Consultation, or Engagement?

“Engagement” – when not being used to signal a prelude to marriage – as a replacement for the less enthusiastic term “consultation”, is a meta-concept for a general set of government-initiated opportunities for those outside government to be involved in policymaking processes.

While related terms such as “public consultation” have been prominent in the past, I have been asked to use the term citizen and stakeholder engagement for a forthcoming paper to signal a broad range of efforts by governments to communicate with those outside of government, coupled with opportunities for those outside of government to provide input into policymaking processes happening inside government.

The labels given these initiatives have shifted in recent years. In the seminal “ladder of participation” (Arnstein 1969), where the term “engagement” is not used, “consultation” rested on a mid-point bar as a form of tokenism, perhaps indicating why “consultation” has given way to various forms of “engagement”—though not Arnstein’s preferred terms of “partnership”, “delegation”, or “citizen control”.

Consider these graphs where the terms “public consultation”, “public engagement”, “citizen engagement”, and “stakeholder engagement” are compared:

Though the term “civic engagement” is dominant in Ngram and Trends searches, I didn’t include it because it connotes engagement by individuals in public life, rather than attempts by governments to engage people in the policymaking process (Skocpol and Fiorina 2004).

I also note that the Public Policy Forum avoids the problem of whether a participant in a citizen engagement exercise is a legal citizen by using their preferred term of “public engagement.”  However, I didn’t include that term here because of it’s different meaning, especially in the U.K where it centres on institutions like universities explaining to the public how they’re relevant.


Arnstein, S 1969 ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’, Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35(4):216–24.

Skocpol, T., & Fiorina, M. P. (Eds.). (2004). Civic engagement in American democracy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.


One comment on “Consultation, or Engagement?

  1. Pingback: Undocumented Citizen Engagement | Justin Longo, phd

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