Participatory Policy-Making Print E-mail

Author: Jennifer Rietbergen-McCracken, Independent international researcher and expert on environment and development

Participatory policy-making is more of a general approach than a specific ‘tool’, as the overall goals, no matter which method is followed, are to facilitate the inclusion, via consultative or participative means, of individuals or groups in the design of policies, and to achieve accountability, transparency and active citizenship. The push for this participatory process can be top-down (i.e. by the government/organization initiating participatory approaches to policy-making) or bottom-up (i.e. by particular stakeholder groups advocating a participatory approach or seeking to influence a specific policy). There are also cases where external bodies (notably donors) are responsible for proposing such an approach. In this respect, it should be stressed that while governments (and international development organizations) have a large part to play in opening political space, creating the right conditions, and setting up the necessary structures and processes to enable participatory policy-making, civil society organizations (CSOs) also have an important role to play in raising awareness about the issues at stake, helping citizens and communities organize themselves, and advocating for more participatory policy-making.

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What is it?

What is it?

The extent to which participatory policy-making involves real, meaningful participation varies considerably from case to case, and a continuum can be drawn up to illustrate the levels of participation achieved. One such continuum, outlined in an FAO document (Karl, M., 2002), suggests seven different levels:

  • Contribution: voluntary or other forms of input to predetermined programmes and projects.
  • Information sharing : stakeholders are informed about their rights, responsibilities and options.
  • Consultation: stakeholders are given the opportunity to interact and provide feedback, and may express suggestions and concerns. However, analysis and decisions are usually made by outsiders, and stakeholders have no assurance that their input will be used.
  • Cooperation and consensus building : stakeholders negotiate positions and help determine priorities, but the process is directed by outsiders.
  • Decision making : stakeholders have a role in making decisions on policy, project design and implementation.
  • Partnership: stakeholders work together as equals towards mutual goals.
  • Empowerment: transfer of control over decision-making and resources to stakeholders.

Similarly, participatory policy-making can be limited to a one-off exercise for a particular policy process, or can be part of a systemic participatory governance approach by the organization/government in question including in some cases, permanent structures such as committees that include citizens’ groups, community members, etc. The policy itself can be a local, national or international and the participatory element can relate to the design, monitoring, evaluation or reform of the policy.

This write-up will focus mainly on the those approaches which have a stronger participatory component i.e. levels four to seven of the above continuum and will include both ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ cases. Indeed, many of the tools mentioned can be initiated either by the ‘policy-owning’ government/organization or by the CSOs as they aim to widen the debate and, possibly, the decision-making process.

The write-up does not cover confrontational approaches or ‘tools’ used by some CSOs, such as litigation, boycotts, strikes and demonstrations. These approaches have proved effective in reforming inequitable policies and legislation such as for e.g. on land tenure and changing the way in which private companies operate. However, they are more often used only when other participatory approaches have failed. A few of these tools are covered elsewhere in the CIVICUS toolkit. Furthermore, the write-up does not cover participation of CSOs in international policy-making since the processes and actors at transnational level are quite different from those at the national or local level. Readers wanting more information on participation in international-level policy-making can refer to Oberthür et al. (2002), IISD (1998) and O’Brien (2001).

The following list illustrates the kinds of tools most commonly used in participatory policy-making: More information on these tools is available at OECD (2001).

  • Information-sharing tools: Draft policy documents or progress reports on existing policies can be shared via traditional media such as radio, television, newsletters etc. and electronically through websites and emails as well as via more interactive communication like setting up an information stall in a public space such as a library or market or establishing a telephone information line. Information can also be shared by teaming up with civil society organizations like citizen groups or unions who can channel the information to their members.
  • Consultation tools: These includea wide range of tools starting with discussion forums such as round tables, public hearings, town meetings and focus groups, electronic conferencing, surveys (in-person or electronic) to other feedback mechanisms like for e.g. public opinion polls or comment periods on a draft policy, and tools for more continuous consultation such as for e.g. citizen’s panels and advisory committees of interest group representatives.
  • Active participation tools: These tools are related to levels four to seven in the participation continuum described above and involve citizens and communities helping to set the policy agenda, shape the dialogue and propose policy options, although the final decision still rests with the government. Examples of those tools most commonly used by the ‘policy-owning’ governments/organizations include ones that involve a small number of stakeholders who are not experts on the policy issue (e.g. consensus conferences and citizen juries), ones that include expert publics (e.g. tripartite commissions and joint working groups), and ones that promote broader public engagement (e.g. participatory vision and scenario development, citizens’ forums and dialogue processes). Wakeford (2001) outlines some of these tools including focus groups, consensus conferencing, citizen’s juries and scenario workshops. Other tools in this category more commonly initiated by CSOs and other ‘external’ stakeholders include campaigns, partnerships and alliances, and policy research that is then fed into a broad dialogue process.

How is it done?

How is it done?

This section will outline one generic example of a process that could be implemented by a government or by an international development organization to make their policy-making more participatory, followed by a few examples of CSO led approaches such ad campaigns, partnerships, and participatory policy research.

Most of the tools mentioned above are covered elsewhere in the CIVICUS toolkit, and instead of repeating the guidance provided in these other write-ups, this section will start with a few pointers on which tools are appropriate for different situations of participatory policy-making.

Which tools to use when?

  • Engaging directly with rural citizens and communities: Rural populations are often disadvantaged in terms of their involvement in national level policy-making due to their remote location, lack of communications infrastructure, and the general tendency of governments to focus more on the interests and concerns of their urban constituencies. Tools that can be particularly useful in bringing the voice of rural citizens to the table include interactive radio drama, participatory video, consultation meetings held in the communities and many of the ‘participatory rural appraisal’ type techniques such as community mapping, visioning, ranking, etc. IIED’s ‘power tools’ website is an excellent source of information and guidance on tools for enabling rural communities to help influence natural resource policy.
  • Engaging directly with urban citizen: Information sharing tools are easier to use in urban areas as more people have access to mass media and ICT-based communication tools like websites or blogs. Dialogue tools are sometimes easier to apply in an urban setting as there are more opportunities to bring together groups of people from different backgrounds and more opportunities for people to have a voice in matters of public interest. Tools such as town hall meetings, citizen juries and public hearings are particularly appropriate for urban settings though these have also been used effectively in rural village settings.
  • Engaging with citizens’ representative bodies: Some tools are designed for use where participation is focused on or channeled through intermediary bodies such as NGOs, community groups, unions, or organizations representing particular interest groups (such as women or indigenous people). These include advisory committees and multi-stakeholder dialogues, as well as longer-term approaches such as partnerships for information sharing or consultation or advocacy strategies developed by the interest groups themselves.

One example of a government led participatory policy-making process

The general process outlined below illustrates how a ‘policy-owning’ government or development organization could seek broad participation in the design of a particular policy.

  1. Identify the stakeholders to be involved who could include CSOs, the private sector, community organizations, local leaders, and particular interest groups and do an initial analysis of their interests, influence and capacities;
  2. Establish some kind of working group that would include representatives of the above stakeholder groups;
  3. Organize a series of consultationand dialogue forums in order to inform a broad range of stakeholders that may be interested or affected by the policy in question and to elicit their feedback. These consultation and dialogue activities may be run jointly with or delegated to some of the representative intermediary organizations identified in step 1;
  4. Design and implement a process whereby the working group can collect and analyze information on the policy issues at stake, including direct feedback from the activities of step 3 and other more participatory and interactive methods as appropriate and as well as review of secondary data, interviews with key policy-makers, etc.;
  5. Arrange for a number of reporting back sessions to bring the findings of step 4 back to the policy-makers and other decision-makers within the government/organization, and to enable them to reflect on the implications of these findings for the policy design;
  6. Facilitate a high-level workshop to hammer out the policy options and decide on the way forward; and
  7. Devise and implement communication strategy to inform the general public and the particular stakeholder groups about the outcomes of the participatory process and the progress in finalizing the policy.

Examples of CSO-led tools

Three examples of tools whereby CSOs themselves can help support participatory policy-making are campaigns, partnerships and participatory policy research. They are outlined very briefly below:

  • Campaigns: The focus of many advocacy NGOs, campaigns can serve several functions including raising awareness among the general public about the policy issue at hand, mobilizing action such as consumer boycotts or citizens’ petitions, and pressurizing governments to act on the issues and take on board the views expressed through these campaigns. Environmental, health and rights-related issues are among the most common subjects of such campaigns in both developed and developing countries. A good source of case studies of policy-oriented campaigns is available from a recent IDS study. More case studies are available in IIED (2002) and analyses of lessons learned and tips on evidence-based policy advocacy and citizen participation are provided in Court et al. (2006), Hine (2008) and Clark (2003).
  • Partnerships: CSOs are increasingly forming partnerships among themselves or with government bodies or private sector companies in order to influence policy-making at various levels. For example, numerous NGO consortiums and networks are actively advocating international policy reform while other NGOs are working very closely with government to review or even help draft national policy and legislation. The latter approach has sometimes been criticized as compromising the independence of the NGOs concerned, although if handled carefully, it can be a powerful means of exerting influence. For case studies of NGOs establishing policy-oriented partnerships, see for example Risley (2004) and Pallacio and Hurtado (2008).
  • Participatory policy research: Policy research has been used by NGOs and other stakeholder groups to promote and inform participatory policy-making. In the most effective cases, the policy research itself has been undertaken in a participatory manner to bring the voice of ordinary citizens and communities to the attention of policy-makers. To have a real impact on the policy design or reform, the research needs to involve key policy-makers from the start and needs to be integrated into a formal policy review process. For more information on the role of participatory research in policy-making, see for example IIED, (1996) for many CSO-led cases and Ehrhart, (2004) for two government-led cases.


The benefits of participatory policy making include (Veit and Wolfire 1998):

  • Better informed policies: Policy making or policy reform requires diverse and complex information and expertise. Participation usually brings a wider range of information, ideas, perspectives, and experiences to the process. In the case of environmental policies for example, local people, as principal resource users and managers, often possess important practical knowledge that helps ensure the long-term productivity of the natural resource base. Similarly, CSOs have a wealth of information about local needs and potential. At the same time, local researchers and other professionals can contribute valuable research results and scientific information to better understand the complexities of the issues at hand.
  • More equitable policies: Policies that have been designed with attention to local peoples’ needs are more likely to be equitable and fair. This is particularly important where badly designed policies would have a negative impact on the poor or on other disadvantaged groups.
  • Strengthened transparency and accountability: The participatory process can have wider ramifications for the ‘policy-owning’ body as it helps create an institutional culture of openness and service. The process also encourages greater public attention to the way in which the policy is implemented, thus promoting accountability.
  • Strengthened ownership: By involving a broader set of stakeholder groups in the design or reform of the policy, the participatory process will help strengthen their ownership and support for the policy and this in turn will promote more effective implementation.
  • Enhanced capacity and inclusion of marginalized groups: Where participatory policy-making has brought neglected stakeholder groups to the table or at least given them a voice, the process can help empower these groups in a small way to stand up for their rights and make their concerns known. The process can also contribute to changes in power relations between the various constituencies involved particularly, if special efforts have been made to include more marginalized groups.
  • Enhanced government capacity: The participatory process may well have been a new one for the government body or development organization and can help build their capacity to recognize multiple views and address diverging perspectives. This new experience and the practical skills gained by those involved in implementing the process will help in future interactions with the different stakeholder groups.
  • Common understanding: Finally, participatory policy making can help promote a common understanding around complex, misunderstood or even contentious issues.

Challenges and lessons

The challenges and risks of participatory policy making include:

  • Time and resource needs: Participatory policy making will always take more time and can be costly, especially when large groups of stakeholders are involved;
  • Raising expectations: Asking for people’s input into the policy making process is likely to raise their expectations of having their views taken into account; this is not always possible and these limitations need to be clearly spelled out from the beginning;
  • Creating conflicts: The participatory process can trigger conflicts among the different stakeholder groups, by bringing opposing views out into the open and exposing any underlying tensions; also, if participation fails to include some groups that feel they should have been consulted, this can lead to conflict and opposition to the process; finally, the process can create divisions within the NGO community if different groups take different positions on the policy issue
  • Loss of independence: By becoming closely involved with a government led process, CSOs can risk losing (or appearing to lose) their independence. This can have serious repercussions in terms of their credibility; and
  • Political risks: The flip side of the above risk is that, by getting involved in policy advocacy, the CSOs can be seen by government to be interfering in political matters and a threat to the smooth running of ‘government matters’.

Any CSO considering becoming involved in a participatory policy-making process would need to prepare itself well in order to avoid the types of risks mentioned above. Some suggestions in this regard are:

  • Choose your battles: Not all policies need your participation and you need to be strategic in choosing those which are of particular importance to your cause and where you can make a real difference;
  • Define your role: What are your strengths and weaknesses, what are your capacities; how close do you want to get to the policy-making body?
  • Do your homework: Develop a good understanding of the policy issue, analyze the dynamics involved (who stands to win, who to lose, what interests are at stake);
  • Plan your participation: Which stakeholder groups do you need to involve? Which ones need particular attention? What participatory methods are you going to use? What is the best timing of the participatory process, in order to maximize its impact on the policy?
  • Hone your skills: Focus on the skills needed for the job like for e.g. those required for negotiating, lobbying, communication, capacity-building, or the use of participatory techniques.

Key Resources

Key Resources

Clark, C. (2003). Making Change Happen: Advocacy and Citizen Participation. ActionAid, IDS and Just Associates.

A report of a workshop on this theme, that includes useful lessons learned and recommendations for effective advocacy.

Court, J., Mendizabal, E., Osborne, D., Young, J. (2006). Policy Engagement: How civil society can be more effective. ODI, London.

This report provides strategic and practical advice for CSOs on how they can engage more effectively in policy processes, through evidence-based advocacy.

Ehrhart, C. (2004). Challenging and Changing the Big Picture: The roles of participatory research in public policy planning. In PLA Notes 49, April 2004. IIED, London.

A short paper on participatory, policy-oriented research (Participatory Poverty Assessments) in Tanzania and Uganda.

Food and Agricultural Organization(FAO):. ‘Participation’ website.

This site is a ‘one-stop shop’ for information on participatory approaches. It includes a searchable library covering a wide range of issues and numerous case studies, and a comprehensive section on participatory approaches and tools, in both English and French (type ‘policy’ in the search box to access those tools most relevant to participatory policy-making). It also includes databases on organizations and other websites for further information.

Health Canada (2000). Policy Toolkit for Public Involvement in Decision-Making.

A comprehensive guide for government officials on how to engage citizens actively in policy-making. Includes many tools, categorized by the level of participation they afford.

Hine, C. (2008). Evidence-Based Advocacy in Development Practice:Experiences from HelpAge International in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Glocal Times 10, February 2008. Malmö University, Sweden.

This web magazine article describes examples of experiences in evidence-based advocacy from Help Age’s programmes in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and suggests some key ingredients for successful evidence-based advocacy.

Holmes, T. and Scoones, I. (2001). Participatory environmental policy processes: experiences from North and South. In PLA Notes 40. IIED, London.

An abridged version of a longer paper, including an annotated listing of cases from both developed and developing countries.

International Development Resource Centre: Participatory policy-making in Nepal

A web article on the participatory development of a national policy for the information technology sector in Nepal.

Institute of Development Studies: Participation and National Policy

A web portal with eight downloadable case studies from a research project that ran from 2004 to 2007, looking at how citizen engagement with the state can contribute to pro-poor national policies.

International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED): ‘Power Tools’

An excellent source of information and guidance on tools for enabling rural communities to help influence natural resource policy. The site includes clear and concise ‘how-to’ advice on 26 tools, available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

IIED (2002). PLA Notes 43. Advocacy and Citizen Participation.

An issue of IIED’s ‘Participatory Learning and Action’ Notes (an informal journal on participatory techniques and approaches) focusing on the use of advocacy approaches by civil society groups.

IIED (2001). PLA Notes 40. Deliberative Democracy and Citizen Empowerment.

This issue of PLA Notes is dedicated to techniques that engage the public in policy formulation, and includes both case studies from around the world and more critical and analytical pieces.

IIED (1996). PLA Notes 27. Participation, Policy and Institutionalisation. October 1996. IIED, London.

This issue of PLA Notes includes a special section that looks at how PRA can be used to influence policy and how participatory approaches can become part of an organisation’s culture. Articles are drawn from three workshops on these themes.

International Intsitute for Sustainable Development (1998). Participatory Policy-making. Developing Ideas Digest Idea 3.

A brief discussion of CSO participation in United Nations conferences and processes.

Karl, M. (2002). Participatory Policy Reform from a Sustainable Livelihoods Perspective: Review of concepts and practical experiences. LSP Working Paper 3, Participation, Policy and Local Governance Sub-Programme. FAO, Rome.

A review of how a sustainable livelihoods approach can be helpful in developing participatory policy-making, this document also includes numerous cases with lessons learned.

Oberthür, S, Buck, M., Müller, S., Pfahl, S., Tarasofsky, R.G. (2002). Participation of Non-Governmental Organisations in International Environmental Co-operation: Legal Basis and Practical Experience. Erich Schmidt Verlag GmbH & Co, Berlin.

The book "Participation of Non-Governmental Organisations in International Environmental Co-operation" analyses the importance of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the relationship between the legal basis and the practical influence of NGOs in different areas of international environmental governance.

O’Brien, R. (2001). Enabling civil society participation in global policy-making: The APC and the United Nations. Association for Progressive Communications.

A short web article on the use of Internet and Communication Technology to assist CSO participation in global policy-making.

OECD (2001). Citizens as Partners: OECD handbook on information, consultation and public participation in policy-making. OECD, Paris.

A practitioner’s guide designed for use by government officials in informing, consulting and engaging citizens during policy-making. It also includes a user-friendly section on tools and practical tips on how to use them.

O’Ryan, R. and del Valle, A. (1996). Managing Air Quality in Santiago: What needs to be done? Estudios de Economia No. 23, August 1996.

A paper proposing solutions to Santiago’s air quality problem, with a brief mention of a participatory process undertaken to develop possible policy options.

Pallacio , D.C. and Hurtado, R. (2008). Social-Networks to Defend Bogota’s Wetlands: A participatory policy building effort for urban protected areas. Ecocity World summit 2008 proceedings.

A case study of how joint action by residents’ associations helped create a participatory conservation policy in Bogota, Colombia.

Risley, A. (2004). Citizen Participation in Policy Making: Comparative Perspectives on Civil Society Networks and Coalitions.” American Political Science Association annual meeting, Chicago, September 2004.

A review of civil society alliances to influence policy in Latin America, focusing on the joining together of NGOs advocating childrens’ rights in Argentina and Chile.

Robb, C.M. (2002). Can the Poor Influence Policy? Participatory Poverty Assessments in the Developing World (Second Edition). IMF and World Bank, Washington, D.C.

As well as providing a status report on the use of Participatory Poverty Assessments (PPAs) and their impact on poverty reduction strategies, this report also provides methodological guidance based on best practice examples.

Schnell, S., Poulsen, P., Condy, A., Tertsunen, M. and Holland, J. (2006). Principles for PSIA Process in Policy Cycles and Stakeholder Participation. GTZ and DFID.

Although this document focuses on the use of Poverty and Social Impact Analyses (PSIA) to inform and enable participatory policy-making, it includes practical guidance of more general relevance for those groups responsible for commissioning, implementing and facilitating such participatory policy-making.

SDD (2006). PPA Evaluation and Recommendations for the Poverty Monitoring System in Tanzania: Final Report. Social Development Direct, London.

An evaluation report of the Tanzania Participatory Poverty Assessment, with some information on the methods used and comments on the achievements of the participatory research.

Tanner, C. (2002). Law-Making in an African Context: the 1997 Mozambican Land Law. FAO Legal Papers Online No. 26, March 2002.

A detailed paper on the development of Mozambique’s land law, with a mention of the consultative and participatory process.

Wakeford, T. (2001). A selection of methods used in deliberative and inclusionary processes.

A brief summary of some of the participatory policy-making tools mentioned in this write-up, with links to cases studies that are included in PLA Notes 40 – an issue dedicated to techniques that engage the public in policy formulation (see IIED, 2001).

Case Studies

Case studies

Participatory research to influence poverty reduction policy in Tanzania
A Participatory Poverty Assessment (PPA) led by the government was conducted in Tanzania during 2002-2003 as part of a national level poverty monitoring system. The PPA methodology was developed by the World Bank as a means of informing poverty reduction strategies and ensuring that these strategies reflect the priority needs of poor people.The Tanzania PPA focused on exploring the causes, consequences, and policy implications of ‘vulnerability’ and involved field research in 30 sites across the country, selected on the basis of representing different livelihood conditions. Research teams were made up of six people from local and central government, as well as national and international civil society organizations, and they lived for up to three weeks in each site. The participatory research methods used included typical Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) tools such as focus group discussions with different social groups (e.g. children or people living with HIV/AIDS), community mapping, transect walks, and preference ranking. Through these techniques, the researchers sought to learn about the range of conditions people face, as well as their concerns, competing priorities, success stories etc.

The findings of the PPA and the policy implications were produced in English and Swahili and presented at a ‘poverty policy week’ that helped to shape the government’s poverty reduction policy reforms, particularly on issues such as the proportion of district revenue retained by wards and the burdensome multiple local taxes. For more information on this case, see Ehrhart (2004) and SDD (2006) under Key resources.

An ICT approach to participatory policy-making in Nepal
The government of Nepal chose to adopt a participatory approach to the development of a national policy for the country’s information technology (IT) sector. The year-long policy design process during 1999-2000 started with a series of informal consultations with members of the IT industry by the high-level government official responsible for the policy. The consultations helped them to learn about the sector, gauge important concerns and map key issues. This led to the formation of a Steering Committee composed of members from the government, private sector, and non-governmental research institutes. The Steering Committee commissioned six strategy papers from multi-stakeholder consultative groups. These papers were then published on an internet website for public review and comment.

Government officials responsible for drafting the policy began to study the papers and to consider policy options which responded to the recommendations made in the six papers. This led to the preparation and circulation of a draft of the policy. At the same time, a National Stakeholders Workshop was held in Kathmandu to discuss the strategy papers, the draft policy, and the role of information technologies in the development of Nepal. The meeting was attended by about 150 people representing a diversity of groups concerned with the new technologies. They ranged from gender specialists and development workers to Internet service providers and journalists. The workshop along with the collection of comments received via e-mails responding to the six strategy papers published on the Internet, generated valuable inputs into finalization of the IT policy which was approved by the government in October 2000.

For more information on this case, see IDRC under Key resources.

Participatory development of a land policy in Mozambique
A three-year participatory process led by the government of Mozambique with technical assistance from FAO, was initiated in 1994 to develop a new land policy that would form the basis of a new land law for the country. The process included participation from government, academia, civil society organizations and representatives of farmers’ cooperatives. The methods used included consultations with stakeholders at local and regional levels, a series of seminars, and opportunities for stakeholders to submit reports and comments. A National Land Conference with multi-stakeholder participation was also held. In addition to these government-initiated tools, the Campanha Terra (Land Campaign), a strong civil society movement that included a coalition of 150 civil rights organizations, farmers’ associations, women’s movements, church groups, trade unions, and academics, stimulated civil society participation through other means such as: direct action, including a march on parliament led by farmers;information dissemination using a wide variety of media including seminars, farmers’ workshops, posters, pamphlets, comic books, theatre, radio, audio cassettes and video; and NGO led debate in rural communities and channeling of feedback to the Inter-Ministerial Land Commission. The process resulted in a new land policy that was formulated in 1995, followed by a new land law that went into effect in 1997.

For more information on this case, see Karl (2002) and Tanner (2002), under Key resources.

Participatory development of air quality policy in Chile
An independent research institute in Chile’s Santiago, led a participatory process to develop policy options for dealing with air quality problems in the city. The five-year process that started in 1990 aimed to develop a plan that would be operational and legitimate and a one that elicits the commitment of both the government and the residents of the city. The process involved representatives of government, NGOs, citizens, and university researchers. The participatory methods used included action mapping (where stakeholders develop their action-oriented visions of the future) and a series of workshops where elements of the plan were formulated by multi-stakeholder groups. In the end, about half of the instruments included in the plan came from citizens’ groups. A follow-up conference was organized to provide feedback on the outcome of the participatory process and to promote the plan.

For more information on this case, see Holmes and Scoones (2001) and O’Ryan and del Valle (1996), under Key resources.


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