Consultation: Some Lessons Learned

In the last two years, virtually all of my projects have taken on a consultation component. At some point in an interpretive plan, an exhibit project, or a visitor experience strategy, the client needs to involve the community. These include Indigenous groups, naturalist organizations, historical societies, neighbourhood associations, and the like. Not all of these groups are the same—Indigenous consultation has its own stature for both legislative and ethical reasons. For all of them, though, the principles are the same. Meaningful consultation is a process that is based on honesty, transparency, and mutual goodwill. Here are a few lessons I have learned.

There’s a promise in consultation

There’s a promise in calling people up to consult with them, even if it’s a tacit one. By holding a consultation, you’re implying that you will act in some way on what they tell you. If you gather your community to talk about a potential new interpretive centre, for example, you’re implying that you actually intend to build one at some point—and the people you consulted will expect to see their ideas manifested in some way. When you gather your communities to ask them how you can decolonize your work, you’re implying that at some point you’re actually going to change the way you work based on the results.

If you’re just shopping around for theoretical ideas, or just doing consultation to appease your communities, you should probably hold off.

There’s no meaningful difference between “Consultation” and “consultation”.

There are groups—often municipal, provincial, or federal government—who have a legislated or policy requirement for consultation in certain circumstances. Some of my clients call this Consultation, as opposed to consultation. And I’m here to tell you that your partners, stakeholders, and communities see absolutely no difference between the two.

This becomes problematic when managers see Consultation as something that has weight and obligation, and informal consultation (which they also euphemize as interviews, discussions, focus groups, talk-backs, advisory groups, etc) as something that carries no real weight and no repercussions if they choose to ignore the results.

There is a spectrum of consultations, and it ranges from, “We’ll pretty much just inform you of what we’re doing” to “We’ll listen to you, but we’ll do what we think is best” all the way through to “We will implement whatever you tell us to do.”

Honestly, you can place yourself wherever you want on that spectrum, as long as you are forthright and transparent with your partners and stakeholders from the start.

They’re your relationships, not mine.

There’s a trend at the moment for agencies who hire planning consultants like me. They write up a statement of work, and in it they say that they want me, the consultant, to contact their partners and stakeholders, set up consultations, and document the results.

Sorry, that’s not a best practice. They’re your partners, not mine. If you don’t have an established relationship, with a basic rapport and a basic level of trust and comfort between you, you’re probably not ready to collaborate on a planning process.

Build the relationship first; build the trust first. Then, when it’s time to collaborate, you should be the one to call them up. You coordinate the day of planning. You show up on the day and greet them, offer them coffee and snacks and a gift, and give them a warm welcome. Then you introduce me and I can take it from there.

If you can do that much, I promise you I can deliver the best planning consultation you’ve ever seen. But if you don’t have a functional, productive relationship with your partner, I can’t fix that for you. I can’t make them show up for meaningful consultations if you don’t have the kind of relationship where you’re able to pick up the phone and extend a personal invitation.

Don’t send in your junior people to work with their senior people

This one is really awkward for me as the planning facilitator on the day. My client has invited all the big guns: chiefs in council, respected elders, presidents and chairpeople of societies… but on the client side, the senior managers are nowhere to be seen. They leave everything to a junior staffer, who foists everything over on me, the consultant.

Trust me when I tell you this doesn’t go unnoticed. Whether you intend to or not, you’re sending a message that your consultation process is not important or serious enough for a senior manager to put their name and reputation behind.

This is the kind of thing that breeds cynicism and mistrust between agencies and their partner communities.

Consultation is an iterative process

While we are doing much more consultation than we were five or ten years ago, the challenge at the moment is that we are still doing the bare minimum required by policy, which isn’t very much. Consultation is a relationship, and relationships are ongoing. They require work and effort and two-way communication.

For me as an interpretive planner and a consultant, it gets particularly sticky when the client decides to make a substantial change to the direction of the plan after consultation, and after the partner group has approved the direction of the plan.

If your partner group signs off on your interpretive plan, your management plan, your strategic plan—and you then change something in that plan, you need to go back to them, talk them through the changes, and get their sign-off again. No excuses. “But our changes don’t REALLY touch on the Indigenous stuff”; “but it’s just a SMALL change of direction”; “But we DID our consultation and we don’t have time to go back”. If you find yourself changing direction after signoff without re-consulting, I’m going to suggest—and these are strong words—that you might look in the mirror and see an agent of the Crown acting in bad faith, in the grand 400-year old colonial tradition. I don’t really think you want to see that person looking back at you.

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  1. Sylvie Binette

    So well said.

  2. I totally agree with your conclusions and am glad to see you marking the evolution of the field, but I wonder about the term “consultation.” Should this also be evolving? I say that because both the International Association of Public Participation (which you cite) and the seminal Ladder of Citizen Participation by Sherry Arnstein in 1969 ( put that word near the bottom of the participation spectrum. And from a strictly literal sense, that´s where it belongs. If I consult you, I am leading with the objectives, questions, and usually power to decide what I do with your responses. I realize we still say “consultant”, I sometimes call that myself as well, but a “spectrum of consultations” sounds stiff and outdated. Blogs are for nitpicking words, even while the underlying principles remain solid!

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