Designing Public Participation Processes


By Mahtot Gebresselassie

Bryson, J. M., Quick, K. S., Slotterback, C. S. and Crosby, B. C. (2013), Designing Public Participation Processes. Public Administration Review, Vol. 73, pp. 23–34.

The article outlines research and evidence based, cross-disciplinary guidelines for designing public participation to offer guidance to practitioners. The 12 guidelines are grouped into three broad categories for creating, managing, and evaluating public participation activities.

1. Creating: Assess and design for context and purpose

  • When designing public participation, find out if participation is needed and can contribute to solving the problem at hand. Understanding the problem is crucial in designing as “different kinds of problems or challenges call for different solution responses” (P.25).
  • Make sure the public participation process is suitable for the context, both general (social, demographic, political, technological, physical) and specific (stakeholders, applicable mandates, resource availability of the organization). Clarify the purpose by involving stakeholders and regularly revisiting as the context may change when the process unfolds.“[A]rticulating purpose is not a one-shot exercise” (P.27).

2. Managing: Enlist resources and manage the participation

  • It’s important to conduct stakeholder analysis to identify who they are and how best to engage them. Vary approaches throughout the process to make their participation effective.
  • Legitimacy of the participation process is not granted automatically by both inside and outside stakeholders. To ensure legitimacy in the type of engagement and to create interactions that build trust, practitioners need to develop the purpose of engagement along with the public and to clarify the way in which public input will affect decision-making.
  • Successful public participation requires effective leadership. One way to effectively manage a process could be to give responsibility of solving problems to people who are dealing with them.
  • Identify resources needed to carry out the activity. Public participation can create additional resources, for example in the form of new information collected through public input.
  • In order to guide the process, “create an appropriate set of rules and a project management team structure to guide operational decision making, the overall work to be done, and who gets to be involved in decision making in what ways” (P. 28).
  • To increase diversity of participation, advertise the activity; provide language translation, childcare, transportation;and choose convenient time and place for various participants.
  • Power dynamics can happen in the form of competition between local and expert knowledge, or a small group of participants dominating the conversation. Managing it requires the effective integration of different types of knowledge and changing the format of the participation to avoid domination of the process by people who feel comfortable in a certain format.
  • Use various forms of technology to provide technical information to participants, collect their feedback, and enhance their interactions. At the same time, consider the limitations to access to technology.

3. Evaluating: Evaluate and redesign continuously

  • The authors say, “there is no single set of evaluation metrics for participation” (P. 30). Therefore, develop the evaluation process while you clarify the purpose of the public participation activity. Evaluation can examine implementation of the participation process and the impact of participation for decision-making. When there are multiple purposes in the process, focus on the most important outcome to evaluate.
  • Align elements (purpose, type of engagement, methods of engagement, technologies, resources and so on) of the participation process. Failing to do so might affect public trust, among causing other undesirable outcomes.

The article concludes by emphasizing that designing public engagement activities is complex and the detailed 12 design guidelines acknowledge and respond to the complexity.

(Feel free to send us articles that you would like to see in the future edition of this column. Send your suggestions to and include “TLDR” in the subject line.)

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