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Guidance and Resources for Public Participation

This page describes some public participation basics for local governments in Washington State, including links to relevant guides and professional associations.


Most major local government actions require public notice and opportunity for public review and comment. The Legal Guidance section presents statutes/rules that require extensive public participation when adopting comprehensive plans and development regulations. In addition, the state Open Public Meetings Act requires that all meetings of governing bodies of public agencies, including cities and counties, be open and accessible to the public. Public hearings are required for a long list of state and local government actions as noted in this section. Similarly, the section provides information about public records that must be available to the public.

Legal Guidance


Related Legal MRSC Pages

Guidebooks and Public Participation Framework

Community Public Participation Framework

Local governments will have different communication needs and a varying need for citizen comment or involvement depending on the particular type of situation. At times, local governments will simply want to get the word out to citizens about a new service or program, an upcoming meeting or event, or a temporary service disruption. Similarly, local governments may want to make educational or issue background information available. Or, it is sometimes important to raise awareness about government accomplishments and successes. At other times, communities may want to gather information or opinions from citizens, or even recruit citizens to study issues in depth and then provide advice. In other situations, it may be quite fruitful to work directly with the public and even partner with citizens to develop alternatives, creative ideas, and solutions to community-wide concerns.

Several organizations have created simple "spectrums" or continuums of participation levels as a framework for considering appropriate levels of participation. As a second step, they have developed matrices that are helpful in matching the type of participation technique that is best suited for specific participation objectives and specific situations.

Probably the first and still one of the best frameworks is the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation, and the accompanying Public Participation Toolbox matrices prepared by the International Association for Public Participation.

Here are several other participation frameworks that can help clarify what the public engagement needs are, and what participation tools best match participation objectives.

  • Portland Public Involvement Toolkit, 11/2006 - Great example of a city that has adapted a participation spectrum (see page 6) to meet the city's specific circumstances. The city has developed an especially comprehensive matrix of public participation tools by type of communication or involvement need (Public Involvement Tools, by category on page 7). It was developed as a guide to help staff decide on appropriate citizen involvement techniques.
  • Engagement Streams Framework, National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, updated 2010 - The framework that is depicted on comic-style illustration and then in the subsequent "Engagement Streams" and "Process Distinctions" matrices is designed to help people decide which types of approaches are the best fit for their circumstances. Includes links to a wide variety of innovative, useful participation processes.
  • Spectrum of Processes for Collaboration and Consensus-Building in Public Decisions, Suzanne Orenstein, Lucy Moore and Susan Sherry, Ad Hoc Working Group on the Future of Collaboration and Consensus on Public Issues, 2008 - One page spectrum and matrix of what participation tools are effective to accomplish different levels of involvement or communication objectives


There are many helpful "how to" guidebooks available online:

  • Beyond Civility: From Public Participation to Problem Solving, National League of Cities, 01/2011 - This brief publication presents seven principles and a number of examples that can help local leaders build a culture of constructive participation and democratic governance in their communities.
  • Creating a Sense of Value: Building Citizen Commitment, PowerPoint presentation from Association of Washington Cities workshop by John Daly, 03/04/2001 - Very useful insights into how to effectively connect with citizens and avoid problems including consideration of "face," communicating with stories, establishing a brand, media skills, and other tips and concepts.
  • Fostering Dialogue Across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide from the Public Conversations Project, Maggie Herzig and Laura Chasin, 2006 - Clearly written guide to approaches that foster dialog to increase mutual understanding and make possible collaborative action on divisive issues
  • Planning for Stronger Local Democracy: A Field Guide for Local Officials, National League of Cities, 11/2011 - Questions to help communities evaluate their participation programs. Offers suggestions for building skills, capacities, and spaces (civic infrastructure) for stronger local democracy, and model practices from pioneering communities. Also lays out a collaborative process for constructing a better framework for public engagement.
  • The Basics of Public Engagement, Institute for Local Government - This online guide provides basic principles and explanations of what participation is, what the benefits are, first steps, and other topics. It is organized in the form of tip sheets that would make good handouts for a planning commission or citizen groups.
  • Resource Guide on Public Engagement, National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, 10/11/2010 - Resources including helpful online engagement resources, core principles for engagement, useful matrices to help people decide which types of engagement approaches are the best fit for their circumstances, and descriptions and links to information on a wide variety of techniques
  • Seattle Inclusive Outreach and Public Engagement Guide (revised 2012) - Outreach and public engagement processes inclusive of people of diverse races, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations and socio-economic status.
  • Shaping Washington's Growth Management Future: Citizen Participation and Community Visioning Guide, Dept. of Commerce, 06/2008 - Washington State's guidebook on visioning under the Growth Management Act
  • Talking in Public About Growth and Development, Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, revised 10/2006 - Values-based communications frame for smart growth - Advice, checklists, and useful pointers on how to talk to the public which are based on nationwide focus group research, media analysis, and follow-up work with advocates and policymakers

Organizations and Associations

  • Engaging Cities - Reports on new ideas, tools and interactive technologies that empower people to make their communities better
  • International Association for Public Participation - A particularly important site that has developed useful core values of participation, a code of ethics, a spectrum of participation techniques, and matrices helpful in selecting the right technique for the right situation
  • National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation - Offers news, listservs, guides, and resources including a useful glossary, and best of the best resource lists. Emphasis on techniques involving dialog and deliberation, and higher levels of citizen engagement.

Last Modified: September 06, 2016