Over the last years, there has been a shift from a top-down governance to a more horizontal governance. This new way of governing includes all the stakeholders of a public policy project, such as public organisations, businesses and citizens, into the implementation 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. Yet, it is important to distinguish it from citizen participation. 

Citizen Engagement vs. Citizen Participation

Citizen engagement requires an active, intentional dialogue between citizens and public decision makers. Citizen participation and engagement are very similar, yet very different, partnering approaches with citizens.

citizen engagement vs. citizen participation

Citizen Engagement vs. Citizen Participation

Implementation initiative

Citizen engagement and participation have the same goal- i.e. improving public service deliveries and policy projects. However, both are not initiated by the same actors. Indeed, citizen engagement is a top-down initiative. Hence, it is implemented 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 the projects. On the contrary, citizens implement citizen participation which is a bottom-up initiative.


With citizen engagement, cities directly involve citizens in the decision making process of public policies. To do so, they 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  wishes 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, even though it is a key instrument for citizens’ to voice their opinions about public policies, is rather an informal procedure. It does not require the city to come up with official rules since it is not its responsibility. However, because it is unofficial, it cannot be applied to all policy projects. For instance, it is difficult to apply to larger policies such as a participatory budget that require higher level of inclusiveness and awareness.

The Case for Citizen Engagement

Increasing accountability & transparency 

Citizen engagement is a powerful democratic tool to increase accountability and transparency. Indeed, citizens who participate to the implementation of public projects trust policies and public officials more.

Participatory Budgeting New York City

Example: Participatory Budgeting, New York City  

With a participatory budget, citizens have the opportunity to allocate resources, prioritize social policies, and monitor public spending. It is an important policy process for inclusive and accountable governance. New York City has the largest participatory budget of the United States both in terms of participants and budget amount.

Reaching an agreement 

By sharing opinions freely on public projects, stakeholders can build a relationship of trust and understanding, even though they might have opposing views. Also, it has been shown that public spaces nurture a more reasoned and public-interest oriented discussion. Citizens understand each other’s reasons better and come to an agreement more easily.

Example: NESC, Ireland

Citizen Engagement CorkSeveral countries have implemented multi-stakeholders organisations to improve their policy decision-making process. The National Economic and Social Council (NESC) is a multi-stakeholders body that engages civil society organizations, businesses, unions… to advise the Irish Prime Minister on projects related to social and economic development.

Enhancing Citizens’ Quality of Life

By tapping directly into the knowledge of citizens, policies are more likely to address the real needs of the communities. This is particularly relevant when the projects involve several actors and are too complex for the government to solve by itself. Also, citizen engagement can enhance citizens’ sense of responsibility over the projects. They might be more willing to participate in the project implementation and monitoring.

Example:  MOPA, Mozambique

MOPA Citizen engagement

MOPA Citizen Engagement Platform

MOPA is a mobile app that citizens can use to report issues with the waste management service. Collected data is sent via an open-source map to the city council which hires private waste collection companies to collect the waste. With MOPA, households in low-income areas can request services that are not provided to them regularly. Citizen engagement and the collaboration of several actors of the city management result in better service delivery and higher quality of life for all.

Are you looking into enhancing Citizen Engagement?

Even though citizen engagement is a quite recent practice to engage citizens, it already has been implement in several countries around the globe. Yet, it is important to distinguish it from citizen participation as it is a more formal top-down approach. Governments can adopt it for many reasons such as increasing governance’s accountability & transparency, reaching a consensus on projects more easily and, especially, because it helps enhancing citizens’ quality of life.

If you want to tap into your citizens’ wisdom, we would be happy to show you our online platform, CitizenLab. Cities can use our online citizen engagement platform to co-create with their citizens and get the most out of their ideas about their city!