultations

One of the most common forms of consultations in cities are surveys. In most cases, these surveys are not statistically weighted nor particularly deep in their outreach but they can capture a point in time of a particular community and be able to measure some perspectives on a specific issue. One of the places we went to look for consultation data were the open data portals of cities we previously reviewed in our second episode Property, Portals and Poultry.

For the top 3 open data portals – the City of Edmonton portal has over 60 surveys worth of data on their portal. These range from climate perception surveys to annual survey of 311 satisfaction in the City. In Winnipeg, they do have an annual satisfaction survey for City services, that has been completed since 2019 but no broader surveying tools. Ottawa was another open data portal that we found to be quite good; with over 300 data files available; unfortunately, none of the files that we could see contains consultation or community survey data.

One thing that is clear is that most cities do not seem to make public in accessible manner data from statutory consultations.  For example if there is a community engagement process that is required on a new development, road or facility being built, the results of that consultation goes into a report to Council or committee but does not seem to live anywhere else.

In theory municipalities are running dozens of consultations, surveys and engagements all through the year and many of them are very niche in their nature, but it is still potentially valuable perception data from a community at a point in time.

I went back through the City of Windsor official social media channels to Jan 1, to see how many surveys/consultations were being promoted. In total I have found seven: 

  • 2 park redevelopment surveys
  • Comments on a Community Improvement Plan
  • Community Safety and Wellbeing Plan Survey
  • Collecting input on a Civic Esplanade plan
  • Roseland Golf Course and Curling Club refurbishment survey
  • Bus route changes survey

The question is whether or not consultations have value beyond their core scope?

Citizens Want to Be Engaged

In the Open Government Action Plan for Consultation Data summary report, chapter 4.1 focuses on citizen feedback regarding how they want to be engaged. Participants in the government’s “Open Government Action Plan Consultation” had a clear desire to be engaged, with 21% of comments in the overall consultation being directly related to citizen engagement and civic literacy. These citizens felt consultations were important to building trust with their government and that they should be timely, relevant, inclusive, and accessible. Some suggestions included training the public service on working with citizens and crowdsourcing challenges around key problem areas to involve citizens directly in building solutions too. Additionally, it was felt the government does not do a good job in advertising consultations and ensuring participation and could use tools like public rating systems or e-petitions to improve engagement. Importantly, participants noted that civic literacy would drive engagement in consultations.

Federal Government Consultation Data

The government of Canada publishes a dataset summarizing Government of Canada consultations. This dataset provides category data, links to consultation web pages and reports if they are available. We thought it would be interesting to look at how government consultations have evolved over time. 

In the dataset, every consultation is coded with the department who undertook it, partners who were engaged, and the broad subject area of consultation. Using petl, we transformed the set of embedded subject codes into a more analysis-friendly tabular data set. You can find the code and output file on github

With this output file (and some Excel tricks which we’ll get into on the podcast) we built an Observable notebook that gives information about consultations by subject area. There’s an interactive tool that lets you dig into one specific subject area at a time, generating graphs like this one showing the consultations that started in each particular year.

For a more holistic view, we built a heatmap of consultations across all subject areas over the period 2009-2021. Looking at the data this way you can see some interesting patterns emerge. There is a noticeable spike in consultations across many different subject areas in 2014, and a smaller but still-noticeable jump in consultations in the period 2018-2019. Is it possible that an approaching election increases the interest of federal government departments in engaging with the public? That’s one possibility but we can’t know for sure without doing more research. 

Data-Driven Public Consultation

In preparation for this episode we had a chat with Nader Shureih of Environics Analytics, who may be known to listeners of this show for their PRIZM tool that provides demographic and lifestyle analysis of Canadian neighbourhoods.

Nader explained to us how Environics uses PRIZM to help municipalities ensure that their consultation efforts reach as many people as possible in their community. To do this work they aggregate the 67 different profiles in PRIZM into a smaller number of “avatars” representing people with broadly similar demographic and social characteristics, then apply those avatars to neighbourhoods in the target community to help drive better public engagement.

Municipalities using this service can understand the ways that different avatars learn about their community and how they prefer to be contacted. This information can influence the communications plan and which instruments the municipality uses to consult. 

We got a chance to look at a report that Environics built for a recent consultation in London, Ontario. It includes detailed reporting on the social and demographic makeup of London neighbourhoods, maps and high-level reports describing the characteristics of each avatar. Here’s an example showing the media preferences for one London avatar.

The data surfaced in these reports includes demographics, psychographic, and behavioural information. It’s a powerful tool that a community can use to build out a consultation designed to reach a diverse and representative sample of the community. You can learn more about Environics and the way they use data to drive effective consultations on the podcast.

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