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How you can be involved in preventative public health efforts

There’s growing recognition that members of the public need to be involved in preventative public health projects. Many societal health problems are avoidable and designing prevention programs without the input and involvement of the individuals impacted may mean missed opportunities and reduce the success of prevention programs.

Citizens bring their unique perspective to preventative public health projects – this perspective is called experiential knowledge. For example, older adults can share their knowledge and experiences trying to navigate services in the community and what could make it better. Teens can speak candidly about what it’s like accessing mental health services and be part of coming up with potential solutions. And new parents bring an essential perspective on child development programs and what’s realistic for them as they juggle various challenges. The experiential knowledge of citizens can’t be replaced by any other group, including representatives from community organizations.

Public participation vs. rights advocacy

Public participation is designed as part of projects and offers ways for the public to share experiential knowledge. With rights advocacy, members of the public are trying to influence from outside the system, rather than as an invited participant as part of the process.

At RTOERO, we engage in rights advocacy to advocate for the rights of older adults and Canadians of any age. We are also invited to participate in consultations as an organization, and when those invites are extended directly to our members, it’s an example of one form of public consultation.

Examples of preventative public health programs

Prevention programs are designed to address public health issues that are avoidable. Here are some examples of preventative public health measures:

  • Perinatal and early childhood services
  • Quality childcare services
  • Programs to encourage healthy dental habits among youth
  • Sexual health programs
  • Programs to support social engagement and participation of older adults
  • Availability of supportive and affordable housing
  • Promotion of physical activity
  • Vaccination services and coverage
  • Harm reduction programs
  • Emergency preparedness planning

5 types of participation in preventative public health

Some forms of public participation are initiated directly by individuals: information and leadership. These are perhaps the easiest ways to get involved in helping to address a public health issue you’re concerned about. Preventative public health projects may also involve more than one form of participation.


The most basic form of public participation is to receive understandable information on an issue and decide how to act. While an organization is putting out the information, provided it gets to you, you’re choosing to read, watch or listen to it, and take any necessary steps.

The RTOERO Foundation’s Social Isolation Awareness Month activities each October are an example of information. Many individuals sign up to receive the email series and may choose to act on the information.


Leadership involves individuals and citizen groups coming together to guide each other and make decisions. We saw these groups form during the pandemic – neighbourhood coalitions joined forces to support each other, provide groceries to those who were isolated, and help share relevant information. There could be leaders in the groups who reach out to appropriate health authorities for guidance that they can pass on to their group.

Many RTOERO District volunteers are involved in this level of participation through goodwill activities at the district level. While districts receive a grant from RTOERO, the activities are locally designed based on need and interest. Often, they support people who may be struggling, particularly those experiencing or at risk of social isolation and loneliness, a public health concern.


A consultation is a form of participation you likely have experience with—it involves asking the public to share their experiential knowledge about a specific question, but the interaction doesn’t continue. It could be a survey, forum or focus group. If the project timeline is tight, but there’s a clear need and desire for public input, this is the level of public participation that is most feasible.

RTOERO regularly shares and encourages members to take part in consultations with provincial governments or major stakeholders.


Collaboration extends the involvement beyond a single activity. Participants involved in collaboration contribute their experiential knowledge on different aspects of the project at specific times. With this level of participation, you’re helping to co-construct the project. You’ll interact with key players from the community or the organizations involved. Collaboration includes working groups, discussion sessions or round-table conferences. The timeline should be at least six months for effective collaboration to happen.

Members of RTOERO’s Political Advocacy Committee make a one-year commitment to use their knowledge and expertise to help advance RTOERO key advocacy issues.


Partnership is the most involved type of participation and also the rarest. It requires at least a year to be done well. With partnership, you’re involved throughout the entire process, from the initial stages of defining the project to co-constructing solutions and implementation. While this is the most demanding form of participation, it is also most effective at bringing about cultural transformation. It could include co-chairing a steering committee or co-leading think tanks to produce an action plan.

At RTOERO, district presidents take leadership roles to provide a healthy, active future to each and every district member.

How getting involved can benefit you

Getting involved in public participation is a chance to:

  • influence decisions that concern you
  • take part in actions that can impact your life and the lives of those around you
  • co-develop solutions to public health challenges that are relevant and better adapted to the needs of the actual population

Taking part in public participation can bring many benefits to you as an individual, including:

  • Skill building
  • A chance to understand more about the community and systems operating within society
  • A sense of usefulness and personal efficacy
  • The chance to build new relationships and become part of different networks
  • Boosts well-being and creativity

How to find opportunities for involvement

Sometimes opportunities for involvement will find you—for example, RTOERO regularly sends members information on how to help address seniors issues, perhaps you attend a program in your community, and the program leader asks if you’d like to be involved in a consultation or collaboration. You can also take proactive steps to look for opportunities for public participation in preventative public health projects:

  • Look for credible information on public health issues that you care about to build your understanding and share that information with your network. You may find you quickly become a source that friends and family turn to for guidance.
  • Attend workshops by your local public health unit, municipality or social service organizations working in your community. This is a chance to both build your knowledge and an opportunity to meet the professionals who are involved, sign up for email lists, or to hear about upcoming opportunities. Consider initiating a conversation with the presenter if possible – you could share that you have experiential knowledge and would be interested in collaborating if ever an opportunity arose.
  • Check information boards at your community centre, library or other organizations.
  • Sign up for email lists for various social service organizations in your community, so you learn about opportunities.
  • Read RTOERO website articles and speak to your district executives to get to know better the work we are doing and opportunities to get involved.

When involvement may not be worth your while

While there’s significant value to public participation, there are still risks. The project leaders and the responsible organization must be committed to involving the public in meaningful ways, not just checking a box. There needs to be a purpose for participation and real opportunities for influence, and the process should be thoughtfully designed. Ideally, the public participants and the project leaders walk away from the experience feeling as though the experiential knowledge has contributed to improving the project. Here are some things to consider or look for:

  • Does the lead organization speak publicly about the importance of public input and express passion for the work’s value and purpose?
  • Do you have personal experience that could be of value to the project?
  • Is the language used inclusive and easy to understand so that you feel you can engage meaningfully?
  • Is your role clear? Do you know what is expected of you and how your input will be used as part of the project?
  • For collaboration or partnerships, are you offered compensation for your time or, at minimum, reimbursement for any expenses? Are you provided with training and coaching?
  • For collaboration or partnership projects, participants should be thoughtfully recruited based on their experiential knowledge. That means you should expect to be asked some questions as part of the recruitment process.

The information we’ve shared is adapted from a report called Citizen Experience, A Driving Force Behind Preventative Public Health Projects that was provided to us by Paule Lebel, a medical specialist in public health and preventive medicine at the Direction régionale de santé publique du CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal. Paule presented to RTOERO members and guests during a webinar called The voice of older adults in public policy: Moving from consultation to partnership in July 2021.Pauleshared activities in Montreal to create communities that appreciate seniors, where the net of solidarity is tightly woven and where living together has no age.

Access to presentations with expert speakers is one of the benefits of RTOERO membership. Recordings of past presentations are available on RTOERO Learning, our members-only learning platform.

Do you work in any role in the education sector in Canada? You’re eligible for membership, and it’s free until you retire. Sign up today.