Citizen Engagement

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:

  1. Inform – To provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions.
  2. Consult – To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions.
  3. Involve – To work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.
  4. Collaborate – To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution.
  5. 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

Take Action

Policy and Planning

Develop a public engagement policy that ensures issues of engagement and participation are considered as part of all decision-making processes.

The In 2010, the Capital Regional District (CRD) developed a Public Participation Framework that articulated the CRD’s commitment to public participation process “in the development and delivery of public policies, programs, legislation and services.” The framework also commits the CRD to promoting “a consultative culture across all departments and divisions.” 

Support municipal staff in incorporating public engagement processes in the development of new initiatives.

In 2007, the City of Port Moody developed a Public Engagement Toolkit[.pdf]  to ensure that a resource was in place to provide a range of flexible public engagement options (used separately or in combination) to engage Port Moody residents in the activities and decision-making processes of the City.

Encourage ongoing engagement with the public in the formation of municipal strategies and programs.

In 2005, the Town of Gibsons initiated the Gibsons Community Dialogue[.doc]—a dialogue session held every month at the town office. Led by the chief administrative officer, who championed the idea, the sessions provide an opportunity for residents to discuss matters of general interest to the community or focus on current issues, bylaws, policies, or other matters under consideration by council. These dialogue sessions have not replaced formal decision-making processes but provide an opportunity for in-depth discussion of municipal issues and initiatives. 


Utilize engagement methods that ensure effective communication of civic information to citizens.

The District of Maple Ridge won an honourable mention from the UBCM for its use of social media to engage with citizens when the Fraser River crested to potentially dangerous levels in June 2012. The District’s website was quickly reconfigured to create a “one stop” portal for information and links to the BC River Forecast Centre, Environment Canada, and Facebook and Twitter pages. This supported first responders and field crews by providing up-to-the-minute information to citizens in their homes and offices.

Use unique strategies to involve youth and other hard-to-reach groups in decision-making.

In 2011, the City of Williams Lake initiated a junior council, composed of youth from the community, to play an active, on-going role in decision making. Junior council members meet regularly and have a special table to observe city council meetings. Members also participate in committees of city council where they have a voice but no vote. The junior council works to achieve yearly learning goals and to complete a project chosen by junior council members. Eighteen youth have participated in the junior council since its inception.

Utilize engagement methods that encourage ongoing participation and input into civic discussions and deliberations.

In response to recommendations from its Engaged City Task Force in 2012, the City of Vancouver established Talk Vancouver, an online space for civic participation. Talk Vancouver is the online home for a community panel of Vancouver citizens that provides ongoing, in-depth feedback on civic issues utilizing interactive survey and dialogue tools. Processes are in place to ensure that responses reflect the demographic composition of Vancouver.

Partnerships and Programs

Establish advisory groups and committees that can provide ongoing feedback and input into policies and decisions.

The City of Richmond has established the Richmond Community Services Advisory Committee to serve as an advisory body to city council on social, health and community matters. Membership is open to social service organizations operating in Richmond. The group works to identify and address emerging community concerns, create awareness about community issues by all levels of government, and support local community-based initiatives. Meetings are held monthly and are open to interested members of the public.

Develop relationships with bodies that may have overlapping interests to ensure that organizations work together to support the needs of communities.

Arts and Health Project: Healthy Aging through the Arts was an initiative developed in Vancouver and North Vancouver to provide vulnerable and marginalized seniors with community-engaged arts programming and to demonstrate the role that professionally led arts programs can play in the health and well-being of seniors. The project involved a number of partners, including the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, Vancouver Coastal Health, and a number of community associations and senior-serving organizations. The initiative, which operated from 2006 to 2009, involved weekly participatory workshops led by professional artists in various art forms, including writing and digital photography, digital video, puppetry and dance, and mixed-media visual arts. Yearly exhibitions and performances were used to highlight the works created.