Guidelines on public engagement 2023: Public engagement process guide

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Public engagement process

A public engagement process generally involves 5 main steps including planning, developing products, implementing, analysis and reporting, and evaluating. This process guide describes the 5 steps, including key questions and considerations as well as best practices, when conducting an engagement activity.

Figure 3. 5 steps of public engagement
Figure 3 - Text description

The diagram shows the public engagement process guide which depicts a sequential progression of the five main steps involved in an engagement process. Read from left to right:

  • Step 1 is labelled Planning;
  • Step 2 is labelled Developing products,
  • Step 3 is labelled Implementing,
  • Step 4 is labelled Analysis & Reporting and
  • Step 5 is labelled Evaluating.

Engagement activities vary and the process needs to be flexible in order to respond and adapt each engagement activity to changing circumstances such as new information or emerging priorities.

Step 1: Planning

Key questions:

1.1 Identify the key issue

Planning is the most important step in the public engagement process. It's important to begin with a clear understanding of the policy, program, service or regulatory initiative that you are seeking to engage on with the public and stakeholders.

Consider the following questions when identifying the key issue:

Defining the key issue will allow you to decide whether a public engagement activity is appropriate or required and, if so, why. Some common triggers for public engagement include:

1.2 Understand the context

Understanding the broader contextual environment will help to define the scope of the engagement process and the type of approach needed. Examining the background and context helps to identify strategic considerations, opportunities and risks that might affect the engagement activity. Some questions to consider include:

1.3 Clearly define the purpose, objectives and expected outcomes

Successful public engagement requires a clear definition of purpose, objectives and expected outcomes.

The purpose should set out the problem or issue that needs to be addressed. It is a broad, brief statement of intent that provides an overarching vision for the engagement. Some key questions to help you determine the purpose include:

Objectives are specific strategies or steps taken to achieve the purpose and should be timely, clear, realistic, relevant and measurable. They provide focus to the engagement activity and a basis upon which to evaluate the activity at its completion. Some key questions to help you determine the objectives include:

Outcomes are what you aim to achieve with the engagement activity. They need to be realistic, appropriate to the issue, and have a clear link to the purpose and objectives.

1.4 Identify the budget and resources available

During this step you determine if there are any potential costs associated with the public engagement and plan a budget accordingly. It's important to determine this early so that you can make adjustments if necessary. The costs and resources required will vary for each engagement activity depending on your needs and engagement approach. Some items to consider include:

In-person events come with a number of additional expenses:

In addition to the budget available, you will need to identify how much staff time may be allocated to the engagement activity, so that you can have a full understanding of the resources required.

Obtaining approvals for any travel and hospitality may be necessary. For information on the requirements and approvals for travel and hospitality, consult the Government of Canada's Directive on Travel, Hospitality, and Conference and Event Expenditures and contact your branch financial authority for guidance.

See step 1.9 (Plan the logistics for in-person engagement) and step 1.10 (Plan the logistics for online or virtual engagement) for further information on logistical arrangements.

1.5 Initiate public engagement support and services

Public engagement activities require collaboration and coordination between the relevant areas of the department and the agency. The program or policy area initiating the engagement activity is the project lead. Early in the planning stage, the project lead should contact the Public Engagement Unit (cpab.consultations-dgcap@hc-sc.gc.ca) within the Communications and Public Affairs Branch (CPAB) to inform them of the activity and to obtain guidance, advice and support as needed (see Figure 2 Partners in public engagement). Depending on the activity and the specific needs, the relevant functional specialists (Privacy or Legal Services) can also be contacted for assistance if required.

In addition to CPAB's Public Engagement Unit, the branch provides a range of services you may access to support the implementation of your public engagement activities. Depending on the scale and intended reach of your public engagement activity, you may require the services of the Media Relations and Social Media teams, Creative Services, Regional Communications and Digital Communications. The strategic communications advisor for your branch serves as your first point of contact for accessing these services and can assist you in coordinating the various elements for the roll-out of the initiative.

See Services to support public engagement for a list of CPAB areas that will guide and support your engagement activities.

Some public engagement issues (that is, broad horizontal issues impacting multiple departments) will require or benefit from coordination with other government departments or agencies and they should be engaged early in the planning stage.

1.6 Identify the target audience

For effective engagement to occur, it's important to identify and engage the individuals, groups and organizations that are interested in and affected by the policy, program, regulation or service under discussion. These are the individuals and groups who will make a meaningful contribution to the engagement activity.

Some questions to ask when identifying the target audience include:

When designing the engagement process, it's important to ensure open, transparent and inclusive participation. The identification of potential participants should not only involve individuals or groups known to have a general interest in the issue, but it should also include those who could potentially influence the outcome or decision either directly or indirectly. You should seek input from participants with a broad range of perspectives and experiences, including diverse interest groups. You should pay attention to reducing barriers to participation through accommodation and support to participants so as to promote greater accessibility and demonstrate openness and inclusiveness.

When engaging people with lived and living experience or specific target populations, it's important to do your research and be sure your verbal and written communication, engagement materials and approaches are appropriate, non-stigmatizing, and conducive to active participation.

The Consultation and Stakeholder Information Management System (CSIMS) is a tool that staff can use when planning consultation and engagement activities. It is a web-based system that combines a public-facing stakeholder registry with a central repository of information about current and past HC and PHAC public engagement activities. Staff who are planning engagement activities can use the system to help plan their activity, search for potential participants, and communicate information to them. For further information and to set up your user account contact the CSIMS team at CSIMS-External@hc-sc.gc.ca.

1.7 Establish timelines

The timelines for the activity, including start and end dates and any important deadlines, need to be communicated clearly. Adequate timelines should be given to allow participants reasonable time to prepare, provide input and, in some cases, consult others within their organizations. Time needs to be allotted for HC and PHAC to consider the input received in the decision-making process.

The time required to undertake an engagement activity depends on a number of factors including the approach selected and the complexity of the input required from participants.

Many engagement activities have a fixed timeline or a deadline established by legislation, regulations, or previous government commitments. In these cases, a key planning challenge is to allocate the available time to optimize the value of the engagement process.

Some questions to consider when establishing timelines include:

1.8 Choose the appropriate engagement approach

There are a variety of public engagement approaches to consider when planning your engagement activity. These approaches can include requests for general feedback via email, online questionnaires, online discussion forums, in-person discussions, and workshops. Your objectives, budget, target audience and timelines determine the best approach for the engagement activity. When considering the use of online and virtual platforms or tools, explore options available internally first as these will have been carefully vetted to ensure they meet accessibility, official language, IT and security requirements.

Useful tools at this step:

Common Approaches to Public Engagement
Approach Description Benefits Challenges
In-person discussion session
  • Participants attend a group session involving presentations and discussions.
  • Opportunity for open dialogue among participants and decision-makers.
  • Effective for gathering input on preliminary options or ideas.
  • More costly and time-consuming than alternatives.
  • Subject to availability of participants at a specific time and location.
Virtual discussion session
  • Participants attend a group session involving presentations and discussions via videoconference.
  • Opportunity for open dialogue among participants and decision-makers.
  • Effective for gathering input on preliminary options or ideas.
  • Opportunity to gain perspectives from participants from regional or remote areas.
  • Minimizes resource requirements and costs.
  • More difficult to build relationships with/between participants than with in-person sessions.
  • May be less effective than in-person alternatives in situations where there is not a positive relationship with the audience.
Online interactive platform
  • Participants join an online discussion forum to discuss issues and share their views with others.
  • Opportunity to gain perspectives from participants from regional or remote areas at their convenience.
  • Flexible approach which can be designed and adapted based on objectives and adjusted throughout the engagement.
  • Time consuming to design, implement, moderate, and monitor.
  • Requires planning and resources to summarize and analyze feedback.
Online questionnaire
  • Opportunity to participate is posted online or emailed to targeted participants with a link to the questionnaire.
  • Participants complete the questionnaire and submit it directly online.
  • Opportunity to gain perspectives from participants from regional or remote areas at their convenience.
  • Flexible approach which can be designed and adapted based on objectives.
  • Time consuming to design, deliver and monitor.
  • Participants cannot benefit from hearing the different perspectives of others.
  • Requires planning and resources to summarize and analyze feedback collected.
Request for feedback
  • A draft document or proposal is posted online or emailed to target audience and participants are asked to provide general feedback by email.
  • Cost-effective way to receive detailed, meaningful feedback on drafts or proposals.
  • Specific information can be obtained in a controlled manner.
  • Participants cannot benefit from hearing the different perspectives of others.
  • Requires planning and resources to summarize and analyze feedback.
Hybrid
  • A combination of in- person, online, and virtual approaches
  • Provides the widest variety of engagement options for stakeholders, fostering diversity, inclusion and broad participation.
  • The most time consuming and resource intensive as planning and execution will be required for in- person, online and virtual events/approaches.

You may need multiple engagement approaches, including hybrid, to address the needs of different participants. If there is a broad range of potential participants, or they are widely separated geographically, you may need to design your engagement approach to ensure broad participation. For example, discussion sessions across a variety of regions can be combined with a request for written submissions via email. Alternatively, you may use different approaches for participants with subject matter expertise as opposed to those with a more general interest.

Making the information available to the participants and the public through a variety of channels in easy-to-access formats ensures the engagement activity is open, inclusive and transparent.

Using social media channels to promote the engagement activity can broaden its reach and help to ensure it is easily available to potential participants. HC and PHAC use a range of social media channels including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to communicate engagement activities.

When planning the engagement approach, consider and anticipate the type and volume of input and information that may be received. You may receive more or less feedback than you anticipated, or you may not receive the information you were seeking. Therefore, the approach for the engagement needs to be planned, monitored and adapted (as necessary) to maximize participation, ensure objectives are met and enable effective analysis.

1.9 Plan the logistics for in-person engagement

Planning an in-person public engagement activity requires many details such as arranging for the venue, transportation, accommodations, hospitality, facilitators, translation, technology requirements and accessibility. It is helpful to consult with others who have been involved with the preparation of similar engagement activities in order to gain from their experiences.

The costs to participants, the department and the agency should be minimized. For example, the location and timing of engagement activities should be selected to minimize travel for participants and staff. Identify opportunities for virtual presence or online engagement approaches to facilitate participation.

See step 1.4 (Identify the budget and resources available) for further information on potential expenses associated with the logistics of planning the engagement activity.

1.10 Plan the logistics for online and virtual engagement

Planning an online and virtual public engagement activity includes identifying your objectives and the target audience, and considering the type of feedback you are seeking. Then you can choose the tool and approach (meeting, webinar, discussion forum, share a story, questionnaire, etc.) to help meet your objectives. It is helpful to consult with others who have been involved with the preparation of similar engagement activities in order to learn from their experiences.

The costs to the department and the agency can be minimized by collecting feedback through the use of CPAB's online and virtual tools. Consider reaching out to CPAB early on to discuss, plan and explore options for implementing your engagement activities.

Regulatory initiatives with a public comment period (that is, Canada Gazette, Part I) should also be planned in collaboration with CPAB. This will ensure that you are supported in preparing to post your activity online (including the development of consultation profile pages and submitting consultation activities in CSIMS) and that the necessary communication products are developed.

See Services to support public engagement for a list of CPAB areas that will guide and support your engagement activities.

1.11 Plan for analysis, reporting and evaluating

Before the engagement activity begins, plan how the feedback received will be analyzed, considered in decision-making and reported. For example, if you are expecting a high volume of input you may need additional resources to undertake the analysis. It is also important to decide how and when to report back to participants and decision-makers, and to consider how the engagement activity will be evaluated.

When choosing the most appropriate approach for reporting back, consider:

Identify what will be evaluated so that when the engagement activity ends you will be able to measure whether the objectives were met and identify any lessons learned.

See step 5 (Evaluating) for further information on how to plan ahead for evaluating the process and the outcomes of your engagement activities.

Step 2: Developing Products

Key questions:

2.1 Develop engagement activity documents

In most cases, supporting engagement documents will need to be developed prior to implementing an engagement activity. These may include backgrounders, issue papers, draft policy proposals, regulatory proposals, discussion guides, technical documents, questionnaires and online consultation profile pages. These documents should provide sufficient detail about the issue(s) so that participants can effectively contribute to the engagement activity.

Depending on the engagement document(s) being developed, relevant information can include:

When developing documents for engagement activities, attention should be paid to the target audience to ensure there are no barriers to participation. This can be achieved by ensuring documents for the general public are:

CPAB can provide guidance, advice and support in the development of engagement documents. See Services to support public engagement for a list of CPAB areas that will guide and support your engagement activities.

2.2 Develop communication products

It may be necessary to develop communication products (for example, media lines, news releases, Qs and As, social media posts) to promote the engagement activity and prepare to respond to questions. Communication products should be developed in collaboration with CPAB in plain and inclusive language that should be easy to understand. Staff should take into account the necessary internal approval process and timelines required for these documents. Communications strategies should take into account all interested and affected organizations, groups and individuals.

See Services to support public engagement for a list of CPAB areas that will guide and support your engagement activities.

Step 3: Implementing

Key questions:

3.1 Informing the public

Once the engagement activity approach has been chosen and designed and the products have been developed, the initiative can be launched. As per the Policy on Communications and Federal Identity (section 6.3) and the Directive on the Management of Communications (section 6.42), it's important to ensure that information about public engagement activities is posted on the Government of Canada's web presence so that Canadians and interested stakeholders are informed about opportunities to participate in these activities, including how and when. CPAB's Web Communications team can guide you through this process. See Services to support public engagement for a list of CPAB areas that will guide and support your engagement activities.

If the engagement activity is open to the public, it must be submitted through the Consultation and Stakeholder Information Management System (CSIMS). This ensures that stakeholders registered in CSIMS will be notified by email that there is an opportunity to participate in an engagement activity on a topic that interests them. In addition, all public engagement opportunities are published on the Government of Canada website, Consulting with Canadians. The Public Engagement Unit tracks and maintains an up-to-date list of all HC and PHAC public engagement activities, which must be submitted to the Privy Council Office (PCO) to update the Open Government Registry for consultations.

See step 2.2 (Develop communication products) for information about the development of communication products to help inform the public.

3.2 Communicate clearly with the participants

Engagement activities will be most successful when the following is clear to participants from the outset:

If the scope of the discussion and the options are not clearly defined, participants may spend their time discussing issues or options which are not relevant to the engagement activity. When the scope is clearly defined, organizers can more easily refocus the discussion when needed.

3.3 Monitor the activity

During implementation, your public engagement activity should be monitored to ensure it is meeting the intended objectives. Be ready to adjust course based on feedback received or to organize additional activities that consider new input or explore particular issues more deeply. This will be facilitated by building flexibility into the process. Keep a record of any suggested changes that were made to the activity in order to enable continuous improvement.

Step 4: Analysis and reporting

Key questions:

4.1 Analyze the feedback

It is important at the planning stage (see step 1.11, Plan for analysis, reporting and evaluating) to consider the analysis and reporting requirements. The goal of the analysis is to align and summarize the feedback collected in a concise manner. The analysis should identify what was heard, themes that emerged, overall similarities or differences in feedback between types of participants and also reflect the importance placed on various issues or ideas by participants.

For smaller-scale engagement activities, it may be possible to analyze the feedback simply by reviewing it and taking notes. For larger engagement activities with more feedback, however, a systematic approach will be needed and more time will be required to manage and analyze the volume of feedback. In some cases, data analysis software tools can be used to organize and analyze feedback. It is important to ensure that that the analysis is objective and balanced.

4.2 Report to decision-makers

It is important to provide decision-makers with an objective, accurate assessment of the engagement activity, including contributions by participants. Reporting formats vary widely, but the key is to provide a clear and concise picture of the most important participant concerns and positions, as well as any underlying themes, trends, or important highlights. If contentious issues are raised, they should be noted.

4.3 Report back to participants and the public

The extent of reporting back should be proportionate to the size, complexity, and potential impact of the engagement activity. A report including a brief overview of the process, a summary of the input received, how the input was/will be considered in decision-making, and an outline of next steps should be made available in a timely manner.

More comprehensive reports may include in-depth information such as replies to specific questions in a summary format, or in the case of a regulatory initiative, a Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement (RIAS).

Reporting back demonstrates openness and transparency by informing participants that their contributions were heard and considered by decision-makers. To be as open and transparent as possible, some reports may be made available to a wider audience, such as the public, by posting the report online, while others may only be shared with participants by email or by other means, as appropriate.

4.4 Ensure appropriate record keeping

All information shared or collected during an engagement activity should be documented, organized and archived. A proper strategy for tracking and archiving all records will help ensure that they are available to serve as a point of reference or lessons learned for other colleagues who may be undertaking similar engagement activities. These records will be useful in responding to information requests from senior management.

Step 5: Evaluating

Key questions:

5.1 Evaluate the engagement process and outcomes

The process and outcomes of an engagement activity should be evaluated in order to determine its success and to enable continuous improvement. Ideally, during the planning phase you put some thought into how you might evaluate the activity to determine its success (see step 1.11, Plan for analysis, reporting and evaluating).

When you are evaluating the process, you are determining how well steps 1 to 4, that is Planning, Developing products, Implementing, and Analysis and reporting, actually worked. Some considerations include:

Figure 4. Evaluate the process and outcomes
Figure 4 - Text description

The diagram shows three semi-circular process steps in the evaluation process. They are connected by arrows and vertically positioned from top to bottom. The first semi-circle is labelled Evaluate process. It leads to the second semi-circle, which is labelled Evaluate outcomes. It leads to the last semi-circle which is labelled Apply results and lessons learned.

Evaluating the outcomes is a more in-depth process than assessing the process. You are examining how the engagement activity impacted the decision. Some considerations include:

5.2 Identify and apply lessons learned

Evaluation of the public engagement activities can help inform and improve future engagement plans. The assessment should examine:

Evaluation should be built into the initial planning and should be an on-going process, allowing staff to assess the effectiveness and impact of the activity throughout the engagement effort.

See Services to support public engagement for a list of CPAB areas that will guide and support your engagement activities.

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