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Public participation

Public Participation

Engaging individuals and groups in policy design and development, including consultation, collaboration and participatory decision-making.

On this page:

Why you should use it
What it involves
What you will get out of it
Ideal circumstances for use
Tools or concepts
Centre of expertise
References, guides and key readings

Public participation

  • Public participation in policy allows those who are affected by a decision to be involved in policy design, development and decision-making.
  • Public participation (according to the Institute for Public Participation) can involve:
    • informing – providing information to help people understand problems,  opportunities or issues, and alternative solutions
    • consulting – obtaining public feedback on analysis, alternatives or decisions
    • collaborating – partnering with the public in the design or decision-making process, including to identify alternatives or preferred solutions
    • empowering – placing decision-making in the hands of the public.
  • Public participation encompasses a range of traditional techniques that agencies use regularly (for example, providing information through a website or reports, consultation on draft policies or concepts), as well as leading techniques that are evolving (for example, online discussion forums or online voting).
  • Public participation is not limited to engagement with individual citizens – it also covers engagement with community groups, stakeholder and representative groups, businesses, academic institutions and more.

Why you should use it

  • Public participation can improve policy quality. Policy and services are increasingly being designed and delivered through greater collaboration with users or the broader public.  This helps to better understand problems and risks, and to craft solutions that are more likely to meet user needs.
  • Participation can improve legitimacy and impact. Decisions that arise from open and collaborative processes with strong user input can be more credible.
  • Participation is important when hard choices have to be made, when disruption may result, or when we want to govern what people and organisations can do.
  • It may be an administrative requirement, or strong recommendation. For example, the New Zealand Cabinet Guide and Cabinet Manual discuss the role of public consultation in respect of the role of Ministers and Cabinet. Consultation is also a component of Treasury’s Guide to Cabinet’s Impact Analysis Requirements, which relate to regulation.
  • It may be a legislative requirement. Public participation is required in a number of Acts, for example the Treaty of Waitangi, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act 2011, Local Government Act 2002, Land Transport Act 1993, Resource Management Act 1991 and New Zealand Public Health and Disabilities Act 2000.

What it involves

Public participation covers a range of activities that engage with the public. Each of the activities will have its own strengths and weaknesses, and its own rationale for use.

There are some considerations that apply to all forms of public participation:

  • Establishing a clear purpose – ensuring that the aims and boundaries of the participation are clear to all, and expectations and risks are managed.
  • Committing to process – following through and using the outcomes of participation in the way that you said you would.
  • Demonstrating ethical treatment, respect and sensitivity – understanding the individuals and groups involved in the participation and interacting with them in ethical ways that reflect awareness of their culture, circumstances and values.
  • Ensuring diversity, accessibility and inclusiveness – ensuring equal and fair access to the participation process by all appropriate groups and individuals.
  • Communicating and feeding back – providing accurate and timely information, and ensuring that participants understand how their participation has been translated into action or change.

Importantly, poor public participation can be worse than no participation at all. Policy practitioners need to carefully consider the risks and benefits, skills and competencies, timing and approach.

Specific approaches include public engagement, discourse, deliberation, digital engagement and participatory decision making.

What you will get out of it

  • Higher quality policy options, informed by a greater understanding of participants’ needs, concerns and priorities. In methods that involve higher levels of participant leadership, public participation can also lead to new options, and a greater confidence in the ranking of options.
  • Reduced political and operational risk, through improved 'road-testing' of policy options, and improved legitimacy through public engagement in the design process.
  • Engagement can be self-reinforcing, creating greater legitimacy and involvement in future engagement – especially when there is clear evidence of the link between participation and action.

Ideal circumstances for use

  • You are required to by law, or by administrative requirement.
  • You need to meet the obligations of the Treaty of Waitangi.
  • You need to gather perspectives on the problem, and ideas for solutions.
  • You need to test and refine ideas for creating more robust solutions, and to iron out potential issues in implementation.
  • You want to build legitimacy for tough or complex decisions, showing that the challenges and trade-offs were thoughtfully considered.


  • Consideration needs to be given in situations where decision-makers have not fully endorsed public participation, where issues are ethically or morally sensitive, or when other processes (e.g. Select Committees) are already considering the issues.
  • Consideration should also be given to the risks of 'consultation fatigue' amongst participants.

Tools or concepts

  • Informing – including providing information online and offline, providing 'open data', live streaming and broadcasting.
  • Consultation – including seeking feedback though working papers and drafts, community forums, group consultation and online consultation.
  • Deliberation – including citizen juries, 'town halls', physical and online debates, online discussion forums.
  • Collaboration – including online collaboration, shared workspaces, workshops, 'design jams' and 'hack days' and community co-design facilities.
  • Participatory decision-making – including plebiscites, online and offline voting.

Citizen juries

Centre of expertise

The Department of Internal Affairs leads on online engagement tools and approaches. Contact

References, guides and key readings

Discovery Workshops Conversation Tracker - The Policy Project ran two workshops to support its work to develop guidance for policy practitioners, to better enable public participation in policy making.

EngageTech Forum Conversation Tracker - The Policy Project produced this conversation tracker, which explores the key themes discussed by a panel of six people.

Online Engagement Advice - Department of Internal Affairs guide to online engagement.

Principles of Engagement - NZ Government principles for public engagement.

CabManual and CabGuide – Guidance from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on matters relating to Ministers and Cabinet, including requirements on public consultation.

Regulation - Impact Analysis - The Treasury’s guide to Cabinet’s requirements for regulatory proposals, including requirements and guidance on consultation.

Case Study – Christchurch Community Forum - Information about the Christchurch Community Forum which ran from 2011 to 2015, including its operation, challenges and successes.

Regenerate Christchurch - Regenerate Christchurch is an example of an agency using public participation techniques, ranging from traditional consultation to 'design jams'.

Ready Reference Engagement Guide - Office for the Community & Voluntary Sector - Supporting government agencies to engage effectively with citizens and communities.



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Last updated: 
Wednesday, 16 August 2017

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