Theme Areas and Issues in Public Involvement


Municipal Planning

Municipal planning issues are often the first to come to mind when one hears about public consultation processes. Unfortunately, the “decide-announce-defend” approach to decision making that has often been used in planning issues, and the tendency toward NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) when communities are consulted first, has given rise to a particularly complex set of issues around citizen involvement in public planning processes. Despite these challenges, the growing understanding of the essential role that citizens play in the identification of community goals, desires and priorities has led to the development of projects, programs and resources that seek to find a balance between many competing interests and values and create authentic, effective public engagement in the municipal planning process.

Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). Public Involvement: Your Guide to Participating in the Transportation Planning and Programming Processes.

Bickerstaff, K. Tolley, R., & G. Walker. (2002). Transport planning and participation: the rhetoric and realities of public involvement. Journal of Transport Geography. 10.

Happy City is a loose coalition of citizens who joined together to address the rapidly changing environment in St. Johns by providing a venue for accessible, readable information and explanation of municipal issues, as well as a forum for citizens to debate the potential solutions to challenges.


Citizens are increasingly concerned that the decision-making institutions that affect them are often out of touch with their values and interests. Governments too are beginning to recognize that decisions pertaining to issues like health care are essentially values-based and would benefit from incorporating public input. As a result, there has been a growing call for, and subsequent response to, improving public involvement in healthcare issues, which rank as a high priority for most individuals.

Government of Canada, Corporate Consultation Secretariat, Health Policy and Communications Branch (2000). Health Canada Policy Toolkit for Public Involvement in Decision Making.


Participatory budgeting is a unique democratic process originally introduced in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, when the government established a process for citizens to prioritize and allocate municipal resources in an effort to redistribute funds more equally. The belief – which is largely supported by research – is that participatory budgeting processes help to enhance transparency, reduce government inefficiencies and corruption, and enhance participation in local democracy. The process is not without criticism, however; some observers cite perceived patronage issues, intensity of resource demand (both time and money) and flaws in the process as key detractors to the approach. Despite this criticism, participatory budgeting is a widely recognized process that many are working to adopt and fit to situations throughout the world.

Babcock, C., Brannan, E., Gupta, P., & S. Shah. (2008) Western Participatory Practices: Observations on Experience. African Regional Seminar on Participatory Budgeting.

Nieuwlan, H.T. (2003). A Participatory Budgeting Model For Canadian Cities: Improving Representation Through Increased Citizen Participation In The Municipal Budgeting Process. Paper presented at Lifelong Citizenship Learning, Participatory Democracy & Social Change Conference, October 17-19, 2003.

Schugurensky, D. (2004). Ten Reasons to Support Participatory Budgeting. Summary of paper presented at the symposium ‘Civic Engagement and Local Democracy’, November 2004.

David Schugurensky is a scholar at the University of Toronto who has done a great deal of work on participatory budgeting and other participatory democracy processes.
The Participatory Budgeting Project is a North American non-profit organization providing support and technical assistance to elected officials, public agencies, and community groups interested in developing participatory budgeting processes in the U.S. and Canada.


Environmental issues have long been one of the foremost areas for public deliberation, where it has become internationally recognized as essential. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development emphasized that citizens should have access to information and opportunities to participate in environmental decision-making processes. This goal has been reiterated by governments throughout the world.

Sustainable Calgary, a grassroots group of citizens whose mission is ‘To promote, encourage and support community level actions and initiatives that move Calgary towards a sustainable future.’


Initiatives are underway around the world to promote greater public involvement at all levels of decision making. Practitioners, researchers and citizens are working to deal with the diverse and unique challenges that face communities and governments.

Civicus: World Alliance for Civic Participation is an international alliance of members and partners working to strengthen citizen action and civil society. It is an excellent resource for learning more about initiatives around the world.

International Association for Public Participation & the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. (2008) Painting the Landscape: A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Public-Government Decision Making.

E-Democracy/Online Deliberation

Online technology has opened up a wide variety of options for the field of public involvement, as well as significant debates about what can be achieved in the electronic medium. Online methods have become an essential part of engaging people in the complex issues of the day, creating spaces for effective and informed participation. Nonetheless, the field is still learning how to handle online engagement.

The City of Bristol, UK is on the leading edge in terms of developing an online engagement strategy. Their E‐democracy Handbook describes a wealth of methods for using new technologies to engage citizens, and describes what circumstances are most appropriate for each method.

Bittle, S., Haller, C. & A. Kadle. (2009). Promising Practices in Online Engagement. Center for Advances in Public Engagement.

Turner-Lee, N. (2010). The Challenge of Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Age. In The Future of Digital Communications: Policy Perspectives. Time Warner Cable Research Program on Digital Communications.

E- Democracy is an online public space using online tools to support participation in public life, strengthen communities and build democracy. The website hosts online issues forums around the world.



Public involvement has gained a wide range of advocates in recent years: government officials, community members, and businesses alike have argued for citizen participation as an antidote to the deficiencies in current decision-making processes. The actual benefits of such processes, however, are difficult to establish concretely without rigorous evaluations. Evaluations serve a number of important functions for all involved parties: financial evaluations ensure funds are used efficiently and wisely; practical evaluations seek to learn from past mistakes; ethical and moral evaluations ensure adequate representation and clear communication to participants; and research-related evaluations strive to improve the overall understanding of participatory practices themselves.1 A growing push from researchers and practitioners has brought a great deal of material forward to address the challenges associated with these kinds of evaluations, asking questions about how one should evaluate public involvement, and how one does evaluate public involvement.

Canadian Council for Dialogue and Deliberation

Dialogue and Deliberation Project. An excellent comprehensive collection of resources that explores the issues, challenges and solutions for evaluating D & D programs.

  • Edward Andersson, Emily Fennell and Thea Shahrokh (2011). Making the case for public engagement: How to demonstrate the value of consumer input. Involve UK. View the Website


In order for public involvement to be meaningful, it needs to reflect the diversity of the population, occur before major decisions are made, provide participants with balanced information, use a fair process, and have its results communicated to the public at large.2 Many people have begun to speak of institutionalization as a means of ensuring these essential characteristics are met in any public engagement process. Institutionalizing deliberation means building it into laws, policies, and formal procedures to ensure that it is valued as a meaningful and regular component of the policy process. As a result, the process of institutionalization has recently become a significant focus for researchers and government officials.

City of Montreal

In 2006, the City of Montreal passed the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities. Among the topics dealt with in the charter is a strong commitment to democracy. The charter establishes citizens’ right to participate actively in the decision making process.

Pamela Robinson, P. (2005). Civic Engagement and the City of Toronto: Review and Reflection on Current Practices and Future Approaches. Prepared for consideration by the Governing Toronto Advisory Panel. View the PDF

Scaling Up

Efforts to engage citizens have traditionally found the most success at the local level, and while public input into issues impacting small areas is vital for community well-being, those issues exist within equally important regional, national and international challenges. Thus, the challenge of “scaling up” involvement processes is a critical issue facing the field today and our ability to engage in discussing complex issues on a broad scale is still limited. Numerous challenges face efforts to scale up, but many around the world are attempting to find solutions to this essential concern.

  • Will Friedman (2006) “Deliberative Democracy and the Problem of Scope”, Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 1. 

Sustaining Engagement/Follow Up

One-off efforts to engage citizens in decision-making processes can lead participants to become disillusioned with their ability to contribute meaningfully to solutions and become disengaged. Finding an answer to the question of how to sustain engagement and follow up after a public involvement initiative is essential in any effort to deepen democracy and build a more involved citizenry. Understanding why some initiatives grow into a regular practice that involves many segments of the community is an important stream of inquiry.

  • Briand, M. (2009). The Twelve C’s of Sustaining Civic Work. View the Website
  • Fagotto, E. & A. Fung. (2009). Sustaining Public Engagement: Embedded Deliberation in Local Communities. Everyday Democracy and the Kettering Foundation. View the Website

Portsmouth Listens

Since 1999, this group has organized at least six rounds of large-scale dialogue to action circles (study circles) to address contentious or complex issues within the City. It began as a grassroots effort to preserve and enhance citizens’ quality of life, but has grown to become a partnership between the city and volunteers to create effective public dialogue and involvement in decision-making.


The rapid growth of technology presents both unprecedented challenges and opportunities for democracy. Improved technology enables greater communication and knowledge sharing opportunities that can be used to bolster participation in decision making. However, high-tech innovations can also present a serious challenge, as making decisions about the application of these technologies requires a level of expertise that is often unavailable to the average citizen. As a result, there is a great deal of interest in the field concerning the appropriate uses and methods of addressing technological advances.

Co-Intelligence Institute

Arts Based Civic Dialogue

The field of practice labelled Arts-based Civic Dialogue by the Animating Democracy Initiative is by no means new, nor is it a movement on its own. Rather, it is part of the broader continuum of participatory methods of engaging the public. It is not only recognized that the current form of democracy in much of the Western world does not inspire participation, but that it is important that it begin to do so. As a result, practitioners, researchers, artists, and community workers around the world are grappling with the issues and obstacles posed by arts-based participation methods, and developing new approaches to test the impact of these new forms of public engagement.

Animating Democracy

A Program of Americans for the Arts is a program designed to foster arts and cultural activities that encourage and enhance civic engagement and dialogue. The website provides the most comprehensive collection of resources on the subject of arts-based civic dialogue.

  • NCDD. (2005). Inquiring Minds Want to Know: What Do the Arts Have to Do With Dialogue? View the Website

Diversity and Equality

In order to make a strong claim to legitimacy, public involvement processes must strive to represent the entirety of views in a community. There is a significant interest amongst researchers, practitioners and community members in ensuring that a diversity of voices are heard and in determining the best methods for achieving equality in deliberative processes.

  • Respect All Voices: Neighbourhood Councils as a Tool for Building Social Inclusion By Glynis Maxwell


Many studies suggest that young people today are far less engaged in political and community issues than previous generations. Explanations for these trends abound, ranging from youth being ‘too busy’ with the wide variety of leisure opportunities, ‘too satisfied’ by increased material affluence, ‘too cynical’ of current political structures and their inability to enact change, and restricted by ‘too few’ options engagement. Which explanation is correct is impossible to tell, but finding a solution to the issue has become a prime focus for many in the field of public involvement. Engaging youth in civic processes not only provides an important learning opportunity for all involved, it brings a unique and often undervalued voice to the decision making process. However, many questions remain about the most appropriate means of engaging youth in these processes.

  • National League of Cities. (2004). Authentic Youth Civic Engagement: A Guide for Municipal Leaders. Washington D. C. View the Website