Speak up! Addressing issues through public consultation

Speak up! Addressing issues through public consultation

This past summer, after two years at MaRS providing market intelligence to Ontario startups, I shifted gears and started working with the team at MaRS Solutions Lab, a change lab tackling complex societal challenges in order to improve the lives of Canadians and strengthen the resilience of individuals and communities here and around the world.

In preparation for this work, I attended a full-day workshop on public and stakeholder engagement hosted by MASS LBP.

Best known for engaging the public through citizen reference panels and lotteries, MASS LBP is a Toronto-based company that is reinventing public consultation. The company has worked on projects that span the nation, with clients including Vancouver Coastal Health in British Columbia and Metrolinx in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

Impressed with MASS LBP’s distinct take on working through public issues, I had a chat with principal and co-founder Peter MacLeod to learn more about the group’s work and what informs their process.

At MaRS, we’re always interested in founders’ stories about how their companies came about. MASS LBP was founded in 2007, inspired by Canada’s first citizens’ assemblies. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Around that time I was completing a doctorate in democratic theory and was invited to assist with the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. The working group, including myself, worried that everything that we were learning might just evaporate once the process was over. More than that, we worried that we would lose the opportunity for refining and improving the model as a result of our experience.

As our conversation continued, we saw a few options.

  1. I could finish my doctorate and try to carry on the work from within a university setting.
  2. We could approach the government and propose setting up an office of public engagement within government.
  3. We could create a non-profit and try to fundraise around this stuff.

We took the least likely route and created a business. Part of the reason for taking this route was that I’d had some terrible experiences participating in a series of meetings conducted by big-time consulting agencies and I thought we could beat these guys in the marketplace and have people pay for our services because they were valuable.

I think what makes us distinctive is that we have a particular way of thinking about people and their relationships to government. It’s never been about talking or engagement for the sake of just talking; rather, it’s been about providing citizens with the information they need to make informed choices concerning very specific policy issues.

How does your particular way of thinking about people and their relationships to government influence your methods?

When we are designing a process for engaging the public, we are always trying to design for maximum legitimacy. We don’t think the exercise is worthwhile if everyone can just criticize it in every way once it’s done. We think about the concerns of stakeholders, the interests of average residents who may know very little about the topic and the interests of the people who will be highly affected by it. We also think about the readiness of our client, which may be at the organizational, district or political level.

When we factor all of those considerations together, we make certain design choices concerning who is in the room, the duration of the meetings, the experts who are invited to speak and the activities that the participants will complete. And we make those decisions always with an eye to what will bolster the legitimacy of the exercise. You may have great ideas, but without legitimacy there is no compelling reason why anyone should listen to you.

Wagemark is a recent spinoff of MASS LBP that focuses on social impact. Can you tell us what it’s all about?

Wagemark is a MASS project with support from the Atkinson Charitable Foundation and the Metcalf Foundation. Wagemark asks the question: If there was one thing that you could focus on that could have the most social impact in the long term, what would it be?

Quite honestly, our answer is to focus on income disparities within organizations because they have such enormous implications, not only within that location, but also within society as a whole.

Through our work we see first-hand the kinds of things that are corrosive to the health and well-being of the general public and there is no greater and more important social trend than growing income and wealth disparities. We’ve had a very successful soft launch this autumn in Canada and we’re looking forward to launching in the United Kingdom later this autumn and in the United States next spring.

Your website does a great job of chronicling the various projects that MASS has worked on throughout Canada. In fact, as I was flipping through the project briefs it occurred to me that this was a very unique source of information about Canadians and their collective challenges that is not available in textbooks or mainstream media sources. Having worked with so many communities, what have you learned about Canada and Canadians?

We really do get a privileged view of our fellow citizens through the work we do and we get a sense of their preoccupations and concerns. At this point, we’ve done 19 reference panels and have involved over 650 participants as members of those panels. We’ve mailed a quarter of a million Canadian households inviting them to participate in this way.

I guess I’d summarize it in this way: as a country we exaggerate our differences. I think that we agree on far more in terms of our values and our priorities as a people than we often presuppose. That’s really important because that actually mans that there is a basis for co-operation and community building, and it means that we can really tackle the issues that are in front of us. I would also say that Canadians are really impatient for an opportunity to play a more meaningful role in this process.

To learn more about some of the key ideas that drive the work of MASS LBP, watch Peter’s talk, “The Black Deck.”


Join us for GovMaker Day

On November 22, MaRS is hosting GovMaker Day, a day-long conference and workshop bringing together a diverse and multi-disciplinary group to learn more about the what, why and how of open government. Visit the event page to learn more and register.

Feature photo credit: First few rows by lukexmartin CC BY-NC-ND 2.0