Guidelines on public engagement 2023: Overview 

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Organization: Health Canada

Date published: 2023-05-12

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These guidelines provide staff at Health Canada (HC) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) with detailed information and guidance on how to execute public engagement activities.

Public engagement is an important part of the democratic process and allows HC and PHAC to fulfill key responsibilities. It enables us to:

  • foster information exchange and knowledge sharing to improve the understanding of health issues and build relationships among interested and affected parties
  • facilitate discussions between HC and PHAC and individuals, groups and organizations, external to the Government of Canada, to provide opportunities to shape government policies, programs, services and regulatory initiatives
  • consider the feedback and perspectives of individuals and groups in the development or assessment of government policies, programs, services and regulatory initiatives in order to inform decisions
  • enable informed decision-making that ultimately fulfills the mandates of HC and PHAC and improves the health and safety of Canadians

Our Open Government initiative is focused on making government more accessible to everyone, including providing opportunities for citizens to participate in decision-making processes. Public engagement processes, including public consultations, are designed to allow the public and stakeholders to participate in conversations and be heard. Online and virtual engagement has changed the nature and scope of how we engage the public. The use of social media channels, as well as online and virtual engagement tools provide new ways for people in Canada to learn about health issues and to interact with us. This shift offers expanding opportunities for engagement and also creates expectations that we will engage more widely.

All people in Canada, and the groups and organizations that represent them, have an interest in matters of health. As a result, HC and PHAC conduct a broad range of public engagement activities on a variety of health issues. The input obtained during public engagement guides our discussions and informs our decision-making on policy and program development, service delivery, and statutory and regulatory initiatives.

The guidelines reflect the commitment to our responsibilities as outlined in the:

The Privy Council Office (PCO) provides oversight and guidance on public engagement practices across the Government of Canada. The Head of Communications for each federal department or agency is responsible for the oversight of public engagement within their institutions (Treasury Board Directive on the Management of Communications). The Public Engagement Unit (, Communications and Public Affairs Branch (CPAB), provides advice and support on all aspects of public engagement at HC and PHAC. (See CPAB roles and responsibilities: Services to support public engagement).


The guidelines aim to strengthen public engagement at HC and PHAC by providing staff with guidance that:

  • promotes effectiveness and best practices
  • allows for flexibility to address varying needs for conducting engagement

The guidelines also serve to foster a culture of public engagement across both organizations as we continue to enhance our engagement practices and leverage new technologies and innovative opportunities to engage with people in Canada.

The guidelines include:

  • a definition, continuum and principles of public engagement
  • a step-by-step process guide to help staff plan, develop products, implement, analyze, report on and evaluate public engagement activities

We encourage staff to use the guidelines whenever they undertake these activities.


The guidelines provide guidance to staff on how to conduct effective and consistent public engagement. It's important to understand the differences between public engagement and public opinion research (POR). Public engagement is an activity involving a two-way discussion and exchange of information. Public opinion research is an environmental analysis activity where the objective is one-way data collection of opinions, attitudes, perceptions, judgments, feelings, ideas, reactions or views.

If the activity that is to be undertaken is POR, the approach is different than that for public engagement as per the Directive on the Management of Communications and is out of the scope of this document. Additionally, if the input that is being sought to inform decision-making is through an established external advisory body (EAB), the Health Canada Policy on External Advisory Bodies and the Public Health Agency of Canada's Policy on External Advisory Bodies will apply.

The guidelines can also be used to guide discussions and engagement activities with Indigenous groups, including First Nations, Inuit, Métis and their respective organizations. In these cases, it is important to distinguish between:

  • discussion and engagement activities which take place for statutory, policy and good governance reasons and that are described in these Guidelines, and
  • consultations which the Crown is obligated to undertake pursuant to the common law duty to consult under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 ("duty to consult").
    • The duty to consult isn't the subject of these guidelines, and references to "consultation" elsewhere in these guidelines aren't meant to refer to the duty to consult.

The duty to consult doesn't apply in every case and only arises when there is proposed Crown conduct that could have an adverse impact on potential or established Indigenous or treaty rights (which rights are or would be recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982). In a case where the duty to consult may be in question, advice should be sought from Legal Services. If the duty to consult may apply, HC and PHAC may seek assistance from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC). Where the duty to consult is confirmed, the process set out in the Aboriginal Consultation and Accommodation - Updated Guidelines for Federal Officials to Fulfill the Duty to Consult will apply.

We are committed to:

  • supporting greater inclusion and diversity in public engagement processes
  • taking action to ensure that the voices and experiences of marginalized and under-represented communities are represented, considered and included

To assist departments and agencies to implement and better integrate gender-based analysis plus (GBA Plus), Women and Gender Equality Canada offers guidance and resources on their website. In addition, the Health Portfolio has a Sex-and Gender-Based Analysis Plus (SGBA+) Policy. The Health Portfolio has added "sex" to Gender-based Analysis Plus to highlight the biological (sex-based) factors that need to be considered in the health context. Both terms refer to the same analysis. This policy advances equity, diversity and inclusion, through the integration of intersectional SGBA Plus into the development, implementation and evaluation of all initiatives. At its essence, SGBA Plus recognizes the complexity of each individual and takes a "whole-person" approach to understanding how different aspects of a person's identity can interact to affect their experience of a government initiative. SGBA Plus promotes an awareness of biases at both the individual and institutional level and underscores the importance of engaging early and throughout the policy lifecycle to ensure government initiatives reflect the diversity and complexity of all people living in Canada.

Definition of public engagement

Public engagement activities vary in how they are conducted, but most will include the key elements outlined in the following definition.

Planned two-way discussions with individuals, organizations or groups, external to the Government of Canada, designed to gather input, clarify information and foster understanding among those interested and affected by an issue, decision or action and to better inform HC and PHAC's decision-making.

Public engagement participants can include, for example:

  • 2SLGBTQI+ community
  • academics
  • business and industry
  • caregivers
  • consumers and consumer groups
  • general public
  • health care providers
  • Indigenous Peoples and groups
  • international-multilateral organizations
  • non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations
  • other government departments
  • parents
  • patients and patient groups
  • persons with disabilities
  • people with lived and living experience
  • provinces and territories
  • racialized communities
  • regulatory and professional associations
  • researchers and research organizations

Although "public engagement" and "consultation" are sometimes used interchangeably, "public engagement" has a broader meaning than "consultation," and reflects a wider variety of interactions and outcomes. The range of engagement activities is outlined in Figure 1.

A continuum of public engagement

Public engagement may consist of a wide variety of activities that range from informing the public to engaging in dialogue. A "continuum of public engagement" shown in Figure 1 depicts 4 levels of increasing engagement including some examples of engagement approaches. The continuum outlines what is involved at each level and helps staff consider the most appropriate level(s) of engagement to use depending on the objectives. This continuum doesn't reflect a level of engagement that's referred to as "empower" or "partner." The goal of empowerment and partnerships is to share decision-making. The guidelines focus on public engagement where, although there is the opportunity for involvement and influence in decision-making, the final decision rests with HC or PHAC. Therefore, the level of empowerment or partnering is beyond the scope of these guidelines.

The levels of public engagement aren't necessarily sequential. Public engagement can consist of 1 activity or a series of activities depending on the complexity of the issue, potential impact and the diversity of stakeholders who may participate.

As a general guideline, the greater the potential impact on interested and affected participants, the higher the level of engagement recommended. In addition, highly technical issues of narrow relevance to informed stakeholders may require a focused and detailed engagement at the dialogue level. Issues that have the potential to impact a broad range of stakeholders, and have diverging points of interest, may require larger engagement activities to inform, listen and discuss.

Different types of participants may require different levels of engagement. While some groups may be ready and willing to engage in dialogue with each other, others may need more information first or prefer simply to communicate their views directly to decision-makers. Before planning your public engagement approach, it’s important to undertake an assessment of the individuals and organizations who have a stake in the issue, including their knowledge of the issue and preferred methods of engagement. Identify and map key stakeholders in order to plan public engagement approaches appropriate for each audience.

Figure 1. A Continuum of public engagement
Figure 1 - Text description

The diagram is the public engagement continuum which depicts four levels of engagement. The levels are labelled Inform, Listen, Discuss and Dialogue. Each level describes distinct levels of interaction that correspond to increasing levels of influence the public can have on decision-making. Seen from the bottom row up, the diagram depicts the Inform level and uses arrows to show information flowing from the Government to Interested/Affected parties. Some examples of its usage are fact sheets and social media postings. The second level depicts the Listen level and uses arrows to show information flowing from the Interested/Affected parties to the Government. Some examples of its usage are request for feedback and fact-based questionnaires. The third level depicts the Discuss level and uses arrows to show a two-way exchange/discussion between the Government and the Interested/Affected parties. Some examples of its usage are bilateral meetings and technical workshops. Finally, the fourth level depicts the Dialogue level and uses arrows to show information/dialogue exchange between the Government and the Interested/Affected parties and between the participants themselves. Some examples of its usage are multi-stakeholder round tables and crowdsourcing.

Principles of public engagement

The guidelines are based on the principles that guide our engagement activities, ensuring that they are meaningful, effective and consistent. These principles are fundamental to establishing successful public engagement.

Open and inclusive: Engagement activities are designed and promoted to provide the opportunity for all interested participants to express their views and have their input considered. Engagement activities are available to participants through a variety of channels and formats to ensure there are no barriers to participation. Feedback is sought from a wide variety of groups, including specific populations (for example, racialized communities, 2SLGBTQI+, persons with disabilities), across gender and age groups, official language minority communities, and from a variety of geographic locations.

Timely and transparent: The purpose, scope and objective(s) of engagement activities should be clearly communicated and planned with adequate timelines to provide participants with sufficient time to participate. The results of engagement activities, and how input was considered in decision-making, should be made available to participants through different channels, in easy to access formats, and in a timely manner.

Relevant and responsive: Engagement activities are participant-focussed. The materials developed to facilitate engagement activities are appropriate to meet the objectives. This may involve:

  • adapting the approach based on feedback from participants in the early stages of engagement activities
  • regularly applying best practices and lessons learned to public engagement planning and implementation

Partners in public engagement

Figure 2. Partners in public engagement
Figure 2 - Text description

This diagram illustrates the relationships between partners who work together when conducting public engagement activities. The first section header is Engagement Process with a description, "Project leads and Communications work together through the public engagement process.'' In the middle of the diagram, there is a circular arrow between the Communications and Public Affairs Branch (CPAB) and the Project Lead boxes to symbolize them working closely together during the engagement process. The CPAB box reads, "Provide advice and support on planning engagement activities, posting online, and promoting the activities; report all engagement activities to PCO." The CPAB box has an upward arrow that points to the Assistant Deputy Minister CPAB box that reads, "Head of Communications is responsible for overseeing public engagement activities", and a downward arrow that points to the Privy Council Office (PCO) box that reads, "Oversight and advice on engagement activities across the government." The Project Lead box reads, "Identify target audience for the engagement activity, develop materials, oversee the implementation and report back to participants on what was heard and how their input was considered in decision-making." The Project Lead box has an arrow that points towards the Assistant Deputy Minister Project Lead box, with the text, "Review and approve the engagement materials and report to senior management as required", and another arrow that points to the Public and Stakeholders box that reads, "Individuals and organizations are engaged to provide feedback on programs, policies and initiatives". The second section header is Advice with a description, "Privacy, Legal, Information Management and/or Information Technology advice may be required." Privacy, Legal and Security each have their own boxes with arrows pointing towards the Advice header.

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