photo courtesy: Mara Zanette
Citizen engagement refers to approaches that enable community members to meaningfully participate in the decisions, actions and processes that shape their community. When citizens are actively involved in defining issues, developing alternatives, and selecting priorities for action, they are said to be “engaged.” Engagement can take place at the research, planning or implementation stages of a project or programi or as part of any process that is aimed at resolving community issues or developing strategies to address community problems.
What is this issue about?
Citizen engagement helps to create healthy communities by giving citizens a voice in the definition of the problem and development of solutions. Effective engagement processes can help build trust within communities, ensure efficient implementation of decisions, and result in better allocation of services.ii Engagement also has important by-products, including the development of a shared understanding about the overall community picture and enhanced community relationships.
Degrees of Engagement
There are a number of degrees of engagement. The International Association for Public Participation has developed a popular model that describes a spectrum of public participation using five distinct phases of higher-level citizen engagement—meaning that individuals are actively involved in the development of solutions to problems and issues in their community.iii
The five phases on the IAP2 Spectrum are:
- Inform – To provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions.
- Consult – To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions.
- Involve – To work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.
- Collaborate – To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution.
- Empower – To place final decision-making in the hands of the public.
The Canadian Institute of Planners states: “The ways in which information is gained, shared, and diffused among community members and stakeholders can vary widely; however, the end goal remains the same—to involve people in the processes and decisions that affect their lives."iv
Why is citizen engagement important for health and well-being?
Citizen engagement has been shown to produce better policy outcomes and is associated with better health and well-being in its own rightv. There is evidence to suggest that empowerment and engagement of individuals is, in and of itself, health promoting,vi and many studies show that health improves with the ability to control one’s circumstances and environment.vii Greater control over individual circumstances can improve personal outcomes and lead to a greater sense of well-being and a better quality of life.
Citizen engagement can result in greater efficiency because the involvement of those who are affected by decisions in the decision-making process can improve the quality of decisions, help create support for decisions, and support effective implementation of decisions.
Why does citizen engagement matter for local governments?
Local government is the level of government closest to citizens. A focus on improving citizen engagement can help improve decision making and the overall function of government. It can help improve buy-in by citizens in long-term decisions and build understanding about the trade-offs and dilemmas involved in community decision making.
In addition, studies indicate that citizens develop a greater sense of participation in civic life as a result of positive experiences with engagement. For example, municipal tax income increases with effective citizen engagement because morale and compliance are enhanced.viii, ix, x, xi