Public Engagement That Works

A veteran strategist shares advice on how to make the most of public engagement as an instrument for governance and decision-making.

What is distinctive about public engagement in the public sector?

There are some basics common to all public engagement activities no matter which sector is undertaking the work. However, I believe there are some important fundamental differences.

Motivation is one important difference. Public accountability, acting with public good in mind, public ownership, democracy and citizenship are unique priorities in the public sector environment. These will have an impact on the kinds of issues or problems that are addressed through public engagement as well as the approaches and intended outcomes of such activities.

Confidentiality is also a limiting factor to an extent. In my experience, however, governments sometimes use confidentiality as an excuse for unnecessary secrecy or to control an issue, the public discourse around it, or to achieve a predetermined outcome.

But open and transparent information is a critical component of meaningful public engagement, especially if the engagement process seeks significant decision-making input from citizens. The best decisions are made when decision makers and their advisors have the best possible information. If government information is opaque, there will be a lower quality outcome from public engagement precisely because people will not have all the information they require to have well-informed views.

Notions of privacy and confidentiality are changing dramatically, especially for those of the younger generation who live their lives very openly in the world of social media. This demographic is unlikely to share the same devotion to confidentiality and privacy as previous cohorts. This will continue to challenge more traditional and conservative government practices around privacy and confidentiality.

How should public sector agencies decide when and how best to engage the public?

I am an advocate for meaningful and appropriate public engagement. I do not believe public engagement is relevant or useful for every situation, and discerning when it is appropriate to engage with the public is an important skill for the public sector to master.

There are many situations when it is inappropriate to engage the public in a conversation or decision:

  • When a decision has already been made and there is no opportunity for the public to influence the outcome
  • In situations where rapid decision-making and action is critical, such as emergencies
  • When there is not enough time to allow for thoughtful public deliberation of an issue: for example, if a quick decision is necessary to take advantage of an opportunity
  • If the outcomes of the public dialogue are unclear
  • If the public is not ready (i.e., they may not have the information they need to participate)
  • If the public does not see the issue or decision as important or relevant to them
  • In circumstances where the subject or issue is so esoteric or highly technical that the dialogue and decisions are rightly in the domain of technical experts. That is not to say that the public cannot engage in issues that involve complex ideas or technical information, but it requires much more effort on the part of the public body to help citizens prepare and build knowledge and understanding. In these cases, it will take more time to plan and educate participants and careful, focused attention should be paid to the specific input that is being sought from the public.

Some basic questions I always ask when I am assessing an opportunity to see if public engagement is an option:

  • Is the decision or issue one that affects peoples’ lives directly?
    Is it something people care about?
  • Is there opportunity for the public to influence the decision?
  • Can the public body undertaking the engagement take the time and devote the resources necessary for meaningful public engagement?
  • Will people have all the information they need to participate in the discussion? What information will they need?

These are just some of the basic considerations when judging the rationale for public engagement.

Discerning when it is appropriate to engage with the public is an important skill for the public sector to master.

Like any tool we would employ in policymaking, programme design and for deciding public issues, public engagement has both great potential and great limitations. It is not a panacea or the solution to everything wrong with government or public decision-making. However, it can uncover hidden knowledge and motivations around an issue. It can generate new and creative approaches to problems; it can repair relationships between the public and the public sector if done well and thoughtfully; it can build trust; it can lead to productive collaboration. But there are also many risk factors that need to be carefully weighed in every situation or decision before public engagement is undertaken. This is as much about skill and knowledge of good public engagement practice as it is about experience and applying sound judgment.

What kinds of structures and approaches might help public organisations leverage public engagement more effectively?

There is a debate about whether or not governments should have in-house, paid public engagement staff designing and facilitating public engagement, or whether it is better to contract external consultants. The only reasonable response to this question is to take the approach that best fits the context in which the public engagement is taking place.

The approaches to take and structures to employ can also be informed by other contexts (e.g. cultural, operational, etc.). However, I find the approach to public engagement advocated by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)1 to be the most flexible and adaptable that I have come across, and it seems to work well within a public sector context.

Regardless of the approach adopted, however, it is important for there to be a well-established base of understanding among both public servants and politicians of the advantages and limitations of public engagement in general before embarking on any process.

For any government or organisation, it is important to truly embrace engagement in the right spirit. Half-hearted efforts or superficial engagement processes will only alienate the stakeholders with whom you are trying to build a rapport. Meaningful engagement involves being genuinely interested in and taking account of the ideas, opinions, beliefs, aspirations and values of the stakeholders you are engaging.

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How might we best evaluate the success of public engagement initiatives?

Evaluation is an evolving and emerging field within the practice of public engagement, and it is most certainly the aspect of public engagement practice with the most work yet to be done.

As in many fields, the measuring process is much easier to conduct than the measuring of outcomes. As a practitioner, I am very interested in knowing from participants what they learned through their involvement in an engagement exercise. I also try to understand how they perceive an issue or a topic at the start of an engagement process, and then how they perceive that issue at the end of the process. Furthermore, identifying how public engagement may have affected decisions or key outcomes during engagement is an important factor.

Public engagement supplements but is not a replacement for democratic process.

From a public perspective, a successful project is one in which the public can see that they have had a visible or demonstrable impact. Being able to ask participants at the start of a project about how they believe their input will influence decisions, and then asking them at the end of the project if they think they did influence the decision is an approach that will help gauge the overall success of public engagement efforts. I want to emphasise however that it is still very important to evaluate the public engagement work itself and to recognise the significant measurement challenges involved in doing so.

Standards of practice are beginning to appear in various places around the world, and these can offer guidance and insight into some of the appropriate process and outcome measures common in the field. The IAP2 will soon have practice standards based on their approach. However, there are many organisations and jurisdictions that have created practice standards, for example, Scotland, the AA1000 Standards Board in the UK2 and Australia,3 to name just a few. The Brisbane Declaration on Community Engagement4 also outlines a set of general principles that can be readily adapted into a standards or evaluation framework.5


Geoff Wilson was President of the International Association for Public Participation International (IAP2) from February 2010 to November 2012. He is Director of Patient and Public Engagement in Capital Health, Nova Scotia’s largest provider of health services in Halifax, Canada. Wilson last spoke in Singapore at the 2012 MICA-CSC Public Communications Conference on “Public Engagement and Organisational Culture”.


  5. frameworkforcommunityengagement.pdf

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