By Andrea McDowell
Any consultation process has challenges that are unique to the stakeholder, and agency consultations are no different. While regulators are tasked with helping proponents structure field work programs and move their projects through the Environmental Assessment process, there are conflicting imperatives that can make this frustrating for all concerned. Ultimately—as proponents find during the process—regulators do not prioritize project budgets or schedules. Their belief, fair or not, is that budgets and schedules are the concern of the proponent and it is up to the proponent to meet all regulatory requirements without budgetary exceedances or project delays. Complaints about regulatory delays affecting project viability will have very little impact. To effectively engage with agency representatives, it is imperative to understand their point of view.
Regulators ultimately work for the Ministers in charge of their agencies, which means that they ultimately also work for the larger public. These loyalties are keenly felt by most civil servants. When a project or type of project becomes contentious, the potential political implications will make the agency very conservative.
Entire offices can be involved in responses to letters of complaint from the public, particularly regarding high-profile projects. Complaints from the proponent regarding time delays will be dealt with in a similar fashion. The preparation of letters, emails, briefing notes, and media lines is time consuming and, while staff are working on these, they’re not working on your project.
No civil servant ever wants to see their Minister be questioned in Parliament over a project they are working on, which tends to mean that certainty is prioritized over efficiency. Reasonably certain, particularly in high profile cases, will not be sufficient. If you can assure a regulator that you know exactly what is going on, understand the process and the reasons for it, and have fully considered the issues they are most concerned with, they are more likely to feel safe when signing their name to your project.
While the myth of the stable safe public service career is still alive and well, for most young civil servants this is no longer the case—in some Ministries more than others. It is possible for a front-line worker to spend a decade moving from one one-year contract to another, often resulting in changes in job title and description every April. Contract government workers often find the funding runs out for their employment around February or March and won’t be reinstated until May. If your main contact at a regulatory agency is a contract worker, it goes without saying that your project will be affected by this uncertainty. Some years, there will simply be no one on the job in late winter as the annual funding dries up and no new funding decisions have been made; progress will grind to a halt when an election is called; and the person you are consulting with today about the required structure of your field work program or hydrology analysis may not be the person evaluating the final work when it is done.
Try not to schedule crucial agency meetings or negotiations around year-end (April 1), as this is when staffing will be most severely affected. Avoid making agreements with regulators that are not likely to be approved of by his or her successor, if he or she is assigned to a different role and you are starting again with someone new.
Effective agency consultation is essential to gaining the approvals necessary for a successful project. The key to gaining regulatory support for a proposal is understanding the agency’s mandate and perspective.