Public Participation in Policy: A More Inclusive Approach to Decision Making

The field of policy making can be influenced by a host of government agencies, interest groups, associations, and social movements, both on a domestic and global scale (Pal, 2010). Considering that the range of players involved depends on the issue at hand, policy literatures have introduced the two concepts of policy community and policy network to capture the degree to which these players are involved in each policy area (Pal, 2010). Of the two, policy community refers to a wider set of actors who are interested and informed about a policy issue. While this latter group shares some common ideas, they may be opponents on an issue (Pal, 2010). In contrast, a policy network is a subset of a policy community, and it is referred to as a network of actors who have a higher level of interest in a policy issue with more regular interactions (Pal, 2010).

Policy networks are mainly focused on gaining an understanding of the relationship between state and society and how interests of a society are organized. One of the first concepts describing this relationship was the notion of “interest group pluralism” which assumes that individuals with similar interests would form groups and become the main actors in democratic politics by politicizing and lobbying the government (Pal, 2010). Early policy systems included very narrow and stable interest groups; however, with the growing complexity in policy issues, Hugh Heclo introduced the “issue networks” concept in 1978, which required the participation of policy experts and researchers during policy making processes (Pal, 2010).

Understanding policy communities and networks is crucial in policy development and implementation because it allows for sharing of information and aligning interests (Pal, 2010). The nature of relationships among participants is an important indicator of the quality of the policy outcome and is largely dependent on the structural rigidity of the government body as well as the skills and expertise of the actors in the network (Pal, 2010). Considering that a wider and connected policy network contributes to better policies through increasing the demand for information, governments today have a core responsibility to improve their organizational capacity to shift towards a more networked system (Pal, 2010). Managing networks in a policy community is about providing a way to cooperate and not imposing pre-determined solutions on others or building empty relationships (Pal, 2010). These issues can be addressed by gaining a better balance between traditional forms of governance and network practices, and ensuring that citizen participation is genuine and can influence policy outcomes (Pal, 2010).

Citizen participation in policy is especially important because many serious policy issues that we face today are not strictly technical, but are complex, involving social values and containing uncertainty (De Santo, 2016; Gastil, 2017). Therefore, decision makers should consider a range of knowledge/information types that reflects the diversity of public values (De Santo, 2016; Dietz, 2013; Health Canada, 2000; Jami & Walsh, 2017). Without consideration of economic, environmental, health, and other social concerns, policy decisions can create public opposition (Jami & Walsh, 2017). Alternatively, decisions that include input from all relevant stakeholders are less likely to cause resistance, and more likely to lead to successful policy (De Santo, 2016; Health Canada, 2000; Jami & Walsh, 2017).

Public participation in policy engages the broader public to provide input to decisions, take more ownership over outcomes, and help policymakers arrive at better and more legitimate decisions (Gastil, 2017; Jami & Walsh, 2017). Such participatory methods address the democratic right and growing desire of societies to hold more influence over decisions that affect them; this need is now recognized internationally, such as in the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (e.g., UNSDG 16.7) (De Santo, 2016; Health Canada, 2000; Jami & Walsh, 2017). Public participatory processes go beyond consultation—which is generally a top-down process with one-way information flow—to a deliberative process that engages policymakers and societies in dialogue with two-way information flow (De Santo, 2016; Gastil, 2017; Health Canada, 2000; Jami & Walsh, 2017). This two-way flow creates a collaborative relationship between the public and decision makers that, although more challenging to achieve, overcomes unbalanced power relationships where societies provide inputs that are not included in the final decision (Arnstein, 1969; Health Canada, 2000; Jami & Walsh, 2017).

Public engagement with policy promotes a good learning environment for public understanding of science on an issue, which can go beyond knowledge gains and lead to shifts in attitudes (Gastil, 2017; Jami & Walsh, 2017). Furthermore, participatory approaches address concerns of procedural justice; perceived fairness of the decision process is essential for meaningful engagement, as there is evidence that people are more likely to accept an undesirable policy outcome if the process of arriving at the decision is perceived as fair (Jami & Walsh, 2017; Lawrence, Daniels, & Steven, 1997). Finally, public participation promotes transparency, accountability, and credibility in decision makers, as they are able to form relationships with the public, which increases trust on both sides of the public-policy divide (De Santo, 2016; Health Canada, 2000; Jami & Walsh, 2017). Public participation is not, however, a panacea. Aside from being a relatively new technique that requires further study, it is also highly contextual, and requires significant time and resources (Gastil, 2017; Health Canada, 2000). Moreover, it can be difficult to ensure participation at times, which can result in a small minority of citizens holding disproportionate levels of power (Gastil, 2017; Jami & Walsh, 2017). The public can also be overwhelmed with information on complex issues, or have unrealistic expectations of how their inputs should be used in making the final decision (De Santo, 2016). Participation can even be instituted as a rubber stamp process that does not involve meaningful consideration of public values, or even be used as a delay tactic to postpone a pressing issue (Gastil, 2017).

For effective public participation, proper method design is important (De Santo, 2016). Engagement in decisions should take place as early on as possible, allowing all relevant stakeholders to be involved in the planning stages (De Santo, 2016; Jami & Walsh, 2017). Engagement should also be ongoing and continuous throughout the decision process, and be responsive to new information/inputs (De Santo, 2016; Health Canada, 2000). Another necessary component of engagement is granting citizens some form of access to policymakers, as well as some level of institutional power (De Santo, 2016; Gastil, 2017). Also crucial is the mode and quality of information exchange during the participation process. Information should be factual, credible, and timely, and must be communicated in a language that is easy for stakeholders to understand (Health Canada, 2000). One way to accomplish this is through the use of a knowledge broker—a neutral third party that communicates information between decision makers and the public to facilitate information flow and problem solving (De Santo, 2016; Gastil, 2017; Jami & Walsh, 2017). Additionally, although it is important to use two-way, discursive methods for communication, it may also be necessary to shift towards a more institutionally integrated way of solving complex problems, rather than operating in silos (Wakeford, 2010).



Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216-224. doi:10.1080/01944366908977225

De Santo, E. M. (2016). Assessing public “participation” in environmental decision-making: Lessons learned from the UK Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) site selection process. Marine Policy, 64, 91-101.

Dietz, T. (2013). Bringing values and deliberation to science communication. PNAS, 110(3), 14081-14087. doi:10.1073/pnas.1212740110

Gastil, J. (2017). Designing public deliberations at the intersection of science and public policy. In K. H. Jamieson, D. Kahan, & D. A. Scheufele (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of the science of science communication (pp. 233-242). New York: Oxford University Press.

Health Canada. (2000). Health Canada policy toolkit for public involvement in decision making. Ottawa: Health Policy and Communications Branch.

Jami, A. A., & Walsh, P. R. (2017). From consultation to collaboration: A participatory framework for positive community engagement with wind energy projects in Ontario, Canada. Energy Research & Social Science, 27, 14–24.

Lawrence, R. L., Daniels, S. E., & Steven, E. (1997). Procedural justice and public involvement in natural resource decision making. Society & Natural Resources, 10, 577-589. doi:10.1080/08941929709381054

Pal, L. A. (2010). Beyond policy analysis: Public issue management in turbulent times. Chapter 6, Policy communities and networks (pp. 237-283. 4th edition). Toronto: Thomson-Nelson.

Wakeford, T. (2010). Third-order thinking in science communication. Japanese Journal of Science Communication, 7, 87-93.


Authors: Curtis Martin and Maryam Fazeli


This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.


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