Speech by Jean-Pierre Blais, Chairman, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

To the annual workshop of the Community of Federal Regulators

Ottawa, Ontario
November 4, 2013

Check against delivery

 

I am delighted to join you this morning. I welcome this chance to bring another perspective to the question of how to regulate effectively in a fast-changing, technology-driven world.

I have chosen to focus on how the CRTC is embracing open government by expanding opportunities for citizen engagement.

Because we believe one of the most critical aspects of developing regulations is engaging the Canadian public in their formulation.

We have certainly encouraged dialogue with Canadians, stakeholders and public servants on key public-policy issues in the past. But we are applying new strategies to stimulate more robust discussions on a range of regulatory issues. 

Doing so isn’t without its risks, of course. It requires us to shift from the status quo to experimentation. And it means we need to offer Canadians greater opportunities to engage with us, as well as choice in the ways they do so.

All this leads to very different outcomes than those we delivered in the past. But our recent experience at the CRTC has convinced us that it leads to greater rewards.

It’s the key to ensuring Canadians are at the centre of their communication system, and that the system itself is responsive to their expectations. Indeed, the public demands much more. And the public interest commands no less. 

As Wayne Wouters, the Clerk of the Privy Council, wrote in Blueprint 2020:

“As events evolve rapidly in an increasingly complex world, we must continue to ask ourselves how what we do for our country and for Canadians can remain relevant.”

CRTC experience

This is consistent with the CRTC’s approach to reaching out to Canadians as citizens, creators and consumers. By being more open and increasing opportunities for engagement we can develop better public policy and better deliver on our regulatory responsibilities.

Most important, we can do a better job of serving the public interest by basing our regulatory framework on the outcomes Canadians want and expect. We can ensure they are truly at the centre of their communication system.

Of course, our tribunal is unique in that we both regulate and oversee the communication industry. We have a different mandate, and powers, than many of you.

In essence, we ensure that Canadians have access to compelling creative content, from diverse sources and on a variety of platforms. We also ensure that they can connect to quality and innovative communication services at affordable prices. Finally, we promote compliance with our regulations and take enforcement actions where necessary to enhance the safety and interests of Canadians.

So our methods of engagement would not necessarily be appropriate for all regulatory bodies. 

However, we have learned some valuable lessons along the way that are helping us to become a more responsive regulator. 

So let me tell you about some of the things we have learned as we have started to shake things up at the CRTC. About how we are moving beyond our traditional comfort zone – doing things differently, in novel ways.

Now my intention had been to borrow a page from the late night talk shows and present a Top 10 list of lessons in public engagement. However, I quickly realized that wouldn’t fly, given our duty to embrace the Red Tape Reduction Action Plan.

So I re-did the list, scratching a few things out and doubling up on some ideas.  That’s why I ended up with just eight.

Here, then, are J.P.’s top eight lessons of 2012-13.

Lesson #8: Put Canadians at the centre of your process

This lesson is based on our engagement experience surrounding Bell Canada Enterprise’s first application to acquire control of Astral Media’s television and radio properties. An application, you may recall, that we denied because it did not meet the public interest test.

As with all hearings, we issued a public notice of consultation. The public responded en masse. We received more than 9,700 comments from concerned citizens.

I read out loud a number of those interventions during the public hearings and asked the applicants to respond. This was quite a departure from our traditional way of conducting these sessions.

The executives from the companies were taken aback by this approach. I suspect they did not even have the comments at hand. It certainly put Canadians squarely in the middle of the discussion by raising the interventions of individual Canadians during the oral hearing.

Today, the regulated companies read and consider those interventions much more closely. They are responding to Canadians’ comments and questions. And they are increasingly using Canadians’ voices in their own submissions. So we aren’t the only ones learning from these experiences. 

The BCE/Astral proceeding taught us that by putting Canadians at the centre of your regulatory process, you can ensure your public record represents a diversity of views. Something we all have an obligation—and strive—to do.

Lesson #7: Trying new things does not guarantee success

Of course, there is no guarantee—no matter how innovative or well-intentioned your public engagement efforts—that you will always meet with success. We learned that lesson with the recent renewal of CBC/Radio Canada’s licences for its English and French languages radio and TV services. 

We received more than 8,000 interventions from Canadians—over and above the thousands of comments received through our online discussion forum. But we also tried something different this time around. 

We offered evening sessions, assuming people would appreciate the chance to stop by after work to have their say. Unfortunately, what we thought was a good idea didn’t deliver good results. No one took us up on our offer and the evening sessions were cancelled.

Lesson #7 is: even when trying to be creative, sometimes you don’t succeed. You just have to leverage what you learn and try again.

Lesson #6: Make creative use of technology to engage Canadians

Earlier this year, we developed a new code for wireless services. We made extensive use of technology to make sure our engagement process was more accessible to Canadians than ever before.

We started by asking Canadians for their help in creating a national code for wireless services, such as cellphones and other personal mobile devices. Canadians took the opportunity to tell us about their frustration with the length of wireless contracts, cancellation fees and roaming charges. In this way, we crowd-sourced the drafting of the code.

Informed by the more than 4,000 comments we received, we unveiled a draft code two weeks before the public hearing. Canadians were invited to share their views through traditional interventions. But, over and above that, we hosted an online discussion forum. We made extensive use of social media to draw people in.

We decided to leave the discussion forum open during the public hearing itself—a first for the Commission. This gave us the ability to bring the public’s input directly into the discussion, sometimes challenging corporate executives in real-time. They would claim one thing—and we could immediately question them using a message from someone listening to the proceedings with a very different story to tell.

We also used technologies such as Skype to allow people in other cities to “appear” remotely at the hearing in Gatineau. Remember the name Tana Guindeba. He was the first Canadian to appear at our hearing through Skype. This enabled us to engage with a greater number of Canadians—whether they were present in the room or half way across the country.

Of course, we listened to the wireless industry, too, hearing concerns about the unintended consequences of some proposals and the work companies are doing to address consumer frustrations. 

We also continued our recent practice of sharing, over our Twitter account, the presentations of the individuals, groups and companies that appeared at the hearing. This practice is greatly appreciated by all those who follow our public hearings—especially the media.

The wireless code experience provides Lesson #6: By making creative use of the technologies at our disposal (which aren’t even cutting edge), we can give Canadians a real opportunity to have their say about issues that really matters to them.

This experience illustrated the transformative power of social media. It also underlined that these new tools empower individual Canadians to effect change. 

In reaction to what we learned, the Commission instituted new standards for wireless contract obligations. Service providers now have to clarify the terms of the contracts with their customers, so Canadians can make informed choices about the service options that best match their needs and interests.

As proud as we are of this consultation process, it wasn’t perfect. While we did a great job in the virtual world, we may have left digital have-nots behind. There are still many Canadians without a high-speed Internet connection who couldn’t voice their views in the way that online participants did. 

As long as this is the case, we need to offer a mix of virtual, live and traditional consultations. This sometimes includes receiving faxes and hand-written comments.

Lesson #5: Be conscious of your audience

We have to remember, too, that even when proceedings do not garner widespread interest, they are still every bit as important as the noisemakers. 

And they sometimes require extra effort to ensure the special needs of some Canadians are considered.

For instance, last spring, we launched a public consultation on whether video relay service for Canadians who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired should be offered. This service would enable Canadians make or receive a video call using sign language through a sign-language interpreter. This would enable, for example, a hearing-impaired Canadian to make an appointment with their doctor or their child’s teacher.

To get the message out that their input is important, the Commission translated its notice of consultation into both American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ). We then recorded a sign-language interpreter and posted the video on the CRTC’s YouTube channel.

To make sure we got their message, we allowed people with hearing and speech impairments to submit their interventions in sign language. In addition to posting the videos on YouTube, we transcribed the comments and posted them on the Commission’s website for people who do not understand sign language.

We also made special accommodations at the hearing that took place two weeks ago. We offered simultaneous translation in English, French, ASL and LSQ during the hearing. Canadians who were not in the room could follow the discussion from our website, through a video feed of the sign-language interpreters. Finally, in response to requests by certain parties, we provided closed captioning services in English on the first day.

So Lesson #5 is: be conscious of your audience and understand that you sometimes need to make accommodations to connect with the people you are trying to reach.

Lesson #4: Public debate is healthy, but sometimes risks taking over your process

Another example of public participation was our recent review of applications for mandatory distribution on cable and satellite companies’ digital basic television service. The public response was staggering.

Under the Broadcasting Act, the Commission can require cable and satellite distribution companies to carry certain services to advance the Act’s objectives. Things like promoting Canadian identity and ethno-cultural diversity, the special place of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian society, service to and the portrayal of people with disabilities, or linguistic duality.

Given its exceptional nature, the CRTC sets the bar very high to obtain a mandatory distribution order. We reviewed 22 applications but, ultimately, only approved three new television services. 

If I say “Sun News Network,” this proceeding may ring a bell. Thanks to petitions, a letter writing campaign and online submissions from those arguing for and against Sun’s application, we received over 135,000 interventions during these proceedings—an extraordinary number for any public tribunal. This just proves that, when people really care, they come out in droves.

In coming to a decision, we had to balance affordability for basic television packages with the Act’s objectives to promote and protect Canadian culture and meet the needs of under-served communities.

Thanks to the participation of Canadians, our decision ensures that those living with a visual impairment, francophones and citizens of the Northwhose needs would not be met by market forces alonewill be better served by the Canadian broadcasting system.

We took away a valuable lesson from this experience. 

Lesson #4: make sure that the public debate over a single issue, no matter how heated or how loud, does not overshadow the public interest you are trying to achieve with your regulatory decisions. 

Lesson #3: Tailor your engagement approach to the issue

Lesson #3 is that not every issue lends itself to public consultations on a grand scale. For instance, we have invited interested parties to comment on our framework for wholesale telecommunications services and prices.

Eventually, this will have a direct impact on consumers served by competitors, since it will determine the rates these firms must pay the incumbent telephone and cable companies for access to their networks. This is called the unbundling of essential services. But, for most Canadians, this is far too technical to follow or be of interest. 

Although an important competitive issue, with indirect impacts on the retail market, we will not be surprised if we receive fewer interventions from individual Canadians.

Sometimes the public interest is best served by third parties that represent the interests of individual Canadians at our hearings. For instance, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre does a very good job of representing the broad public interest.

Lesson #2: Not all consultation, all the time

Now I am not suggesting it should be all consultation, all the time. In fact, Lesson #2 is: avoid over consulting.  

For example, we regularly mine information from the CRTC’s Client Services. We received more than 11,000 broadcast-related complaints, alone, from Canadians in 2012. 

Valuable feedback like this is a low-cost form of consultation that informs our policy and regulatory choices, whether Canadians know it or not. 

The reality is, we cannot expect Canadians to get involved in a lot of the thorny legal and technical issues we examine on an annual basis. 

From June 2012 to June 2013, my fellow Commissioners and I held over 400 decisional meetings. We sat through 226 hours of testimony during six hearings and reviewed more than 177,600 submissions and interventions from individuals and interest groups. We issued more than 400 decisions or policies, and amended or adopted 11 regulations.

Clearly, unless you are deeply immersed in these issues, no Canadian could possibly be expected to stay on top of all this.

Of course, that doesn’t diminish our responsibility to make sure the channels of communication are open if and when Canadians want to have their say. This is essential if we are to be a trusted institution and if we are to truly advance the public interest.

Lesson #1: Provide a mix of approaches

All the lessons we have learned are being put to use in our latest public engagement exercise: Let’s Talk TV: A Conversation with Canadians.

To begin with, we have put a great deal of effort into writing our decisions and notices in plain language. We took this to a whole new level with the notice for “Let’s Talk TV: A Conversation with Canadians”. The document outlines the discussion themes in friendly language—uncharacteristically CRTC-ish, given our penchant for technical jargon. Our Notice of Invitation is easy to understand.

The conversation was launched a week and a half ago, and it has already elicited a significant response. That’s to be expected, since the average Canadian watches 28 hours of TV a week. That’s right. The average Canadian spends the equivalent of four working days watching television—every week. So they clearly care about TV.

And that does not even include the time spent watching newer forms of TV, such as YouTube, TOU.TV and Netflix.

What’s so different about this national conversation is that we want to talk to Canadians first, before making a single change to the regulations. And the conversation can be as formal or informal as people want it to be.

We have made as many options as possible available to encourage as many Canadians as we can to take part. 

We launched an online discussion forum that encourages people to exchange ideas about their TV experience. It’s not just a place to post views. Canadians can—and are—responding to each other. The first comment went up 26 minutes after the launch.

To make sure nobody gets left behind, we are offering traditional outreach methods such as a 1-800 number, fax, e-mail and letters in the mail.

We are also trying something completely different called “Flash!” conferences. It’s our take on the concept of crowd sourcing. The name “Flash!” is inspired by flash mobs, events that appear spontaneous but are actually well thought out and planned. 

We developed a kit to help community groups, educational institutions and any other public interest groups to host their own “Flash!” conferences. It will be entirely up to them to decide how these events are organized, but the expectation is they will be in-person sessions located in convenient community settings. The outcome of those conferences can be anything from a written report to a video to a podcast.

At a later phase in this engagement process, we will offer Canadians the opportunity to consider the various ideas raised during the initial conversation and to weigh in on some of the tough choices that may need to be made. This tool will enable us to validate what we heard.

The lesson here is that we need to provide a mix of both old and new approaches to engagement. We need to make sure that the generations that grew up with TV in its traditional form as well as today’s generation at the leading edge of new technology—and all variations in-between—have a fair chance to have their say.

Conclusion

If there is a singularly important lesson I’ve learned over the past year, it is that regulators cannot afford to make decisions in closed rooms without public input.

Maybe just as significant, never underestimate how thoughtful the input of Canadians can be, or to open up the conversation to them. They will teach us what more we need to do and how we can do it better. And they will use every technological tool at their disposal to do so.

Actually, all of the initiatives I have highlighted this morning were relatively inexpensive to do and, generally, highly effective. And I say that from the perspective of an agency that has only 450 employees.

There will be some with extreme views, but the vast majority of people are reasonable. They just want to be heard and know that they might make a difference in the outcome. And they often do.

For example, they convinced us during hearings on the wireless code that the marketplace has not been as dynamic as it could be. That is one of the main reasons the wireless code now caps the amortization period of cellphones at two years.

I’ve also concluded there is no going back to the tried and true methods to engage Canadians. Some of our experimentation has been chaotic and risky. But, as the Clerk has said,

“This is a pivotal time for Canada’s Public Service as events evolve rapidly in an increasingly complex world.”

One thing we can all count on is the need to continually re-invent ourselves to remain responsive to a fast-changing environment.

Consulting sincerely and with authenticity, and communicating openly with Canadians, will help to ensure we are the very best regulators we can possibly be in this age of relentless change. 

Thank you.

 

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