To date, practical and scholarly work on participatory and deliberative governance has focused on supply-side issues such as how to engage citizens in public policy. Yet little is known about the demand for public engagement, particularly from those authorised to make collective decisions. This article empirically examines how political leaders view and value public input. It draws on 51 in-depth interviews with senior national ministers from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. The interviews reveal that leaders value public input because it informs their decisions, connects them to everyday people and ‘tests’ advice from other sources. Their support for participatory governing is, however, qualified; they find formal consultation processes too staged and antagonistic to produce constructive interactions. Instead leaders prefer informal, spontaneous conversations with individual citizens. This hidden world of informal elite–citizen interaction has implications for the design and democratic aspirations of public engagement.