Energy company Kinder Morgan last week ran head-first into the complex ethics of public consultation. The company shut down an information session in Victoria, B.C., in response to what the company is calling “vandalism” of some of its on-site session signs. The so-called “vandals” tell a slightly different story: they say all they did was peacefully replace the company’s signs with their own placards.
Public consultation is a regular part of business for many companies these days, especially those in the energy and extractive industries. In some cases, public consultation is required by legislation; in other cases, it’s just good business sense. But none of that means that all companies are going to be at ease with the process. To say that public consultation is common is not to say it is easy. For starters, the word “public” is too broad to provide clarity about what the process even amounts to. You’re not really going to consult the entire public. So who should you consult? The activist public? The educated public? The elected or appointed representatives of the public?
For that matter, how do you even label the process? Without harping too much on words, consider the difference in attitude implied by the terms “public consultation,” “public information,” and “public engagement.” The public’s perception of the process is liable to vary considerably depending on the way the process is labeled, never mind what it implies about the role the process is going to play in a business’s operations.
From an ethical point of view, public consultation has two distinct objectives. First, consultation is a sign of respect, a way of saying to concerned individuals and groups, “We think you matter.” The other ethically-significant reason for public consultation is to gather input that might actually affect decision-making. Unanticipated concerns can easily come to light; asking people what they care about can be much more effective than guessing. These twin objectives—expressing respect and seeking information—provide hints as to how the process needs to go.
Of course, the information gathering goal is the easy part. Give people a microphone and they’ll talk. A company still needs to make an effort to get the right people in front of the mic, but that’s not rocket science.
The harder part is how to show respect, especially when the project at hand is a controversial one over which tempers are likely to flare. Like, say, a pipeline. And that’s where Kinder Morgan ran aground, in a mutual failure of respect. It’s not nice to mess with someone’s signs, but it behooves a company to respond to such things by taking the high road. After all, a company in the energy sector needs to not just show up; it needs to be good at this stuff. In public consultation, the kind of sophistication that befits a first-rate company means more than glossy handouts. It means being able to roll with the punches, because sometimes that’s what respectful dialogue requires.