How to start with public participation in a smaller town

by Participation Factory

What should you do before getting into participatory planning?


You work at a city hall in a smaller town. As so many times before, you are reading the comments of dissatisfied citizens on all available communication channels. It is always the same citizens who complain. Does it make you wonder what the silent majority of the population thinks? Several major projects are ahead of you and you are instinctively feeling that the inclusion of citizens would make sense. But where to begin?


You have already heard of public participation. Actually, you hear about it quite often. Some organize participatory budgeting in their city, others discuss their strategic plan with their citizens… And you are thinking: “Maybe we could also start with participatory budgeting, same as in the neighboring city. People could like this.” However, is this the right path for your town to take?


The answer is that most likely it is not.


Or at least not in the exact same format as your neighbor’s.


Each town has its own specificities, problems, challenges, and its own story. That is why it needs to consider the inclusion of its public and key stakeholders from its own angle and tailor-make its participatory processes.


No concessions can be made here.


Certainly, you can get inspired by your neighbors. But before you dive into participation, stop for a second and think about the context of your town. What are the challenges your city has to cope with the most? What agenda resonates the most in your town? What projects are being prepared for? Do we have some smaller communities that should be engaged separately and in regards to a certain agenda? And what about associations, organizations, and institutions? And actually, how much capacity do you have available at the city hall to launch such participation initiatives?


I know my city and I know what is best for it, some will say. Besides, they’re doing participatory budgeting everywhere now, so we should too. 


And so, they dive headfirst into the implementation of the first participatory budgeting, exactly copying the practice of the neighboring city without any prior assessment.


However, this approach leads to many risks and problems, namely:


  • The risk of poorly done participation and unfulfilled promises increases residents’ distrust in the city hall.


  • The risk of participation targeting wrong social groups (or not targeting them at all) leads to minimal public involvement which means that participation will not have an expected impact.


  • The risk of leaving someone out of the participation process (key stakeholders, a certain community, etc.), which can lead to mistrust, potential conflicts and will overall jeopardise the success of the project.


  • The risk of the town hall embarking on too many projects which can lead to a capacity overload. Its result? Poor service to citizens.


Čáslav, a town of ten thousand inhabitants, has recently found itself on the imaginary starting line of participation.


So far, the public has been involved in the city planning rather unsystematically mostly through public hearings or presentations of the results of architectural competitions for the revitalisation of public spaces.


However, public participation remained low, and the same dissatisfied citizens kept posting on social media. “A bunch of loudmouths are more active than people who like [the project] but don’t feel the need to actively express themselves. Then it looks like there are only negative statements, even though that is not the case”, noted the representative of the town hall with regards to a common problem they face.


The town hall management felt they needed to take a proactive approach to public engagement. They also considered participatory budgeting, which success was observed in the nearby city of Kutná Hora.


Participation Factory team was excited to get an opportunity to assist in the development of the participation processes in Čáslav.


At the moment, we conducted a Participation Diagnostic during which we assessed the status quo and needs of the city hall in relation to the participatory planning agenda. What capacity and knowledge does the city hall have? What projects could be enriched by participation? Which groups to target and which (e-)tools are needed?


Based on our findings, the town hall received specific recommendations for further steps necessary for the enhancement of their participatory planning framework. The town of Čáslav is now ready to better target its participatory processes which dramatically increases their chances of success.

Are you thinking about implementing your first participatory projects but are not sure what it entails and where to start? Or do you already have concrete experience but still feel it is not quite right? Contact us at and we will be happy to advise you on how to set up participatory planning in the right way for your town.