How we’re engaging with you: NGOs discuss different engagement approaches with government of CanadaBlog
Ottawa, Canada, March 20, 2019: HEJSupport participated in the meeting with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), Health Canada (HC) and Canadian environmental and health NGOs to discuss elements proposed for enhanced NGO engagement. The discussion was mainly focused on objectives and benefits of enhanced public engagement into the implementation of Canadian Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), noting that latest CMP Progress Report is available at https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/chemical-substances/chemicals-management-plan/progress-report.html . The Report is produced jointly by ECCC and HC to keep stakeholders and other interested parties up to date on the activities and programs related to CMP.
According to ECCC, the role NGOs can play is not only for strengthening the relationship between public and government in Canada but also for public engagement. The current CMP will come in March 2021. Government needs to look better into the workplan, what is good and needs to be changed, and what role NGOs can play to improve the engagement system.
The goal of the meeting was to advise the government what best practices exist that help engage NGOs, health professionals and the general public into CMP implementation. NGOs have broad experience of engagement and years of working in health and environment sectors to bring perspectives from the community level, from those who are the most affected by toxic chemicals exposure.
It was suggested to focus the discussion on the following key questions:
- What does public engagement mean to the CMP?
- How does public engagement benefit the government’s decision-making process?
- How do CMP staff evaluate public engagement? When do they think it has been good/useful/ effective?
- How is public engagement defined, understood, practiced, measured?
According to definition from the Institute for Local Government (California), Public Engagement is a general term for a broad range of methods through which members of the public become more informed about and/or influence public decisions. Public engagement includes:
Public Information/Outreach: This kind of public engagement is characterized by one-way local government communication to residents and other members of the community to inform them about a public problem, issue or policy matter.
Public Consultation: This kind of public engagement generally includes instances where local officials ask for the individual views or recommendations of residents about public actions and decisions, and where there is generally little or no discussion to add additional knowledge and insight and promote an exchange of viewpoints.
Public Participation/Deliberation: This form of public engagement refers to those processes through which participants receive new information on the topic at hand and through discussion and deliberation jointly prioritize or agree on ideas and/or recommendations intended to inform the decisions of local officials.
Sustained Public Problem Solving: This form of public engagement typically takes place through the work of place-based committees or task forces, often with multi-sector membership, that over an extended period of time address public problems through collaborative planning, implementation, monitoring and/or assessment.
According to Health Canada, the work on public engagement should be different for different stakeholder groups. Each of the audience has different needs for information. For example, some NGOs have scientific background and provide comments to draft risk assessments that government puts out. However reaching out to the general public is different as people do not always understand what CMP stands for. Nevertheless there are people living in hotspots or working in different places where they are exposed, or people caring for children. They need to know more about toxic chemicals, associated health effects and ways of exposure.
The importance of improving the ECCC and HC website with regular information update was emphasized. The website should be easy to navigate and should include links to the relevant information resources.
But how do you know that people really read your materials? Does it make a behavioral change? What particular documents they are interested in? What people do with this information? Is it useful?
Though the availability of information on-line is important, NGOs however raised concerns that many groups are not reached by these means of communication and engagement, including vulnerable population. Their needs and concerns should be reflected in governmental documents. How to facilitate information exchange from vulnerable groups back to the government? How to do it more effectively? NGOs working at the community level have huge pieces of information. Better connection with ECCC and HC is needed to bring this information to the right people.
Concerns over poor worker participation and involvement in decision making on chemicals were noted. Consultations that will lead to better chemicals management at the workplace level, including ban on certain substances that cause cancer are needed which will engage Trade Unions and other worker associations. NGOs noted that the strength of the labour community is the key to understand the outcome of the CMP implementation.
HEJSupport highlighted the importance of NGO comments to draft regulations released by the government. Though this work provides a significant value to the government documents on chemicals and waste and helps to highlight concerns and expectations from the community level and the most vulnerable population, NGOs are not supported and have to invest their time and resources into this expert piece of work. Not all NGOs do have core funding that makes such engagement possible, thus the majority of groups work on voluntary basis which diminishes the effectiveness of their engagement. HEJSupport also noted that government does not usually come back to NGOs to discuss comments provided. Such a lack in communication reduces the efficiency of public engagement process and discourages NGOs from submitting comments to new documents. Thus, if government takes the issue seriously, it should provide support to the groups.
The importance of considering data generated by NGOs was highlighted as such data should never be underestimated. This data helps better address public concern over lack of information disclosure on chemicals in products as well as the need to better monitoring and enforcement of the national legislation.
NGOs highlighted the benefits of disclosing information on chemicals in consumer products, both in articles and mixtures. Exemptions to disclosing chemicals in consumer products should not exist. This is an important position that should be supported by the government to ensure workers’ right to know and people’s safety both at workplace and at home.
During the discussion HEJSupport raised an issue of how NGOs could bring new topic to the attention of the government. There is a traditional way of doing this but it would be important to have an easier way of highlighting new and emerging issues. A possibility of establishing an early warning system based on information from NGOs was discussed.
In addition, based on experience from different countries and regions NGOs suggested further options of government-NGO collaboration, including joint awareness materials; links to NGO websites on the governmental websites; allocate TV and radio time slot for NGOs; provide NGOs with regular funding to strengthen engagement; and support NGOs in the debates with the industry.
Based on the discussion, NGOs are planning to develop recommendations for the government on ways to strengthen public engagement in Canada. HEJSupport will share the recommendations once they become available with the idea to seek more comments that will make the recommendations useful in Canada and beyond.