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Welcome to The Leaders’ Report: Increasing trust through citizen engagement.

Spanning over 50 countries this study provides a comprehensive, global overview of how government communicators are thinking about citizen engagement, the challenges they face, how they are addressing them, and what issues lie behind the challenges identified.

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  • France
  • Germany
  • Belgium
  • Luxemburg
  • Lebanon
  • Syria
  • Jordan
  • Qatar
  • Kuwait
  • Bahrain
  • UAE
  • KSA
  • Egypt
  • Tunisia
  • Morocco
  • Iraq
  • US
  • Singapore
  • Malaysia
  • Thailand
  • Indonesia
  • Myanmar
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • Hong Kong (SAR of China)
  • Taiwan (China)
  • China
  • UK
  • Canada
  • Australia
  • New Zealand

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It is clear from the communication professionals we spoke with and surveyed that citizen engagement continues to be an exciting area of development. However, the context in which the profession operates around the world poses significant challenges to delivering effective engagement to the public.

Geopolitical disorder, individualisation and permanent disruption have made an already challenging communication landscape harder still. Government and communication professionals both recognise the need to engage citizens and to establish a sense of shared purpose, collaboration and crucially trust. But these positive outcomes are counter-weighted by real risks: unpredictable publics equipped with new ways to share and amplify messages, engagement fatigue, and disappointed citizens all threaten to undermine the efficacy and legacy of engagement activities.

These global factors are compounding longer-standing challenges for communicators: the pressures on resource and the difficulties in securing buy-in from policymakers and politicians make meaningful engagement elusive in many situations.

Our research into the state of the field and the thinking of government communication professionals has led us to make several recommendations about how communicators should approach engagement activities. We identified a need to be more strategic in the opportunities organisations pursue, being mindful of limitations in resource and only commiting to engagement where activities can affect outcomes. In short, we recommend engaging on a higher level—but potentially less often, doing so more carefully and committing to follow through.

What follows are our key recommendations for how to achieve this balance. As with the rest of this report, these recommendations have their roots in the insights we have gained from consulting communication leaders and professionals from around the world. They are not presented here as a guide on how to conduct citizen engagement, but as learnings from professionals about what is already working well when partnering with the public to build a richer and more trusting citizen-state relationship.

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Make engagement meaningful

Government and citizens are not always in opposition and can meaningfully work together with the right support. Authorities must ensure that citizens’ contributions are acknowledged and meaningfully incorporated into decision-making.

Respondents to the research cited negative examples of public authorities:

  • Restricting citizen engagement to once every electoral cycle—invariably in the period preceding elections;
  • Using citizen engagement as a form of public relations—focusing activities on generating headlines rather than widening participation;
  • Prejudging citizen engagement—framing questions in a way that delivers for government the answers that it wants, rather than those that the public may want.

This raises significant risks to the credibility of government. Public authorities must ensure there is adequate buy-in within and between authorities, and acknowledge that they must be willing to delegate a degree of decision-making to citizens. The belief of respondents is that engaging citizens can improve the delivery and quality of public services, enhance the management of public finances, and lead to greater transparency, accountability and social inclusion—but only if that engagement is meaningful.

We believe that citizen engagement should only be used as part of a broader strategy where government can meet the following criteria:

Around the world, communication professionals are delivering effective engagement by building their strategies around core principles that ensure their activities meaningfully deliver for citizens throughout the process. We have consolidated these learnings into a strategic sequence that represents the best practice we found throughout our research:

  • Establish an effective range of approaches for citizen engagement. An effective organisation will be able to identify the most appropriate approach based on its longer-term objectives, resources, target audience and skills—and deploy accordingly;
  • Clarify what is and what isn’t in scope. Authorities must define clearly the topic for citizen engagement and what is or is not possible in a given framework. Ambiguity may lead to stakeholders working at cross purposes and lead to dissatisfaction with both the approach and results;
  • Give citizens the policy content. Successful engagement requires that citizens have access to the full range of relevant information required to enable them to make informed decisions. Participants require a commitment that their contribution will not lead to negative repercussions;
  • Coordinate engagement activities. The research suggests that public authorities continue to work within silos: few policies are developed under a single point of oversight. This creates challenges for effective citizen engagement as audiences may receive information from a range of different sources. Respondents to the research also spoke of the risk of ‘decision fatigue’ when citizen engagement is uncoordinated across governments and organisations;
  • Resource appropriately. Authorities must consider the level of resources required to run effective citizen engagement programmes. If insufficient resources are available, it may be best to use traditional communication methods.

Fight the right audience and engage them with sensitivity

One of the major challenges identified by our quantitative study was the need to balance the needs of the public and stakeholders with those of decision makers. Communication professionals clearly feel that care has to be taken to ensure that citizen engagement programmes are accessible to those most affected, and are not co-opted by vocal or resource-rich special interest groups. We found that the most successful cases of citizen engagement were underpinned by research, sensitivity to citizens’ needs and user-led design, consequently we recommend communicators undertake the following:

  • Scan the environment. Assess the landscape around the policy issue. Identify in advance those who have a view on or stake in the issue. Social listening tools can help identify where conversations are already taking place;
  • Target the appropriate audience. Not all communities have access to the same resources—or indeed the same appetite for participation. Citizens may feel marginalised if the ‘right’ people are not in the room or if special interest groups dominate. Be mindful that stakeholder groups are more likely to engage through representatives or spokespeople. Authorities must actively reach out to relevant community members to engage the right people in sufficient numbers;
  • Use mechanisms that work best for the audience, not the authority. Apply the principles of user-led design. Run activities when participants can most likely participate. The right engagement mechanism will depend on both the issue and the audience. For example, digital channels are unlikely to work in engaging people experiencing homelessness. Face-to-face meetings may not be suitable for geographically-dispersed communities;
  • Be culturally sensitive. Be mindful when designing activities that differences in language, culture and identify can affect everything from availability to willingness to participate. Take into consideration how target audiences perceive authority in general. Consider partnering with civil society organisations where they have higher levels of trust or legitimacy;
  • Follow up. Citizen engagement should never be regarded as an end in itself. For it to be meaningful and impact on trust levels, the outcome of citizen engagement must be explicitly acknowledged. Authorities should invest in communications that show citizens how their contribution has made a difference. Our research suggests that authorities fail to notify participants of the outcome of their involvement in more than 40% of cases.

Choose the right platform for your audience

Authorities should consider whether an analogue or digital approach is likely to be most successful, bearing in mind that technology can be a barrier to, as well as a bridge into, hard-to-reach audiences. The choice of platform will depend on whether the authority is seeking greater or lesser inclusivity; greater or lesser intensity of communication; and greater or lesser authority. The choice also depends on which areas of the communications ecosystem target audiences are most comfortable and confident with.

Examples of analogue activities include:

  • Public comment periods. The authority sets a time in which stakeholders can comment on a particular policy or issue before it is developed or decided;
  • Public hearings. The authority convenes sessions in which members of the public can meet with members of the authority in a physical place and voice their opinions;
  • Polling and surveys. The authority captures public sentiment through polls and surveys. These present a snapshot of views on an issue;
  • Collaborative and deliberative forums. The authority gathers more in-depth feedback on an issue by convening discursive sessions over an extended period of time with members of the public. Conversations are generally structured;
  • Expert advisory committees. The authority facilitates discursive sessions over an extended period of time, generally involving expert stakeholders;
  • Citizen panels and juries. The authority facilitates discursive sessions over an extended period of time involving a smaller number of people and more restricted set of issues;
  • Deliberative polling. The authority facilitates discursive sessions over an extended period of time, but participants will generally have been selected because they form a representative sample of the whole population;
  • Negotiated rulemaking. The authority tasks participants with reaching a consensus over the intended outcome or ‘next step’.

Digital activities are becoming increasingly common and include:

  • E-rulemaking, old and new. Examples include, e-petitions and e-referenda via platforms such as;
  • Online dialogues. One-off discursive forum around a policy issue;
  • Tools for autonomous online collaboration. The public connect and collaborate with one another online in order to achieve a specific goal or outcome.

The activities an authority may choose will depend on the topic; the range of voices that need to be included, the size of budget, time and other resources available; and the degree of discussion required for citizens to make an informed decision.

Commit to acting on the findings

Citizen engagement is a commitment to sharing power with the public. Our research showed that this cultural shift is often difficult for authorities to make. The research also suggests that there are reputational risks of running citizen engagement activities that appear not to take into account public inputs. Only 8% of respondents said their organisation always commits to acting on the findings—a major barrier to more effective engagement.

Public authorities can demonstrate greater commitment to citizens by:

  • Defining the task and the ask correctly. Manage citizens’ expectations by clearly setting out what is being asked of them and what is likely to happen as a result;
  • Committing to actively considering the results of the public’s input. Authorities need to listen and respond to citizens’ input, this means allowing enough time and having enough buy-in to do so;
  • Always communicating outcomes. In doing so, authorities must explain why decisions were made and actions taken or not taken.

In advance of any engagement activities, authorities must ask themselves:

  • Have they thought through the potential consequences of citizen input?
  • How will they react/deal if responses don’t align with their point of view, objectives or expectations?
  • Are they talking to the right people? What steps will ensure the programme isn’t hijacked by special interests?
  • How can citizens navigate technical or knowledge-based barriers?
  • Is there sufficient information to ensure that citizens are making an informed decision and understand the possible implications?

Governments and public authorities must understand the boundaries to the influence it is giving citizens before embarking on any engagement activity. And it is critical that these limits are communicated to and understood by participants. Authorities should not seek public input where there is no intention to act on the findings.

Develop the necessary skills to deliver citizen engagement

Citizen engagement represents a significant development in existing government communication skill set and capability. Ensuring that engagement activities are culturally embedded in an organisation is one of the primary challenges facing authorities and practitioners alike: only a third of respondents working in government organisations said they were able to coordinate effectively with policy.

Organisations should not assume that the skill set required for citizen engagement sits within existing communication functions: designing, structuring and implementing engagement activities requires skills from project management through to policy development. It also requires increased:

  • Training. Effective citizen engagement requires investment in distinct training programmes. It should not be viewed as an organic extension of existing communication functions;
  • Knowledge sharing. Organisations must share their own best practices across government. Refining and developing approaches can only take place when organisations have a granular picture of what has or hasn’t worked and why;
  • Collaboration. Responsibility for citizen engagement should be shared and not seen as the sole concern of the communications function.

Evaluate against policy outcomes

Respondents stated that a key barrier to improving the performance of citizen engagement activities is a lack of effective evaluation. Without it, respondents were unable to identify which engagement activities were successful and which were not.

Tactical evaluation

Our research uncovered a series of approaches that communicators are beginning to use to measure their activities. These individual activities should be developed into a full evaluation framework for citizen engagement and include:

  • Participant surveys. Participant feedback is a key measure of an activity’s success at an operational level. Authorities should seek to identify fully the participant experience, areas to improve, and areas that participants felt to be particularly useful;
  • Pre- and post-activity surveys.These can measure impact provided there is a large enough sample size aware of the policy developments;
  • Proxy measurements. The success or otherwise of citizen engagement activities should be measured against important proxies such as trust, integrity and competence.

Strategic evaluation

While the above can help communicators gauge whether a policy was, or series of policies were, effective, they are general—rather than comprehensive—indicators of whether engagement activity is truly effective.

Strategic frameworks can help bridge the insights gap between data points that are either too large to offer meaningful attribution or too granular to ascertain impact on trust.

Authorities should consider using an evaluation framework that can measure engagement levels across a number of critical areas to understand the bigger picture of trust. These frameworks allow government to identify and then target the factors most pertinent to the relationship they have with their public.

The World Bank strategic framework for mainstreaming citizen engagement

The World Bank developed a strategic framework to incorporate stakeholder feedback into its operations and service delivery. It is guided by five key principles:

  • 1) It is results-focused;
  • 2) It involves engaging throughout the operational cycle;
  • 3) It seeks to strengthen country systems;
  • 4) It is context-specific; 
  • 5) It is gradual.

The strategic framework has helped the World Bank deliver more relevant programming, with a significant increase in projects using citizen-led design.

For more on this framework, please see