Citizen Engagement in Public Administration

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A diverse group of about 15 citizens holding paper cups is engaged in conversation outside a public meeting. Citizen engagement in government involves people working together with administrations to improve communities, make a difference in the lives of others, and share valuable knowledge and resources. Understanding the need and the methods to work with citizens to create change is something that may not come naturally to many public administrators, especially those who’ve been doing their jobs for decades.

Newer administrators have the advantage of being prepared in programs that understand current attitudes and trends, such as an online Master of Public Administration (MPA). The education provided through a master’s program can prepare candidates to broaden the scope of public administration and boost citizen engagement in their organization.

What Does Civic Engagement Mean?

Civic engagement is fundamental to the health and prosperity of a democracy. Without the input of the greater population, governments are unable to work for the people and may instead find themselves making policy and program decisions that only benefit the few. By providing ways in which citizens can participate in their government, citizens are able to keep their representatives and public administrators accountable, ensuring that the decisions made are for the greater good.

What civic engagement means is that the public is given a choice and the opportunity to voice their opinions. Through avenues such as elections, public forums, and the availability of information, administrators are able to work in coordination with the public, moving policies and programs in a positive direction. Through the pursuit of an advanced education, public administrators are able to build the knowledge and skills required to build lasting relationships, helping themselves and their communities reach their goals.

Engagement vs. Participation

According to CitizenLab, an important distinction should be made between citizen engagement vs. participation. Both have the same goal — improving public service delivery and policy projects. However, they aren’t initiated by the same entities.
Citizen participation is an informal process that’s driven by the citizens themselves. In this structure, citizens may show up to meetings, write letters, and do other things to make their voices heard. However, they’re operating on their own initiative. There’s no larger organization, so efforts may be scattershot.

Citizen engagement, on the other hand, is a formal process that’s facilitated by an administration. In an engaged organization, city officials encourage citizens to discuss and assess policies and contribute to projects. Tools and information are provided to citizens to make this process more streamlined and accessible.

On the face of it, fostering citizen engagement might seem to make the task of governance more difficult. However, CitizenLab points out that the benefits of this approach are legion.

“Citizen engagement is a powerful democratic tool to increase accountability and transparency. Indeed, citizens who participate in the implementation of public projects trust policies and public officials more,” the cybersecurity organization states. Moreover, by tapping directly into the knowledge of citizens and using citizen engagement vs. citizen participation, policies are more likely to address the real needs of the communities. By engaging citizens, public administrators, therefore, increase their ability to govern effectively.

Examples of Civic Engagement

Citizens have countless ways to be engaged in government. In a PA Times article, Andrew Vaz discusses three of the most important examples of civic engagement: elections, community policing, and financial accountability.


Elections may be the most prominent example of citizen engagement; a democratic government can’t exist without them. Elections give citizens the power to assess the progress their elected officials have made and decide whether these members should continue. The decision to remove officials or place-specific officials into office can change the governing direction of a nation. The greater the citizen engagement in elections, the more likely those elections are to reflect the will of the people.

Community Parking

The concept of community policing involves law enforcement’s addressing issues affecting the community in a more proactive manner. It promises to solve problems in the community while creating and strengthening relationships between police and the public. It does so by identifying issues specific to a community and developing unique solutions to those problems. Over the past 20 years, criminal activity has decreased in the U.S., and many experts believe that community policing and citizen participation are ultimately responsible for this trend.

Financial Accountability

Governments, from the local to the federal level, are required to release financial reports at various points in the annual budget cycle. Citizens can access these documents to ensure monetary directness. “Transparency allows for communication between the public and officials. It enables an informed conversation about how tax dollars are spent on programs and accountability for implementation,” Vaz explains.

Why Is Citizen Action Important in Public Policy?

With the increasing recognition of the value of citizen engagement, public agencies are tasked with boosting this metric. Citizen engagement allows members of the public to keep their government programs, policies, and administrators accountable, enabling them to ensure that the decisions that affect their lives are in the best interest of the greater community. By providing citizens with opportunities to have their voices heard, public administrators are able to steer programs and policies in the right direction. The following are five simple ways to improve citizen engagement initiatives:

  1. Provide an easy-to-use platform. Engagement should be simple. Citizens should be able to quickly retrieve data, submit forms, and find the information they need.
  2.  Empower citizens. Give some authority and power in the decision-making process to citizens closest to the issues, such as neighborhood groups, councils, or community activists.
  3.  Develop a comprehensive communications strategy. A comprehensive communications strategy includes reaching out and broadcasting to citizens on a routine basis via email, text messages, social media, and advertisements, as well as door to door, at events, or by hosting informational sessions.
  4. Provide incentives. For citizen engagement to really work, the process needs incentives for both citizens and government employees. Incentives must align with budgetary and legal restrictions.
  5. Provide sufficient staffing, resources, and success metrics. Clear goals, objectives, and measurements must be identified to track citizen engagement initiatives, and proper staffing and resources must be allocated to the initiative.
    By following these initiatives and examples of citizen engagement, public agencies are able to boost both public participation and their own likelihood of success.

Steer Positive Change in Public Administration

Practicing citizen engagement allows public administrators to make decisions in the best interest of the greater population. By consulting with the public, what civic engagement can mean to new projects may be the difference between public opposition and public acceptance or participation. Working with the public, administrators are able to make a positive difference in their communities, implementing projects and programs that improve the lives of others and steer toward positive change.

Ohio University’s online MPA program is dedicated to preparing professionals for a career in public administration. At OHIO’s prestigious Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, students gain an overview of the scope of public administration work while building skills in policy, finance, leadership, business, management, and communications.

The program, which is fully online, offers four concentrations: Crisis and Emergency Management, Public Leadership and Management, Non-Profit Management, and State and Local Government Management. Students can finish their degree programs in as few as two years. For more information, contact OHIO now.

Recommended Readings

5 Public Administration Skills for MPA Graduates

What Does a Public Administrator Do?

Why Get an MPA?


CitizenLab, “The Difference Between Citizen Engagement and Participation”

Government Technology, “5 Ways to Improve Citizen Engagement Initiatives”

Granicus, What Does Civic Engagement Mean for Local Government Today?

Granicus, What Is Citizen Engagement?

PA Times, “Expanding the Role of Public Administration: From Citizen Participation to Open Government”

The World Bank, Citizen Engagement