Why Politicians Should Be Paying Attention to What Canadians say Online

Consulting with citizens on government plans, priorities and programs is no doubt necessary and a great way to ensure that Canadians are involved in government decision making. It has risen to prominence over the last few decades while at the same time Canadians have become more demanding of transparency and accountability for public sector actions and decisions. In brief, Canadians have been saying for decades that they want to have their say and governments at all levels have responded.

As of March 16, 2016 the Government of Canada currently has over 100 different consultation exercises underway. Many of these are classified as “ongoing” which mean they have no end date and could theoretically go on forever. Some are broad and very topic du jour such as the Finance Department’s “2016 Pre-Budget Consultation” which is ongoing even though seven days from now we will be post-budget. Some of them are very specific such as the Pest Management Regulatory Agency’s consultation on Propoxycarbazone-sodium which is open until April 18th if someone would like to comment on the proposed maximum residue limit of Propoxycarbazone-sodium.

If we assume that the provinces and municipalities are all equally engaged in consulting with their constituencies it would seem Canadians have no shortage of venues for making their views known to the elected and public sector officials at all levels.

In the spirit of consultation we at Ipsos asked Canadians what is the most effective to ensure that the views of Canadians are taken into consideration during the development of government policies and programs. Perhaps surprisingly given the decline (until 2015) in voting, voting in an election (52% very effective) or a referendum (43% very effective) are considered the most effective ways to give Canadians a voice. Some might note that the low 52% very effective rating for voting in elections may indeed be the reason for the decline in voting.

The next most effective way to have their voices heard according to Canadians is through the use of social media to raise awareness of issues (33% very effective) followed by participating in face-to-face consultations with public officials (25% very effective); using social media to pressure public officials (23% very effective) and using representative public opinion polls to inform public officials (22% very effective). At the bottom in terms of effectiveness is attending public protests (15% very effective) and participating in online consultations (14% very effective).

Of the various means of consultation we examined – voting, representative polling and protests have been around for a long time – centuries in the case of voting and protests. However, with the rise of social media and new information technologies, online consultations have taken hold and are used by many departments and agencies across the country. Online consultations are much cheaper for governments to implement although Canadians are almost twice as likely to say that face-to-face consultations are more effective. Social media in particular may be the most democratic (along with attending protests) of all the methods of consultation we examined in that it allows citizens to voice their own views on the topics that they choose, when they choose to do so rather than being forced into a discussion driven and framed by public officials or allowed to vote only every four years.

In the end, governments must and will continue to consult on a wide variety of large and small issues and actions. They will need to use multiple methods to ensure they get as many views as possible but the lesson in this data is that they should be looking at Tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts as well because somewhere between the selfies and the pictures of this morning’s omelet are some unfiltered views of Canadians expressing their concerns, desires and expectations of their governments.