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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.

  • Ad Hoc Working Group on the Future of Collaboration and Consensus on Public IssuesSpectrum of Processes for Collaboration and Consensus-Building in Public Decisions (2008) — One page spectrum and matrix of what participation tools are effective to accomplish different levels of involvement or communication objectives
  • City of PortlandPublic Involvement Toolkit (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.
  • National Coalition for Dialogue and DeliberationEngagement Streams Framework (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.

Guidebooks/ Tools/ Samples

There are many helpful resources available online:

  • Alliance for Innovation
    • Assessment Tool for Civic Engagement Practices (2013) — Free tool for local governments to understand their readiness and capacity for engagement
    • Connected Communities White Paper (2010) — Outlines a variety of strategies communities can use to achieve higher levels of engagement and includes case studies of successful local government efforts to involve citizens in decision-making and problem-solving
  • City of SeattleInclusive Outreach and Public Engagement Guide (rev. 2012) — Outlines outreach and public engagement processes inclusive of people of diverse races, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations and socio-economic status 
  • GoverningAccelerating Public Engagement: A Roadmap for Local Government (2016) — Offers case studies from cities across the US that have used a technological approach to boost outreach to hard-to-reach residents who tend to be affected by local government decisions on policy and service delivery without being consulted
  • Institute for Local GovernmentThe Basics of Public Engagement — Provides basic principles and explanations of what participation is, what the benefits are, first steps, and other topics
  • National Coalition for Dialogue and DeliberationResource Guide on Public Engagement (2010) — Offers 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
  • National League of Cities
  • Public Conversations ProjectFostering Dialogue Across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide from the Public Conversations Project (2006) — Clearly written guide to approaches that foster dialog to increase mutual understanding and make possible collaborative action on divisive issues

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: April 02, 2021