Over the last few years, there’s been a shift from top-down governance to more horizontally organised types of government. This new political current includes all the stakeholders of public policy projects, such as public organisations, businesses and citizens, into the decision-making process.

For instance, cities tap into their citizens’ wisdom through citizen engagement initiatives. The idea behind citizen engagement is that citizens should have some powers over the decisions that affect their lives. And even though the terms are often used interchangeably, citizen engagement is not entirely the same as citizen participation.

Citizen Engagement versus Citizen Participation

Both concepts might seem similar, but they have differing views of the role that citizens should play. The key difference is that citizen engagement requires an active, intentional dialogue between citizens and public decision makers whereas citizen participation can come from citizens only.

Municipalities vs. citizens

Citizen engagement and participation have the same goal: improving public service deliveries and policy projects.

However, both are not initiated by the same actors. Citizen engagement is a top-down initiative and is instated by a governmental body such as a city or a town. The city officials are the ones encouraging citizens to discuss, assess policies and contribute to projects. By contrast, citizen participation stems from the citizens themselves, and is thus a
bottom-up initiative.

Formal vs. informal

With citizen engagement, cities involve citizens in the decision-making process of public policies. To do so, they have to provide them with tools to consult and access public information, discuss with elected representatives and monitor the implementation of the projects.

As a consequence, if a city aims to engage with its citizens, it must integrate this engagement to its entire governance strategy. Only then, citizen engagement becomes a formalized procedure delimited by rules established by the city.

Citizen participation is a key instrument for citizens to voice their opinions about public policies, but it’s a rather informal process. It doesn’t require the city to come up with official rules since it is not its responsibility. However, because it’s unofficial, it cannot be applied to all policy projects. For instance, it is difficult to apply it to larger policies such as a participatory budget, that requires a higher level of inclusiveness and awareness.

Get started with Citizen Engagement

Do you want to tap into your citizens’ wisdom? Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today to discuss how we can help you get started with digital participation!

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