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There are six strategies that we have found extremely useful when implementing public consultation processes. 

The six strategies are described here, along with an explanation of why each strategy matters and examples of how they have been applied in public engagement projects. 


Strategy 1


What it is:

The terms “Open” and “Closed” Doors refer to the decisions that are open to influence and those that are not.

Why does it matter?

  • The most compelling reason that someone would participate in a consultation process is because they believe there is a decision that they have an opportunity to influence.
  • The more transparent you are about what is open for influence and what is not, the easier it is for people to understand their role and what they can contribute.  This clarity builds participant trust because it is clear from the beginning what is “on the table” for discussion, what isn’t, and the reasons why.
  • Some doors are closed because they are beyond the mandate of your organization.  Once participants understand what your organization has the power to change they will be able to contribute to your process in a more meaningful way.


Examples of how it matters:

  • Towns and cities across Ontario have been updating their Official Plans in response to direction from the Province regarding where and how growth would be accommodated.  In many communities there has been resistance to the idea that neighbourhoods have to grow. Planners consulting the public as part of one town’s OP review clearly explained that the decision on whether to grow was a “closed door”, since that decision had already been made (by the Province). An important “open door” remained however – how to grow and where growth would be accommodated.  If a participant preferred not to see any growth, then that participant was encouraged to direct their feedback to the Province. As a result, time was not taken up at the meeting discussing something that was not available for change.  Instead, time was spent providing useful feedback on the open door.
  • Faced with a potentially significant budget shortfall, a major public service provider was consulting their users and the community about how services could be adjusted.  Several participants were inclined to focus on fundraising (Closed Door) rather than service changes (Open Door).  The consultation heavily emphasised that fundraising efforts were already being championed by a high profile working group of city leaders who were brainstorming different revenue options and who would conduct their own consultation. This made fundraising a closed door. By clearly explaining that this consultation was providing an opportunity to talk about adjustments in service delivery, participants were able to offer input where it was most needed.  

"The key to successful self-governance in our Age of Information is to create a new balance between public and experts. Today that relationship is badly skewed toward experts at the expense of the public. This out-of-balance condition is not the result of a power struggle (though this is not wholly absent) but of a deep-rooted cultural trend that elevates the specialized knowledge of the expert to a place of high honor while denigrating the value of the public’s potentially most important contribution – a high level of thoughtful and responsible public judgment." (Yankelovich, 1991)

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Strategy 2


What it is:

The term Big Tent is intended to reflect the number of people and diversity of interests that are welcome to a consultation process.  Strong processes are open to anybody who wants to participate. 

Why does it matter?

  • When you are working in the public interest every perspective matters. It is important to be as inclusive as possible, and people will look to see if your process includes participants with a balanced and diverse set of interests. This makes one of the important contributions to the legitimacy of your process.
  • By having a rich and diverse mix of stakeholders, you are demonstrating that there a number of perspectives that need to be considered by a range of interests that look at a project through different “lenses”. This also helps reinforce the fact that it’s not just what any one stakeholder says that goes.
  • When you have a full understanding of who will support or thwart your project, you know what you’re working with.  You are in a stronger position to maintain and build support, and to proactively manage or address concerns.
  • Players can contribute technical expertise. They can help compile the facts, whether because of their professional training, their hands-on-experience, their internet research, or any other source of knowledge.
  • Every participant is a potential future advocate and supporter.


Examples of how it matters:

  • A large public school board was struggling to keep pools open in their schools due to high maintenance costs and limited funding.  An aquatic summit was held and anyone interested in helping keeping pools open in the schools was invited. Over two years a huge range of both “the usual suspects” and a number of “unusual suspects” worked together to dramatically increase permit revenues – a very Big Tent was created. Parents worked together with parents from different schools in different neighbourhoods. Swimming instructors worked with non-profit groups and local businesses to raise awareness. Private foundations supported advocacy efforts, seniors lobbied their elected officials, and entrepreneurs set up new swimming programs with the help of funding from companies run by former Olympians.
  • A large city was bidding to host the Olympic Games. There were a number of organizations opposed to the bid because they preferred to see public funds spent addressing priority social issues like poverty and homelessness. Rather than ignoring opposition groups, the Bid team worked with the anti-poverty groups to develop an Olympic Bid related plan to address social issues.  Because of this inclusive Big Tent philosophy the project set a new bar for excellence in international bid submissions.


sTrategy 3


What it is:

Framing is about the language you choose to use to describe your project. It fits issues within the context of a storyline or narrative that reflects a particular world-view that participants can relate to. 

Why it matters:

  • There may be many narratives about how and why things have unfolded. Projects need one strongly framed narrative that all stakeholders and decision makers can support. This provides a shared starting point for the discussion and acts as a steady reference throughout the process.
  • A strongly framed narrative helps organize the content of a discussion. It makes what could be overwhelming information easily understandable.  It does this by presenting content around a small number of topics that communicate what a project is about and the thinking that needs to happen to move a project forward.
  • The narrative frames the relationship between you and everyone else involved in the process.
  • Framing is also valuable when working within your organization.  It will provide the decision maker the tools they need to sell or support your project with their peers and constituents.  When the project is described in terms of the value it can provide, it is much easier to build support and keep the overall work in the broader context.


Examples of how it matters:

  • A city was consulting the public as part of one of their regular Official Plan reviews. The city staff wanted to signal that they were open to any and all comments about the Official Plan, while at the same recognizing that not all residents are familiar with the Official Plan. The challenge was to figure out how to take a potentially overwhelming discussion and focus it in a way that residents could easily relate to. The most important framing decisions they made were (1) to tell people that the Official Plan focused on how the city grows and changes; (2) that the Official Plan directs changes to only 25% of the city’s land area, while 75% of the land (primarily stable neighbourhoods) is protected; and (3) that the consultation would focus on the changes happening in the 25% of the city where change was being directed. This framing automatically focused the scope of the discussion during the consultation to a subset of the city’s geography while at the same time managing fears that stable neighbourhoods would change.
  • A large municipally-owned public square was developing its strategic plan in consultation with the surrounding community. There was a strong desire among some participants to frame the discussion in terms of the revenue generating potential of the square, while others were keen to focus on the balance of uses of the square, including the important responsibility of the square to be available to the public. The framing of the strategic planning process was essential to its success.  Rather than having one of the two “competing” perspectives frame the discussion, the team of staff running the square framed the discussion.  They framed it in terms of confirming the role and identity of the square, which then helped inform decisions about revenue generation and users.


strategy 4


What it is:

Packaging the work is about identifying a handful of logical steps that structure a decision making process. In our experience, every project can be broken down into three steps: Understanding the issues; Testing some ideas; and Deciding on a path forward. 

Why it matters:

  • Different types of information are useful at different points during a decision making process. Identifying the order of events – what will be discussed when and why – is useful because it signals what feedback and advice will be useful at different points in the process. This lays the groundwork for how to think about the process of doing the work, which is much different than the technical content covered during the process.
  • Work is more focused when people strive to complete a specific task within a specific time frame. When you know at what point in time key decisions need to be made and what decisions are contingent on others, you can ask for the feedback that you need, when you need it.  This saves time because it limits the need to go back and revisit decisions that have already been made because participants have already agreed to the order of events.
  • These steps bring predictability to what is in many ways an inherently unpredictable environment. By packaging the work you are providing a structure within which there is flexibility to respond to unpredictable feedback and events while remaining in a strong position to manage the larger picture. The steps also bring a consistent framework that enables all participants to have a shared understanding of what’s happening.
  • This enables participants to be connected to your work right from the beginning, rather than when key decisions have already been made (this model is often described as Decide, Announce, Defend).


Example of how it matters:

  • A parks manager had her hands full with conflicts between dog owners and parents in a local park. The dog owners wanted to walk their dogs off leash, but families with small children had safety concerns. A public consultation process was championed by the local elected official, and the process was organized into three parts: (1) identify the issues, concerns, wants and needs of all users; (2) identify and evaluate different options on how to address the issues, concerns, wants and needs; and (3) propose a path forward based on the evaluation of the different options presented during part 2. This iterative process enabled the discussion to start with dog owners explaining how important off leash areas are to the health and happiness of their pets, and parents explaining interactions between off leash dogs and their children that make them uneasy. Together they brainstormed different alternatives, and a proposal for an off leash area in the park was ultimately proposed and supported by the community. The three-part process structured the discussion in a way that ensured the final result was based on a comprehensive consideration of the issues to be addressed and a thoughtful evaluation of options to address those issues.
  • After a successful start-up phase, a youth arts group was exploring options for continuing its operations sustainably into the future. The group’s strategic plan was developed using the three part process which involved consultation with youth, existing funders, potential funders, and other leaders in the youth arts and youth engagement community.  The first part of the process involved identifying the strengths, successes, and challenges experienced during the start up phase. The second part involved brainstorming and evaluation of different go-forward options. The third and final part of the process involved identifying a preferred path forward. This three-part process enabled full participation of all stakeholders in ultimately “making the case” led to successful future for the organization.


strategy 5


What it is:

Building relationships refers to establishing the opportunity to build a strong interpersonal connection between all people participating in the process. This includes the facilitator of the process, decisions makers who will receive recommendations from the process (typically senior civil servants and elected officials) and everyone who contributes to the development of those recommendations (i.e. public, stakeholders, etc.).

Why it matters:

  • When there is a positive relationship between people there is a lot more tolerance, flexibility, willingness and space to see things from other perspectives. This is very helpful when many different interests have to negotiate to find the common ground needed to make decisions that are supported, and ultimately move forward.
  • Building strong relationships recognizes that any information a participant chooses to share is helpful, even if it’s negative. Showing that all feedback is valued increases the likelihood that participants will be honest about their opinions, giving you the opportunity to respond to them.
  • Mistakes and misunderstandings can happen.  They are easier to overcome with a strong and trusting relationship – it’s much easier to work together when people are willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. 
  • Building strong relationships ensures a regular connection with participants from the beginning of the process through to completion.


Examples of how it matters

  • At the start of many projects there is often an articulate, informed, vocal community leader that is extremely concerned and passionate about what’s happening. Often their opinion is based on a small subset of project-related information that has made its way into the public realm prior to the project actually getting underway. These leaders often feel they have a strong responsibility to protect their communities from the threat of apparent injustices that are being planned. It is critical to build relationships with these leaders – and this starts with earning trust, freely sharing information, and really investing in expanding their understanding of the work. This effort has proven time and time again to be worth it – these concerned leaders regularly transform into strong project supporters when an investment is made in building a strong relationship with them.
  • A regional transit authority was conducting a public consultation related to the design of a major new piece of transit infrastructure.  A participant in the process, who was a retired employee in the Provincial Ministry of Transportation and was very familiar with the technicalities of infrastructure planning, wrote a long email with feedback.  Although many of the points in the email were not relevant to the work or incorrect, there were a couple of points that contributed to the discussion. The relationship-building reply demonstrated an appreciation for the effort that went into providing the feedback, identified the feedback that was particularly helpful, explained at what point that feedback would be considered in the decision making process along with feedback from others. Focusing on the advice that has value is the key here.
  • Elected officials appreciate having opportunities to connect to their constituencies.   One important relationship-building option that can be very helpful involves working with those elected officials to distribute invitations or meeting notices through their office to their constituencies.  Some councillors will take you up on it and some won’t.  The offer in itself demonstrates that you have respect for the networks they are accountable to, and recognize the value of using their networks to reach out on projects.

Guiding Principles for Consultation that help create and maintain strong relationships:

  • Accountability. Provide accurate, timely information and demonstrate how it has made use of input received from participants.
  • Clarity. There will be well defined objectives for, and limits to, consultation and active participation during the process. Clarity regarding respective roles and responsibilities of all participants will be provided.
  • Timeliness. Consultation will begin as early as possible in the process to allow a greater range of opportunities and issues to emerge and to raise the changes of successful issue resolution.

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strategy 6


What it is:

Promoting Understanding is about creating many opportunities for all participants to learn new things that improve the quality of their contributions to the process.

Why it matters:

  • High quality opinions are formed when they’re based on an understanding of the consequences of different courses of action.
  • Sometimes opinions are based on misinformation or incomplete information.  It’s important to explain technical details in a way that’s objective, easy to understand, and directly linked to the decision(s) at hand.
  • People learn in different ways – some are visual, some prefer to read the details, others prefer to listen. Promoting understanding is a strategy that recognizes these differences and accommodates them through multiple communication tactics.  This ensures that as many people as possible have the ability to be well informed.
  • The credibility of the source often influences the perceived credibility of the information. Strong processes that use “promoting understanding” as a strategy give participants the opportunity to learn things from a number of different sources – fellow participants, technical experts, elected officials, etc.
  • People often have very strong opinions that at first appear inflexible. The reasons behind such opinions can often be translated into a list of conditions which may be possible for the proponent to address. Once people understand that these conditions can be met their whole perspective can change and they find they’re willing to live with an option that before may have seemed untenable.


Example of how it matters:

  • In one of the few areas undeveloped on the North American waterfront, a premier piece of property was being considered for redevelopment.  Historically the area had been home to primarily industrial, commercial and institutional uses; however interest in residential development was being expressed by a number of stakeholders. Strong opinions on both sides of the residential issue were shared – with some strongly in favour and others strongly opposed. Through workshop discussions it became clear, however, that the majority of participants would be able to live with residential development providing a number of conditions were met (e.g. buffers put in place between new residential and existing uses, and provision of local community amenities like community centres, libraries, schools and parks). The process then focused on the municipality’s ability to deliver on the conditions under which residential would be acceptable.  The ultimate plan for the site met these conditions, included residential development, and received significant community support.