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Building a Mental Health Strategy for Canada – Through Public Participation
Friday, March 12th, 2010

During the first two months of my co-op placement here at Ascentum, I’ve been writing a case study on the development of a pan-Canadian, consensus-based mental health strategy. This is a nation-wide initiative of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), which collaborated with Ascentum to design the in-person regional dialogues and the online consultation process.

My case study is on the first phase of the initiative, which focused on identifying the goals necessary for a comprehensive and inclusive mental health system in Canada. In the process of reviewing a wide range of literature, conducting interviews with key members of the MHCC and analyzing public consultation reports, I’ve learned quite a bit on the issue and public engagement strategies in general.

I’m nearing completion of the case study and thought I’d share a few of the key lessons to be learned from this initiative:

  • Multiple ways to participate accommodates a broader diversity of perspectives: The process allowed people to attend either a series of in-person dialogues or take part in an online consultation. The in-person regional dialogues allowed the MHCC to have a real conversation with people; they could directly answer questions, probe responses further, and experience the dynamic between people in the room. This method had a higher representation of stakeholders, such as health workers, representatives from health organizations and government officials. In contrast, the online process was open more to the general public, and allowed individuals the opportunity to express themselves without the confines of time and location.  These methods complemented each other well.
  • Carefully think through data collection and analysis so you can plan accordingly: During the consultation events, the same pre- and post-test questions were used to gauge the opinions of all three participant groups (i.e. in-person, online citizen and online stakeholder). This was an intentional strategy, because it allowed for a comparative analysis of participant attitudes before and after the engagement process. In the end, there was very little variance in responses, which demonstrated both positive and enthusiastic support for the MHCC’s framework and overall approach.
  • It’s important not to pre-determine the outcomes: In terms of support for the MHCC framework, there was a remarkably high degree of congruence across all participant groups. This meant that, even with the wide range of audiences engaged, there was strong evidence for the consensus that the MHCC needed to move forward. This lack of divergence between public, stakeholder and government opinion was not an expected outcome. However, it helped demonstrate that the will for action was there. All that was needed was a clear strategy (as well as a responsible organization) to lead the process on a national scale

The Commission used the public and stakeholder feedback to revise their final Framework document and ultimately, to help guide the extensive amount work that they still have ahead of them (Phase II of the process is expected to begin soon). But overall, this is a very promising example of effective public participation.

– Tristan Eclarin –

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