A regulator’s job is to fulfill its mandate in the public interest. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has been using innovative ways to engage Canadians in public consultations.
Since 1968, the CRTC has carried out thousands of public consultations with the goal of ensuring that Canadians have access to a world-class communication system. For many years, we relied on tried-and-tested engagement strategies: we’d issue a media release to draw attention and invite the public to participate through online template-forms and mail and fax submissions. For more significant issues, we have held public hearings across the country.
But we found that these methods did not always attract a lot of participation. Our hearings are formal regulatory proceedings, which can be off-putting to some people.
With the opportunities that technology offers, we realized that we could do more. To put Canadians at the centre of their communication system, we challenged ourselves to put the public back in our consultations.
In the fall of 2012, we launched a consultation on a new code of conduct for wireless services. We opened an online discussion forum to make it easier for Canadians to tell us what they wanted to see in such a code. We also turned to social media to stimulate further debate and to draw Canadians to our forum. We judged that wireless users would embrace the opportunity to connect with us via these media. And we were right.
We received more than 4,000 comments on this issue. That input was used to crowd-source a draft code that we published two weeks before the public hearing. During the hearing itself, we invited Canadians to share their views through our discussion forum. This step was unprecedented in the history of the CRTC. It gave us the ability to bring the public directly into the discussion and even challenge corporate executives by reading comments as they were being posted.
In the spring of 2013, we defied convention again. When we launched our public consultation into the need for telecommunications video relay services – services that enable Canadians who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired to send or receive video calls through sign-language interpreters – we translated our notice of consultation into American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ), and posted those videos on our YouTube channel. We also enabled people with hearing and speech impairments to submit their interventions in sign language. And during the public hearing itself, we offered simultaneous translation in English, French, ASL and LSQ. Never before had the CRTC gone to such lengths to ensure Canadians could participate in one of its consultations.
Our experience taught us a valuable lesson: it is important to tailor a consultative approach to the issue as well as the audience.
We drew upon that lesson last November when we launched Let’s Talk TV: A Conversation with Canadians, our public consultation into the future of the television system. For example, we wrote our notice of invitation in friendly, plain language to make it inviting and accessible. During the conversation itself, we offered a mix of consultative approaches – among them an online discussion forum, volunteer-hosted conferences and an interactive questionnaire – to collect as many opinions as possible from Canadians. We used those views to inform the issues to be discussed at our public hearing.
If there is a lesson that regulators can take away from the CRTC’s experiences it’s this: be creative. Sometimes the work of regulators is highly technical and detailed – too much so for the average person to fully grasp. Yet there are times when the public craves engagement, when public policy issues touch the ideas and institutions and services that Canadians are most passionate about. In such cases, we must think outside the norm and use our creativity to connect with Canadians in new and exciting ways.
A word of caution: creativity is not always rewarded with success. Sometimes it yields better results than you could ever hope for, and sometimes it falls flat. Yet creativity is essential to public engagement. If regulators are to keep the public involved in the public policy process, we must find new ways to reach out to Canadians. We must rekindle their interests in policy formulation and bring their valuable ideas and input to bear on the work we do, particularly when Canadians interact with their communication system on a daily basis.