What is citizen participation?

Citizen Participation is the active involvement of citizens in the legislative decision-making process allowing them to contribute to decisions that may have an impact on their lives.

There are varying levels of participation as represented in the Citizen Participation Ladder. While it is in the form of a ladder, it is important to note that some levels of participation may be more effective than others at different stages of the legislative process, and that the objective of a citizen participation strategy should not necessarily be to empower citizens in every situation.

Informing citizens about the work of the parliament and raising citizens’ awareness of opportunities to participate in its work are important steps to enable effective participation. In the toolkit section on Educating Citizens and Promoting Participation, you’ll find various examples of initiatives designed to inform citizens. However, the toolkit section on Creating Opportunities for Citizen Participation focuses on the higher rungs of the ladder and contains various examples of initiatives designed to consult, involve, collaborate or empower citizens throughout the legislative process.

Why is it important?

In addition to meeting citizens’ expectations that their views should be considered in public decisions, citizen participation can contribute to:

  • Strong collective intelligence that provides a better analysis of potential impacts and broader range of considerations throughout the legislative process for overall higher quality outcomes
  • More inclusive and representative parliamentary decision-making
  • Increased trust and confidence of citizens in parliament
  • Strengthened legitimacy of, and co-responsibility for, decisions and actions
  • Improved understanding of the role of parliament and parliamentarians by citizens
  • Opportunities for citizens to communicate their legitimate interests
  • More accountable and transparent parliaments

What's the difference between citizens and civil society organizations?

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are not necessarily representative of citizens and can be defined to include all non-market and non-State organizations outside of the family in which people organize themselves to pursue shared interests in the public domain. Examples include community-based organizations and village associations, environmental groups, women’s rights groups, farmers’ associations, faith-based organizations, labour unions, co-operatives, professional associations, chambers of commerce, independent research institutes and the not-profit media. Citizen participation strategies should not be limited to CSOs but also include opportunities for citizens.


The legislative process generally consists of 6 stages, each of which is managed by various actors and can include opportunities for citizen participation. Considering the type of input sought at each stage and the responsibilities of corresponding actors can help determine an appropriate methodology and combination of mechanisms to effectively manage such participation.


Agenda setting: Establishing specific issues as public policy priorities

Responsible actors: Political parties, legislators, committees, presidency or board of the parliament, parliamentary caucuses, cabinet and public institutions

Possible engagement: Open-ended dialogue to identify issues and suggest legislative solutions


Content development of a bill: Determining the main component of a specific piece of legislation

Responsible actors: Cabinet and public institutions, legislators, committees

Possible engagement: Input on a specific issue and suggestions of legislative solutions


Drafting of a bill: Legal drafting of the text of a bill

Responsible actors: Cabinet and public institutions, legislators, committees, legislative counsel

Possible engagement: Input on the text to be included within a specific bill


Review of a bill: Study of the bill in committee and debate in plenary

Responsible actors: Committees, legislators

Possible engagement: Input based on the draft of a specific bill


Vote on a bill: Vote to adopt or reject a bill

Responsible actors: Legislators

Possible engagement: Poll of citizens’ views on a specific bill


Oversight: Assessment of the impact of existing laws and oversight of the actions of the executive branch of government

Responsible actors: Legislators, committees

Possible engagement: Open-ended dialogue on the implementation of government policy and/or input on the implementation of a specific policy, possibly as part of a specific investigation


Separate citizen participation strategies can be developed by various responsible actors for distinct stages of the legislative process and/or for issue-based processes. Such strategies need to consider any existing laws and regulations - including parliamentary standing orders - which may govern citizen participation. They can include a plan to promote opportunities for participation and provide incentives, in addition to identifying specific methodologies and mechanisms to be applied. Citizens can also be involved in the development of these strategies to create a sense of co-ownership and ensure that the strategies meet their expectations.

Political parties can focus on improving opportunities for citizens to contribute to the development of policy platforms.

Legislators can focus on improving their relationship with constituents by making themselves accessible and actively engaging in dialogue, including through constituency offices.

Committees can focus on inviting citizens to contribute to a specific issue or bill being studied when adopting their agenda.

Parliament through its committee responsible for procedures, citizen participation or internal management, can create opportunities for citizens to contribute at an institutional level (i.e. citizen proposals, citizen questions to the plenary or a committee, parliamentary portals, etc.) and create a menu of mechanisms that legislators and committees can apply in their work; parliament can also motion for committees to engage with citizens and allocate resources to support these efforts.

Parliamentary caucuses can focus on integrating citizens in defining their priorities and in the collection of frontline data.

Some resources and practical examples from the hemisphere are listed below.


The following principles can guide responsible actors in the development of strategies to enhance citizen participation in the legislative process.

Openness: Provide full information on, and be responsive with respect to, the purpose, scope, constraints, intended outcomes, processes, timelines, and actual results of participation, in addition to next steps.

Inclusiveness: Proactively use multiple mechanisms to reach out to and provide a safe space for all citizens, including those from traditionally marginalized groups, and voices that are seldom heard, without discrimination on any basis including nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or caste; recognize that different participation channels maybe more appropriate for different stakeholder groups; and consider public inputs objectively and irrespective of their source.

Respect for self-expression: Allow and support individuals and communities, including those that are directly affected, to articulate their interests in their own ways, and to choose the means of engagement that they prefer, while recognizing that there may be groups that have standing to speak on behalf of others.

Timeliness: Allow sufficient time in the various phases of the legislative process for the public to provide input; engage early while a range of options is still open; and, where desirable, allow for more than one round of engagement.

Accessibility: Facilitate public participation in general by disseminating draft bills, committee reports, and all other relevant data, in formats and using mechanisms that are easy for all to access, understand, and to use, re-use and transform; present information in a way that is relevant to citizens’ frame of reference

Transparency: Provide all relevant information to support each instance of public engagement, highlighting and informing key choices and trade-offs, identifying potential social, economic, and environmental impacts, and incorporating a diversity of perspectives; provide timely and specific feedback on public inputs and how they have been incorporated or not in bills.

Proportionality: Use a mix of engagement mechanisms that are proportionate to the scale and impact of the issue being considered.

Sustainability: Conduct on-going and regular engagement to increase knowledge sharing and mutual trust over time; institutionalize public participation where appropriate and effective; and regularly review and evaluate past experience to improve future engagement.

Complementarity: Ensure that mechanisms for public participation and citizen engagement complement and increase the effectiveness of existing governance and accountability systems.

Reciprocity: All state and non-state entities taking part in public engagement activities should be open about their mission, the interests they seek to advance, and who they represent; should observe any agreed rules for engagement; and should cooperate to achieve the objectives of the engagement.

The above is an adaptation of the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency’s Principles of Public Participation in Fiscal Policy.

Both financial and human resources are important components of a citizen participation strategy, and the lack of such resources can be a limiting factor. The application of new technologies are being explored to reduce some of the costliness of in-person mechanisms, however these can only be complimentary to human interaction. A digital divide still exists throughout the hemisphere, and moving to a completely digital system of participation would not be an inclusive approach. Additional ideas of cost-effective in-person mechanisms have been discussed throughout this toolkit, for example, the use of “pop-up” constituency offices in countries where constituencies are quite large or the cost of permanent infrastructure is not possible.

To support legislators’ efforts to further engage with citizens, parliaments can also provide services and training to legislators and committees on best practices and mechanisms available. This can include workshops and guides for legislators and staff on best practices to engage with citizens, and/or a parliamentary office with expertise on the subject to provide non-partisan advice and support.

A resource is listed below.


Next Section: Educating Citizens and Promoting Participation