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Meeting the challenges of cross-border consultations

Writing a chapter on Achieving Excellence in Public Participation and Consultation for the recently published book Regulation of Extractive Industries: Community Engagement in the Arctic gave me the opportunity to reflect on the specific circumstances of a single consultation crossing not only international boundaries but also diverse cultures.

The Arctic provides a perfect case study of consultation in an international context.  Despite covering 40 million square kilometres (8% of the world’s surface), the area is generally sparsely populated with a population of just 4 million, and as such is a microcosm of an international community.

The Arctic is far from being a single entity. The area encompasses eight countries with over 40 indigenous languages, wide-ranging jurisdictions, social and political structures. Not only are these countries fundamentally different, but their social and political structures are changing at different rates. Cultures are as diverse as the Inuit community in Alaska and the Russian university city of Murmansk – and consequently, a wide range of media channels and varied levels of digital adoption exist.  Similarly, uptake of international standards such as the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) and the principles contained within the Aarhus Convention are upheld to varying degrees.

Unsurprisingly, governments’ attitudes towards the extensive extractive activities vary too: the mines are viewed as strategic resources in Greenland and Russia, economic resources in Canada and public goods in Norway.  Consequently, the way in which industrial companies must interact with these communities differs substantially.

The challenge for those running a consultation that spans several Arctic countries’, or indeed any area with a diverse community, is how to broaden the consultation in such a way that it meets the needs of each section of the vast community without compromising its purpose.

The answer is to operate according to a set of principles: a framework with incorporates the best ethical, functional and legal practices but which is universally applicable and thus provides a cohesive overall approach.

Having run and written about consultations in vastly different countries, cultures and jurisdictions, I use the following set of principles to guide my consultations:

Accessible: provide easy access to all stakeholder groups – taking into account cultural, physical, intellectual and technological barriers to involvement.

Accountable: assume responsibility for the impact of the team’s approach to consultation, interpretation of the feedback and resultant decisions.

Engaging: use appropriate and creative dialogue methods to involve and inspire diverse stakeholders.

Informative: provide adequate, unbiased information to enable good decision-making, ensure that complex information is explained clearly, and tailor consultation materials to specific audiences.

Realistic: use pre-consultation dialogue and research and monitoring to understand diverse attitudes and expectations, and respond accordingly.

Responsive: respond to all communication quickly and positively; allow the process of change to evolve in line with feedback; maintain ongoing dialogue when communicating decisions made, and beyond.

Strategic: follow a strategic approach to ensure that the consultation is well researched, based on firm objectives, structured and designed to produce meaningful analysis and evaluation. The strategy should be well understood by both the team running the consultation and the wider audience.

Transparent: from setting realistic objectives, communicating the purpose of the consultation, drawing up agendas for discussion and imparting information; to analysing results and providing feedback – openness is paramount. The consultation report should provide a clear audit trail of analysis and recommendations so that the impact of consultation upon subsequent decisions is identified.

Two-way: aim to achieve a symmetrical flow of information between the consultation team and the local communities, as opposed to bombarding the community with information and paying little attention to responses.

Timely: allow ample time to develop the early stages of the strategy, to engage fully and provide adequate time for responses. The timescale is set out in a document which can be accessed by all.

In contributing to Regulation of Extractive Industries, it was interesting to consider the question, are international standards enough to ensure high standards of consultation?  My conclusion is that although international standards are key to establishing minimum standards, principles such as those listed above are essential for ensuring that generic standards are adapted to local realities, and moreover, have the capacity to make an acceptable consultation exceptional.

Note

Regulation of Extractive Industries: Community Engagement in the Arctic (edited by Rachael Lorna Johnstone & Anne Merrild Hansen) is extremely comprehensive in addressing the unique context for consultation that exists in the Arctic, as well as the strategies and methodologies that are best suited to the region. As the title of the anthology indicates, this is more than a descriptive or theoretical investigation of existing standards or practices. Rather, it aims to go beyond an analysis of the status quo to make practical recommendations for improvements, based on both transfer of good practice between regimes and entirely new innovations. I would thoroughly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in international consultation.

For more international articles, you may be interested in reading, Using strategy to create a ‘Glocal’ consultation by  Penny Norton, also International human rights law and public consultation by Fraser Henderson.

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