As policymakers we have agreed that public consultation is a core, foundational part of our standard process. Yet pandemic responses demand speed at the cost of broad consultation, privileging political insiders and industry.

The COVID-19 crisis has pushed policymakers to accelerate and redefine the development and implementation of responsive interventions — perhaps the most consequential in our lifetimes — and yet there has been minimal citizen input. Granted, this deficit is partly because of the unprecedented speed and scale of events as the crisis has unfolded. In practice, governments have asked for help and listened to advice — mostly from trusted connections. In short, the most consequential decisions governments will take for Canadians are being informed by a group that simply isn’t representative enough. What does it say about policymaking that inclusivity is the first thing to go in a crisis situation?

In the absence of an open call for direct input into problem identification and solution generation that will better inform decision-makers, new coalitions have risen up — like — and seem to have been able to make some inroads; but not at first, and not without having to push their way through the door. Parliamentarians are typically a traditional vehicle for direct input, have focussed on pushing COVID-19 information out, not taking information in from constituents. 

What kind of listening has taken place?

Meanwhile, as they wait for benefits to arrive, being told that “help is on the way,” Canadians have been worried — ostensibly held hostage in their homes, doom-scrolling on their phones and trying to buy toilet paper. Were we to just wait, refreshing our screens and scheduling Zoom parties, for life-changing policy announcements? The trauma of anxious uncertainty as we collectively transitioned to an indeterminate and restrictive new “normal” has the potential to substantially alter our relationship with the state. 

Slowly, authorities have responded. Statistics Canada is asking people to take five minutes to participate in their data collection on the impacts of COVID-19 and Canadians. This is a good initiative that should be more widely championed. 

Another recent call from the government is the National COVID-19 Volunteer Recruitment Campaign, where the Government of Canada is seeking volunteers to help with case tracking and contact tracing; health system surge capacity; and case data collection and reporting.

Another engagement opportunity for those with specific expertise comes from Innovative Solutions Canada, which uses a Challenge-based methodology and has funding opportunities for Canadian innovators who can help fight the COVID pandemic. The Public Health Agency of Canada and the National Research Council of Canada are looking for a Point of Care and Home Diagnostic Kit, and the National Research Council of Canada has also modified their Low Cost Sensor System challenge to address needs for COVID-19.

Deeper listening

But what of those Canadians who do not have particular scientific expertise? Are we going to do more than ask them to fill and share a survey? More than a month into this situation, we need to collect their ideas and feedback. We need more perspectives engaged in policy formulation, and we still have time to whip up the tools and mechanisms to do it.

As we continue to create policies that address and respond to the current situation, policymakers can and must share a clear, dedicated think space with citizens; even if this occurs alongside frenzied brainstorms with trusted contacts. 

It’s a powerful thing to ask for help, and not just when you need ventilators. While governments at all levels have demonstrated that they are listening to external expertise and want to understand the needs of citizens, my criticism is that they have also lacked the vulnerability to a truly inclusive call for ideas. 

Already, people have independently come together to collaborate through productive platforms that are focussed on delivering physical assets that are required to respond to COVID-19, through projects such as Project North Lights (producing medical supplies) Community Make (networking entrepreneurs, technology experts, and medical professionals). Now, we need a cool one for the intangible economy of policy pitches. Policymakers (at all levels) need to seize the audacious opportunity to radically call on citizens to generate new policy ideas in order to cast a wider, more creative net. Prime Minister Trudeau often reminds us that one of our strengths is our “natural resourcefulness.” Let’s remind him. 

Build new platforms to draw in community policy ideas

Simple crowdsourcing projects can create huge value for the public. Direct and open invitations for ideas will complement insights that come from public opinion polling and hypotheses about future pain points. A clear “home” for ideas would be more efficient, more transparent, and more accessible. It also creates a lasting artifact of various proposals (good, bad, and ugly) so that they don’t get lost in the policymaker’s drawer. 

There’s still time to call on our neighbours. The federal government should make public engagement, consultation and inclusive crowdsourcing a priority to inform the big decisions that are still to come. And if they can whip up the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in three days, there’s no reason the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) can’t build a minimum viable product (MVP) consultation tool for release sometime after Easter. The CDS already did some voluntary user-testing so that it could provide clear, understandable information about what help is available, eligibility criteria, and estimated payments. 

Ahead of leadership conventions, political parties have crowdsourced platform ideas with a Reddit-style voting function. This wouldn’t be all that different — the CDS could be assigned to build an MVP, and the Prime Minister can tell people that he legitimately wants to hear from Canadians. Another interesting engagement mechanism could be to rapidly user-test potential policy designs — and not as a trial balloon from the podium.

There’s been some informal crowdsourcing from social media led by the fabulous economist Armine Yalnizyan that helped to identify problems with the CERB and suggest solutions. This is precisely the kind of work that needs to be ramped up and formalized. 

Canadians’ trust in government is essential through this crisis — as people from coast to coast to coast are making unprecedented sacrifices for the collective good, facing enormous risks and anxiety for their health, economic and social vitality, and are being asked to trust that public officials will make the right decisions to get us through this pretty freaky situation. As such, every single Canadian needs to feel that policymakers understand what they are going through and appreciate precisely what they need, so that they in turn know that the public service and politicians are working on their behalf; that their values, opinions, and ideas are being considered and are known. 

The utility of a project like First Policy Response is simple: it’s a hub attempting to act as a productive aggregator, and  pulling new ideas from a range of sources. Centralizing a network of thinking provides a service for policymakers and presents resources for others. In constructing this platform, First Policy Response has invited many people to contribute thinking and ideas. My hope is that we can actually amplify more than the usual suspects.  

Let’s strip some of the vanity that can pollute good policy thinking and stay focused on centering the people we’re trying to help without being perversely opportunistic. Responding to this crisis isn’t about “us” (as policymakers), it’s about everyone.


Vass Bednar is a public policy solopreneur working at the intersection of policy and technology. She writes the weekly newsletter “regs to riches”, about startups and regulatory realities.