Democracy, Dialogue and Equity in Public Engagement

May 20, 2021

Public participation in democracy is premised on the belief that everyone has the right to be involved in decisions that will affect their life. Accordingly, governments and organizations around the world are increasingly engaging the communities they serve to inform the development of policies, programs and initiatives. However, public engagement initiatives often struggle to draw participants who truly represent the demographic, attitudinal and experiential diversity of the communities that may be impacted by a decision.

Many groups of people have faced historic and ongoing marginalization or erasure due to their race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic background, citizenship status, or other identities and lived experiences. These groups are often under-represented in leadership and engagement processes due to overt exclusion and/or systemic physical, social and financial barriers. Even when the public is engaged, their voices may not equally influence action, as differences in power and privilege play out not only in the engagement process, but also in the way final decisions are made. How can democratic engagement move beyond “diversity facades” and truly work with the full breadth and richness of communities to develop policies, programs and initiatives that address the systemic inequities in our societies?

Video recording


  • Nina Asterina, Program Manager for Urban Inclusivity Initiatives at Kota Kita in Indonesia
  • Atawhai Tibble, Strategic Policy Advisor from Aotearoa (New Zealand)
  • Elodie Jacquet, Manager of Knowledge & Practice, SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue


Kota Kita

Kota Kita is non-profit organization based in the Indonesian city of Solo with expertise in urban planning and citizen participation in the design and development of cities.

In 2018, UNESCO and Kota Kita replicated the disability-inclusive participatory data collection in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, previously carried out in Surakarta (Solo), Central Java. The project responds to the gap in disability data and aims to inform pro-disability policy making at the city level. 

Atawhai Tibble

Beyond Inclusion Guide

The Beyond Inclusion: Equity in Public Engagement guide proposes eight principles to support the meaningful and equitable inclusion of diverse voices in public engagement processes across sectors.

Summary of themes and ideas shared by webinar participants during breakout discussions

What are the fears you’ve experienced when planning an equitable engagement process?

  • Engagement exercises feel more like risk mitigation / very extractive.
  • There is fear of doing harm and further alienating people.
  • There is fear that we are getting it wrong, that we’re giving space to louder voices and more privileged voices because of the way we do things. Those who know how to buy into the system are the voices we hear. We may miss voices of the people who don’t know how to connect.
  • It can be difficult to build relationships when working with groups who may have similar aims but different vocabulary or perspectives.
  • Some staff have had bad experiences and no longer want to put themselves out there.
  • How can we prevent burnout?

How can we tackle these fears?

  • Don’t try to create safe space – this is not possible. Create and hold brave spaces.
  • In other relationships, we don’t have this expectation that we're never going to do harm ever. But we do bring this impossible standard into our engagement work. It shuts us down. It’s not what we do but the how (showing up with heart and soul, authentically) where there’s grace for mistakes.
  • Get to know the people in our community – who are the champions among them? Encourage staff to go for walks with those people. Be available in parks and public spaces, talk to people about their concerns and how to mitigate them. Have cups of tea with folks in the community and build relationships over a longer period of time.
  • Learn how to support your staff.
  • Be authentic, spend time in relationships with each other in your staff team, have tough conversations, give people leeway e.g professional development, supporting where staff want to take their personal growth, review lessons learned.
  • It can take a long time to get everyone on the same page. The pandemic definitely exasperates things. We need to remind ourselves that we need patience to realize the aspirations and accomplish goals of getting legislation passed that really helps marginalized communities.
  • Keep working hard, move forward, and have clear goals.

How can engagement professionals support governments and clients to engage more equitably?

  • Encourage clients to have patience and not focus only on the “results”. Participatory democracy is a process. It’s about the journey not the goal.
  • Make clear definitions and contextual examples of terms used during the engagement process.
  • Try innovative approaches in engagement, such as digitizing your platforms to connect with people. Be creative, use interesting visuals, and try new things. This will allow you to adapt quickly.
  • It can be challenging to have the government interested in any participatory process. Here’s an example of how Kota Kita got the government’s interests in their engagement: They met with government officials to get to know their policy and any related programs in practice. They then conducted separate focus group discussion or workshops, one involving the communities and other one with the stakeholders. At the participatory activities with stakeholders (government), they brought the findings from previous activities with communities. They also used lots of visualisation to get more attention from the government.