1. Citizen participation: Why and when to involve citizens?

Conceptually, there are different terms used to refer to citizen involvement in public decisions: citizen engagement, public participation, civic participation, etc. When defining participation, the OECD Recommendation on Open Government (2017[1]) refers to stakeholders, grouping together both citizens and any interested and/or affected party. Involving citizens and/or stakeholders is equally important, however, their participation should not be treated identically (OECD, 2022[2]). When referring to these groups, the following distinction can be made:

  • Stakeholders: any interested and/or affected party, including institutions and organisations, whether governmental or non-governmental, from civil society, academia, the media, or the private sector.

  • Citizens: individuals, regardless of their age, gender, sexual orientation, religious, and political affiliations. The term is meant in the larger sense of ‘an inhabitant of a particular place’, which can be in reference to a village, town, city, region, state, or country depending on the context. It is not meant in the more restrictive sense of ‘a legally recognised national of a state’. In this larger sense, it is equivalent of people.

These guidelines acknowledge the diversity of concepts, and employs the term of citizen and stakeholder participation, which allows to make a distinction between the two groups and put emphasis on citizen participation practices in particular.

Citizen and stakeholder participation includes “all the ways in which stakeholders (including citizens) can be involved in the policy cycle and in service design and delivery(OECD, 2017[1]). It refers to the efforts by public institutions to hear the views, perspectives, and inputs from citizens and stakeholders. Participation allows citizens and stakeholders to influence the activities and decisions of public authorities at different stages of the policy cycle.

The OECD Recommendation of the Council on Open Government (2017) distinguishes among three levels of citizen and stakeholder participation, which differ according to the level of involvement:

  • Information: an initial level of participation characterised by a one-way relationship in which the government produces and delivers information to citizens and stakeholders. It covers both on-demand provision of information and “proactive” measures by the government to disseminate information.

  • Consultation: a more advanced level of participation that entails a two-way relationship in which citizens and stakeholders provide feedback to the government and vice-versa. It is based on the prior definition of the issue for which views are being sought and requires the provision of relevant information, in addition to feedback on the outcomes of the process.

  • Engagement: when citizens and stakeholders are given the opportunity and the necessary resources (e.g., information, data, and digital tools) to collaborate during all phases of the policy-cycle and in the service design and delivery. It acknowledges equal standing for citizens in setting the agenda, proposing project or policy options and shaping the dialogue – although the responsibility for the final decision or policy formulation in many cases rests with public authorities.

These guidelines acknowledge that in addition to the OECD pillars of participation, policymakers and institutions have adopted the IAP2’s Spectrum of Public Participation (2018[3]) which measures participation in relation to the impact it has on the decisions using five stages.

The OECD Guidelines for Citizen Participation Processes cover all three levels of participation; however, they focus on the second and third levels: consultation and engagement.

These guidelines focus mainly on citizen participation, since stakeholder participation is usually more familiar to policy makers and requires less specialised knowledge (as detailed in Table 1.1). Citizen and stakeholder participation are also not mutually exclusive – stakeholders often have a role in designing, implementing, or providing their perspectives during a citizen participation process. Some methods included in these guidelines can be adapted to both types of participants. For example, public consultations can be used to involve both stakeholders and citizens.

The line between these groups can be blurry and, in reality, is not always perfectly neat. No value or preference is given to citizens or stakeholders in particular, as both groups can enrich public decisions, projects, policies, and services. However, public authorities should decide whom to engage at which stage of decision making, and then adapt the design and expectations of the participatory process in accordance with the category of participants. Individual citizens and stakeholders will not require the same conditions to participate and will not produce the same types of inputs. Stakeholders can provide expertise and more specific input than citizens through mechanisms such as advisory bodies or experts’ panels, whereas citizen participation requires methods that provide the public with the time, information, and resources to produce quality inputs and develop individual or collective recommendations. Both require a clear link to decision making.

As a core pillar of an open government, citizen participation has intrinsic benefits. It leads to better and more democratic policy making, which becomes more transparent, inclusive, legitimate, and accountable. Citizen participation enhances public trust in government and democratic institutions by giving citizens a role in public decision making. It also leads to a better shared understanding of opportunities and challenges.

Citizen participation also has instrumental benefits. It leads to better policy results that take into account and use citizens' experience and knowledge to address citizens' most pressing needs. The quality of policies, laws, and services is improved, as they were developed, implemented, and evaluated based on up-to-date evidence and a well-informed policy choice could be made. They also benefit from the innovative ideas of citizens and can be more cost-effective as a result (OECD, 2016[5]).

Citizen participation can make governance and decision making more inclusive by opening the door to more representative groups of people. Through participatory processes, public authorities can include the voice of the "silent majority" and strengthen the representation of minorities and often excluded groups like informal workers, migrants, women, indigenous populations, LGBTI communities, etc. Citizen participation in public decision making can answer the concerns of minorities and unrepresented groups by addressing inequalities of voice and access, and thus fight exclusion and marginalisation. This in turn can create better policies and services, build a sense of belonging, and foster social cohesion (OECD, 2020[6]).

Involving citizens in the decision-making process supports the public understanding of the outcome and enhances its uptake. Citizen participation can allow the public to follow, influence, and understand the process leading to a decision, which in turn enhances the legitimacy of hard choices and social support for change. Empowering citizens through participatory processes is also good for the overall legitimacy of the democratic process as it signals civic respect and builds a relationship based on mutual trust.

The right of citizens to participate in public decision making and service design and delivery can be rooted in international agreements, in the constitution, or in specific legislation. This right can be broad (e.g. citizens should have a say in decisions that affect their lives); it can be specific to certain types of decisions (e.g. environmental decisions or urban planning); or refer to a specific participatory method (e.g. referendum or consultations). The OECD Guiding Principles for Open and Inclusive Policy Making (OECD, 2009[7]) invite countries to firmly ground citizens’ right to participate in law or policy to ensure its institutionalisation and sustainability.

Citizen participation can support the daily activities of public servants as well as public institutions’ decision-making processes (OECD, 2022[8]).

  • Public problems that require careful consideration from a diversity of perspectives;

  • When there is a vacuum of ideas and solutions;

  • Addressing complex issues that require informed public judgment;

  • Navigating trade-offs and setting priorities;

  • Preparing long-term plans.

  • As a way to gather information, data, and public opinion;

  • As an opportunity to tap into the collective intelligence to co-create solutions, services, or projects;

  • As a mechanism to collect public feedback on proposed solutions such as draft legislation or plans;

  • As a tool to adapt and design public services that respond the real needs of citizens;

  • To involve citizens and stakeholders in the implementation of policies, projects, and research.

  • As a tool to understand costs, benefits, or impacts of policy decisions on specific communities that might have escaped the initial considerations and analysis;

  • To prevent conflict situations that might arise from not considering the needs of all relevant groups.

  • By engaging with citizens in a meaningful and more regular way beyond the ballot box;

  • By allowing citizens to experience and understand how decisions are taken, which in turn can increase confidence in the final decision;

  • When more advanced engagement methods are used, by sharing the decision-making power with citizens, showing a sense of respect, and cultivating a sense of empowerment.

There are several common myths and misconceptions about citizen participation:

Often people who are experts in a specific field have spent many years gaining experience and knowledge to understand a complex issue. While citizens are often not as knowledgeable about a subject as experts, there is a large amount of evidence which shows that citizens are able to grapple with complexity if the process has been designed to give them time and resources for learning (OECD, 2020[4]; Mercier and Landemore, 2012[9]; Grönlund, Herne and Setälä, 2015[10]). Experts should be involved in helping select, prepare, and present broad and diverse information for citizens to be able to develop informed recommendations.

Decision makers, whether elected representatives or appointed officials, are not experts on all topics on which they are required to take decisions either. A member of parliament cannot be a specialist on every single policy issue covered by legislation. They have access to technical experts that guide them in understanding complex problems. This can – and should – also be the case for citizens.

Another common misconception is that citizens will either not participate, or will drop out partway through a process. Sometimes there is a sense that we ask too much of people, however, more often than not, we ask too little. Evidence shows that people are not only willing to participate, but they are ambitious, driven, and will work hard to achieve goals if they see that the process is worth their time and effort, with a clear link to impact (OECD, 2020[4]).

To make it worthwhile, there must be a clear link to the decision-making process, meaning that citizens’ recommendations, ideas, and proposals will be considered by a public authority or another actor in charge of making decisions. It should be clear how and when the public authority will use those inputs and will provide a direct response to citizens.

Citizen participation levels are also affected by the design of a participation exercise. A good design will help overcome barriers to participation by:

  • giving citizens a clear task;

  • being transparent about the process and its intended impact;

  • providing an opportunity for learning;

  • giving enough information for people to come to an informed point of view;

  • having well-moderated, well-facilitated dialogue and deliberation;

  • and providing compensation for time/travel/other costs.

It is helpful to ask yourself: “Would I be motivated to take part in my participatory process? Is it clear what is asked of me and that my time is worth the effort?” If your process is well designed, the answer to both questions should be yes. Further guidance on this is provided in the How to incentivise citizens to participate? and Thinking as a citizen sections of this report.

This myth is based on the negative past experiences of interacting with citizens in participatory processes. Often public servants face citizens in situations such as a town hall meeting or a public consultation where people are just generally asked to provide comments or feedback. In such circumstances, usually citizens with something negative to say show up to express a complaint or disagree with a public decision, because the process is designed this way.

However, participation can be designed to elicit constructive contributions towards finding solutions and building consensus. If a citizen participation process is designed to gather ideas, co-develop solutions, or co-implement activities or policies, citizens will do just that – they will work in a constructive, meaningful way.

It is possible that citizens might initially use participatory processes to express frustration about other problems they have faced that they feel public authorities are responsible for or could help address. In such cases, citizens could be guided towards appropriate channels where they could address their complaints or find help for solving issues experienced.


[10] Grönlund, K., K. Herne and M. Setälä (2015), “Does Enclave Deliberation Polarize Opinions?”, Political Behavior, Vol. 37/4, pp. 995-1020, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-015-9304-x.

[3] International Association for Public Participation (2018), IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation, https://iap2.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/2018_IAP2_Spectrum.pdf.

[9] Mercier, H. and H. Landemore (2012), “Reasoning Is for Arguing: Understanding the Successes and Failures of Deliberation”, Political Psychology, Vol. 33/2, pp. 243-258, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9221.2012.00873.x.

[8] OECD (2022), “Engaging citizens in cohesion policy: DG REGIO and OECD pilot project final report”, OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 50, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/486e5a88-en.

[2] OECD (2022), Open Government Review of Brazil: Towards and Integrated Open Government Agenda.


[4] OECD (2020), Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions: Catching the Deliberative Wave, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/339306da-en.

[1] OECD (2017), Recommendation of the Council on Open Government, http://acts.oecd.orgRECOMMENDATIONPUBLICGOVERNANCE (accessed on 18 February 2022).

[5] OECD (2016), Open Government: The Global Context and the Way Forward, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264268104-en.

[7] OECD (2009), Focus on Citizens: Public Engagement for Better Policy and Services, OECD Studies on Public Engagement, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264048874-en.

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