This article was originally published by WPP in the organization’s biennial research study The Leaders’ Report: The Evolving Future of Government Communication.

Only 22% of government communicators say their organization engaged well with citizens over the last five years – despite the urgent need they faced to quickly support communities to change behaviour during and following the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s probably no surprise: respondents also said they don’t listen enough to the views of the public.

One of the key challenges we all face is to develop strategies that successfully inform the public of decisions on major policies and issues, but in a time of waning public trust in government, winning propositions can be rare and elusive. What’s often at the heart of this challenge is not the decision itself – or even how it has been communicated – but how it was made in the first place. Citizens increasingly expect to have a say in the decisions that will impact them.

The issues that municipalities, provincial and federal government departments face are more complex than ever before, and the stakeholder environment is increasingly fragmented and polarised. But that doesn’t prevent informed, respectful, and meaningful citizen participation in decision making on a range of highly sensitive issues.

Dialogue between governments and their citizens is a powerful means of building understanding, finding common ground, and exploring ways forward together.

Here are five things to keep in mind to enhance your citizen engagement efforts:

Be clear and purposeful.

What are you specifically seeking input on and why does it matter? How will citizens’ perspectives help inform your decision making? And where and how can you most strategically reach the audiences you seek to engage with?

Ask good questions.

It’s important that you ask questions people can answer based on their own experience and knowledge, supplemented with strong communications that support informed deliberation on the key issues. Your questions must also elicit responses you can analyse with rigour and make real meaning of.

Engage diversely, equitably, and inclusively.

You may be wary of engagement for fear that it will only attract the loudest, most critical voices. By being deliberate in creating welcoming, safe, supportive environments in person and online for citizens who have been historically excluded from decision-making to bring their perspectives, you will generate richer and more representative insights.

Show them you’ve listened.

Nothing is more frustrating than offering your time and energy to an important issue, then hearing nothing more of it. Participants will want to know what you heard through the engagement process and how that input was considered in your decision making.

Agility is key.

There will be risks you identify and mitigate through good planning, and other issues will emerge later. Build monitoring, measurement, and feedback loops into your process, and don’t be afraid to switch things up if needed.

At H+K, we use the core values and code of ethics of the International Association of Public Participation to help governments design and implement award-winning engagement programs that bring stakeholders into problem-solving and decision making, and use that input to make stronger, more sustainable, and more defensible decisions on issues as diverse as transforming Canada’s criminal justice system, developing a new Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control, shaping a strategy for Canada’s radioactive waste, and the deconstruction of Montreal’s Champlain Bridge.

With thoughtful planning that considers your context, relationships, challenges, and opportunities, listening to citizens more will not only make for better decision making, but it will also be a powerful means of strengthening relationships and trust with the citizens you serve. Democracy is strengthened through dialogue.